Ariel Castro. This name has now joined the ranks of other recent captors and rapists like Phillip and Nancy Garrido, Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, and Josef Fritzl. For over nine years this psychopath mercilessly tortured three young women he kidnapped and kept locked up in his home. Day after day, for about 3400 straight days, his victims endured this sadist’s demonic fantasies.
Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry endured brutal sexual assaults, beatings– including to induce miscarriages– starvation, and all manner of horrors in Castro’s dungeon. Berry gave birth to a daughter during this ordeal– imagine what that child has been through. These women now have serious medical problems and have been through unspeakable psychological trauma. Today I heard that one woman needs reconstructive surgery.
A particular question has been on the nation’s mind over the past week as this story has unfolded– could these women have been found sooner?
It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback in this situation. Hindsight is 20-20 as well. But whenever I read or study a case like this, warning clues start popping up here and there like twinkling pegs on a Lite-Brite board. The board becomes brighter and more colorful the more I wade through the associated data mass. In almost every case I realize that all of us could learn from that story to keep similar crimes from happening.
We often see red flags in people’s behavior before we learn that they’re abusing someone, have killed someone, or have committed some other criminal activity. We just don’t consciously realize it or we won’t acknowledge it. We write those suspicious little things that don’t sit right in our guts off as us overreacting. Sometimes we’d rather not know the truth or don’t want other people to think we’re nosy. At times we are highly concerned about what other people think and don’t step out from the crowd to speak up. Sometimes we’re scared. The police might think the situation is too outrageous to be true or can’t prove what allegedly happened.
In this case, people did speak up. The neighbors reported strange sights and occurrences but it sounds like when the police did respond only a cursory investigation was done. One neighbor saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard. That is clearly not normal, yet this neighbor didn’t feel like the police took her report seriously. Another saw a little girl with the primary suspect, unsure how she fit into the picture. Yet another saw women on leashes in the backyard but says the police didn’t respond. Others saw him bringing large amounts of fast food into the home and saw people in the windows.
The best “hindsight” clues have come from Castro’s own family. His daughter, who has bravely spoken to the media about their family, said that Castro would take a long time to come to the door when she visited and made her come through the back door, not the front. He kept the music up loud and would disappear for periods of time. He didn’t want her to go into parts of his house including her old bedroom. And, as her brother also reported, the basement was always kept locked.
As Americans we have the freedom to be private and eccentric. It could also be easy to assume that Castro was growing pot or making meth except for the loud music (and yes, after the hell I’ve seen these issues cause my own family, I would report that to the police because of the health and environmental hazards involved). Perhaps he had a porn collection, a man cave, or was protecting valuables. He told his brother that his reason for having a curtain separating the kitchen from the rest of the house was to save on electricity. The brother claims it’s the only room he was allowed in.
But there’s more. Castro’s son has said that there was a lock on the basement door and family members were not allowed to go in there, the attic, or the garage. Castro had surrounded his house with piles of junk and tarps and put plywood on some of the windows. He took strange security measures like having mirrors near his back door and jumping out that door when people came near.
Was he paranoid, mentally ill, a hoarder, suffering from PTSD, someone who has obnoxious neighbors, or the guy who simply liked his privacy? What about all the chains on the ground? What if someone had called code enforcement because of the condition of his property? Was this guy a smooth-talking sociopath who would promise to tidy up and talk his way out of any further action on the city’s part? Would he have had an excuse for everything and be able to rationalize his behavior?
It can be difficult to imagine that our own family member or friend is doing something criminal in their own home. When we’re in a close relationship with someone we often don’t see them as they are until we step back and take in the wider view. Knowing what a trauma this has to be for Castro’s adult children now that they are getting the bigger picture, I won’t say that they absolutely should have recognized what was going on. They could have been desensitized and conditioned in much the same way the victims could have been.
There is another aspect of this case that adds perhaps the biggest peg to the Lite-Brite board: Castro’s abuse of his wife Grimilda Figueroa. This was not a secret. This woman had been physically assaulted since the 1980s and he’d even beat her while she was recovering from brain surgery. When she was reluctant to testify against her boyfriend for raping their daughters, he threatened to beat her (and so Figueroa dropped the charges against Castro). One source says she might have been held and tortured in the basement as well.
This sounds like a woman who was trapped in hell and couldn’t get out without being murdered by her abuser. Readers hear me say this often– the risk of homicide increases by 75 percent when you leave an abusive relationship. Abuse is ultimately about power and control, and by leaving the abuser sees you as robbing them of that power and control. Many will do anything to keep it, including kill you. If you’re dead then you can no longer “take” that from them.
Ariel Castro, while maintaining his easy-going bass player persona in some circles, had also threatened violence against people outside of his family. He threatened someone on the job as a bus driver. He tried to assault a neighbor with a shovel and had multiple run-ins with the neighbors. There were cracks in the nice guy persona– there always are. Psychopaths and their ilk work hard to maintain a likable public image but if threatened, you very well might see the other side of them, and it’s usually when no one else is around.
Monsters like Castro usually have relationships with other women going on. While they are isolating their spouse or partner in their home, they are usually enjoying the company of others. Some of those women are convinced he’s a great guy and exciting to be around. They don’t have to deal with his darkness– he has someone at home to brutalize when he feels like it instead. He’s able to maintain a compartmentalized life and live out his lies with ease. He might also get strong satisfaction from bringing these women dangerously close together, as in the photo of Castro with a girlfriend standing in front of the locked basement door. It gives them a feeling of supreme power.
Predators like this can become overconfident and arrogant. Castro’s daughter said that he once showed her a picture of his youngest daughter. She thought the child was from a girlfriend she hadn’t met. Such predators might brag about their perception of their sexual prowess, how simple it is to pick up women, and about how they’re “seeing” multiple women at once. Something inevitably leaks out. The longer they can get away with the charade, the more daring and open they can become.
We like to believe that such monsters are rare and that they certainly don’t live in our neighborhoods. But it’s that mentality that allows domestic abusers, other criminals, and human traffickers to operate in our very backyards. Domestic violence, crime, and modern slavery flourish not because of the vampires who commit these acts but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. There are most certainly more people who noticed things at the Castro house and I hope they come forward.
We shouldn’t become paranoid or start reporting our neighbor’s every move to the police, expecting them to burst in without a warrant. We should be cognizant of our surroundings. Be wary of the $700,000 house in suburbia that has frequent brief visits. If you hear screaming from the apartment above you and things breaking, call 911. If a friend becomes withdrawn and anxious for no apparent reason, reach out, find out what’s going on. You can quite literally save a life. We can save thousands of lives.
It’s not clear to me what role Castro’s two brothers played in this terrible drama. They were arrested but have said they were shocked to learn of the allegations. I need to read more about them and think about their words. Innocent or guilty, they will provide more varicolored pegs for the Lite-Brite board, helping paint a more detailed picture of why and how this happened.
It was this way of looking at things, piecing together bits from here and oddities from there, analyzing whether they truly fit together or are anomalies, that contributed to leaving my civilian law enforcement job. While I worked with some amazing people, that perspective can be threatening to the ones who work hard on their likable personas but have skeletons in their closets. Unfortunately those people are often the ones with the most power.
I’ve also found that some– please, for the sake of my family and friends in law enforcement, note that I did not say all– cops can be narrow-minded. They can stereotype, jump to conclusions, and make assumptions so that victims and suspects fit or don’t fit into their perception of what a victim or suspect should be. When confronted with allegations that seem too incredulous to be true or that are largely circumstantial, they might dismiss them as unworthy of further investigation. Some cops can also be opposed to involving consultants and psychologists into “their” cases even though such people might be even more qualified to outthink a suspect than they are.
I wonder how the Cleveland Police could have handled this case differently. I know very little about their investigation, and no, I’m not a cop. Some officers and detectives probably did their utmost to track down the victims in this case. I know cops who’ve given years of their lives and taken frightening safety risks in their pursuit of predators. I know some who’ve almost been wrecked financially and legally for standing up for victims. Many do the best that they’ve been trained to do.
I am pondering if Cleveland PD utilized non-cops or experts at other agencies to help them think through this along the way. Like inviting a counselor who doesn’t know your relatives into a family problem, consultants can lend alternative perspectives to a situation. They can pull the pegs out of your Lite-Brite board and put them back in a different way.
I also wonder if employees in other city departments could have worked with the police to clean up the property or report any unusual things they saw. Many city employees work in the field and see and find all sorts of things. Parks and Public Works employees might be one of the most underutilized types of crime fighters around.
Returning to the Castros in our lives, someday their masks will slip. They will have accused too many people who’ve stood up to them as crazy, dishonest, or vindictive. Their inner rage will flame up at an inopportune time. People from different areas of their lives will put their heads together and realize something’s wrong. A few scattered bread crumbs will develop into a bread crumb trail. More victims will come forward. A victim will escape out the front door as in this case.
But let’s not wait for them to show their true colors. Let’s pay attention to these details, no matter how insignificant they might seem, and talk to others about them. Let’s be supportive of those who come forward no matter how outside the box their story may seem. Let’s keep this from happening to anyone else– ever. And let’s keep looking for other victims, not just among the dead, but among the living.
There are others yet to be rescued from two-faced monsters like this. They could be right next door.
It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled. -Mark Twain
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