National News

May 7, 2013 12:07 PM by NBC News

Finally Free! Women held captive for nearly 10 years escape Cleveland basement

(NBC News) "Help me, I'm Amanda Berry."

With one frantic 911 call on Monday evening, three women missing for years were found in a Cleveland house where they had been held against their will by three brothers, police in Ohio said.

"I've been kidnapped," Berry, who disappeared a decade ago, told the dispatcher. "I've been missing for 10 years and I'm out here. I'm free now."

Authorities heaped praise on Berry, now 27 and the mother of a 6-year-old.

"The real hero here is Amanda," said Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba.

Berry and two other women, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, went missing between 2000 and 2004 in separate incidents. The women were all between the ages of 14 and 20 when they vanished.

Neighbors and relatives celebrated the happy ending, but for some, the years had taken their toll. Berry's mother died in 2006, not knowing whether her daughter was alive or dead.

Three suspects are under arrest -- former school-bus driver Ariel Castro, 52, and his brothers Pedro, 54, and O'Neal, 50, Cleveland police said. A search warrant related to the arrest was executed by police at an address on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, police said.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said at a Tuesday press conference that there are many unanswered questions: "Why were they taken, how they were taken and how they remained undetected in the city of Cleveland for all this time?"

The three women were taken to nearby Metro Health Medical hospital, along with Berry's child, officials said.

All three women were released from the hospital Tuesday morning, the hospital said in a statement, after reporting earlier in the morning that they had been in "fair condition."

"The nightmare is over," said Cleveland FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony. "These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin."

The three disappearances had stumped police in Cleveland and shaken the community for years. Berry was reported missing on April 21, 2003 after she phoned her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a fast food restaurant. About one year after that, 14-year-old DeJesus vanished while walking home from school.

Police said their records showed two visits to the home in recent years. In 2000, they responded to a call about a fight from Ariel Castro. In 2004, after Castro was accused of leaving a child on a bus, authorities went to the house but no one was home.

Authorities said they never stopped looking for the missing women, running down tips and even digging up two backyards. The break came when Berry summoned the courage to escape.

Neighbor Charles Ramsey said he was at home when he saw a man from across the street running to the house next door. When Ramsey went outside, he said, he saw a young woman who said she was trying to escape the house.

"This girl is kicking the door and screaming," Ramsey said. "She says, ‘I've been kidnapped and I've been in this house a long time and I want to leave right now.'"

When the door would not open Ramsey helped kick it down, he said, then allowed Berry to call 911. The young woman carried her child through the broken door, and told Ramsey it belonged to her captor. It's unclear who is the child's father.

Police then entered the house and brought out DeJesus and Knight, according to Ramsey.

Police said they have not fully debriefed the victims.

"You can only imagine the scene last night at the hospital with the family and the friends...it was chaotic," Tomba said.

Shocked relatives could hardly believe that their missing family members had been found after so many years.

Michelle Knight's mother Barbara told The Plain Dealer newspaper that she prayed police had correctly identified her daughter.

"I'm praying that if it is her, she will come back with me so I can help her recover from what she has been through," the hopeful mother said. "So much has happened in these 10 years. She has a younger sister she still has not met. I missed her so much while she was gone."

Destiny Berry, cousin to Amanda, told WKYC: "I just want to see her; I just want to see what she looks like. I just want to hold her."

Destiny and her sister were best friends with Amanda before her disappearance. "We were so close, inseparable. And when she came up missing it killed us. Going 10 years without knowing what happened to her, not knowing anything tears us apart," she said.

Another of Berry's cousins, Tasheena Mitchell, told WKYC that she was "so excited."

"I thought about her every day. I prayed about her every night. I'm just so excited that we're here. And we're so close but so far away because they won't let us in," she said. "I knew that she would come one day. I just don't understand why it took so long. I'm just happy that she's here."

The DeJesus family continued to hold out hope, holding vigils for her. DeJesus' mother, Nancy Ruiz, told WKYC at one in April: "She's still out there, and we need to bring her home."

Earlier this year a prison inmate was sentenced for admitting he gave authorities fraudulent tips about Berry's remains.

Robert Wolford, who is serving time for killing a homeless man, told police the woman was buried under a Cleveland lot, which was then dug up by backhoes.

And two men arrested for questioning about DeJesus' disappearance were released in 2006 after police failed to find the woman's remains during a search of their house.

NBC News' Ian Johnston and John Newland and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

» There are multiple updates to this story. Please click here to get the latest information.

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