The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence and sexual violence. Viewer discretion is advised.
On May 6, 2013, TV news crews swarmed a house in Cleveland, Ohio to cover an alarming story: Three women and a girl had just escaped from the home after a decade of captivity. That day, Amanda Berry had managed to stick her arm out from behind a padlocked storm door and call for help from neighbor Charles Ramsey. He helped break out Berry and her 6-year-old daughter, Jocelyn. When police arrived, two more women emerged: Georgina “Gina” DeJesus and Michelle Knight, who now goes by the name Lily Rose Lee.
The man who had kidnapped and imprisoned the three women, and fathered Berry’s daughter through rape, was Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old with a history of domestic violence. He had abducted Lee back on August 22, 2002, when she was 21 years old. She was running late to a meeting regarding custody for her son, and after stopping at a store to ask for directions, another customer, Castro, offered to help. Lee casually knew Castro through one of his four children (none of whom lived with him).
Castro took advantage of the fact that Lee knew his daughter, and that she was frantic to get to the custody meeting, by offering her a ride. Instead of taking her to her son’s foster home where the meeting was to take place, he drove her back to his house, where he chained and raped her.
Berry was just a day shy of her 17th birthday when Castro abducted her on April 21, 2003 while she was walking home from her job at Burger King. Like Lee, she knew some of Castro’s kids, and he used this to disarm her when he offered her a ride home.
A year later, on April 2, 2004, Castro abducted one of his daughter’s best friends: 14-year-old Gina DeJesus, who was then in seventh grade.
Over the next decade, Castro tortured and raped the three of them. He chained them in their rooms, boarded up the windows and locked the doors so they couldn’t escape. Lee became pregnant five times during her captivity, and each time he ended her pregnancy against her will by physically abusing her. He also psychologically manipulated them by sometimes “pretending” to leave the house, then sneaking back in to make sure they were still there. He warned that if he caught them trying to get out, he would kill them.
Castro was arrested the same day the women escaped. He was later charged with 977 counts and pleaded guilty to 937 counts in exchange for avoiding the death penalty—and, on July 27, 2013, he received a life sentence plus 1,000 years in prison. Less than two months later, on September 3 of that year, he was found dead in his prison cell from an apparent suicide.
When Lee, Berry and DeJesus were finally free, there were a lot of life experiences they were excited to have for the first time. One of the big things DeJesus said she wanted to do when she escaped at age 23 was learn to drive. She now has her driver’s license and is going back to school. Both she and Berry also received honorary high school degrees from John Marshall High School, the school Berry attended and DeJesus was going to attend.
But as the women have celebrated these milestones, they’ve also faced the difficult task of reintegrating themselves back into their families and communities. Like Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped in California for 18 years, Lee found it helpful to participate in an equine-therapy program.
“There’s not ‘one size fits all’ for how someone comes out of these situations and figures out a way to cope and reintegrate,” says Daniel J. Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University. “Sometimes that’s by writing, sometimes that’s by talking about it, sometimes that’s by taking an advocacy role, and I think the young women have each done some of those things.”
Lee has published two books under her birth name: Finding Me in 2014 and Life After Darkness in 2018. In 2015, Berry and DeJesus published their own book, Hope, which they co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan.
In addition, all three women continue to do work around helping survivors, highlighting missing persons or helping families of missing persons. Lee founded Lily’s Ray of Hope to support other survivors, providing housing, clothing and education assistance, among other services. Since 2017, Berry has hosted a segment on FOX 8 News Cleveland about missing persons.
In early 2018, DeJesus became an ambassador for Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert. Later that year, she and her cousin Sylvia Colon announced they were founding the Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children and Adults. The organization focuses on serving the families of missing people. The center helps them make flyers, acts as a conduit between media and police and checks up on families to make sure they are eating, sleeping and taking care of themselves.
Speaking with A&E Real Crime, DeJesus explains why she wanted to open up a center specifically for families. “When I came home, [my parents] told me a little bit [about] how they were treated, and I didn’t like that,” she says.
For example, when DeJesus’ mother first called police on the day she went missing, officers didn’t immediately investigate Gina’s case as a missing child because they assumed she had run away. Colon, who also spoke with A&E Real Crime, says some of the center’s work involves educating police officers about how to compassionately respond to missing person reports.
The center’s headquarters are scheduled to open in November 2020 on the same block as 2207 Seymour Avenue, the address of the house where Castro imprisoned DeJesus for nearly a decade. (The house itself has been demolished.)
“Our space is located on West 25th and Seymour, right where I was held captive for nine years, right on the corner…because I wanted to bring [something] positive to the street,” DeJesus says. “If I can be on that street, then anybody else can be on that street too.”
Colon notes that just meeting DeJesus—a missing person who did eventually return home—has a big impact on families who are looking for a missing loved one. “Her presence alone lets them breathe,” she says. “It just gives them hope.”
For DeJesus, seeing the effect she has on people remains a bit strange. “I still get happy about it, but at the same time, I’m just Gina,” she says. “I’m just a normal person.”