How Ariel Castro Kidnapped Three Teenage Girls — And How They Finally Escaped

Published May 6, 2023
Updated March 7, 2024

Held captive and tortured for over 10 years in Ariel Castro's house, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry escaped in May 2013 and brought their kidnapper to justice.

Some people, like Ariel Castro of Cleveland, Ohio, have committed acts so evil that it’s difficult to think of them as anything other than monsters. A rapist, kidnapper, and torturer, Castro held three women captive for about a decade before they were able to break free.

Ariel Castro Sentencing In Cleveland Abduction Case

Angelo Merendino/Getty ImagesAriel Castro pleads to Judge Michael Russo during his sentencing on August 1, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. Castro was sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years for abducting three women between 2002 and 2004. “I’m not a monster, I’m sick,” he told the judge. “I’m a happy person inside.”

The house at 2207 Seymour Avenue, where he held the women, long had a palpable aura of suffering. Drawn window shades concealed the terror that went on inside, but even so, some neighbors, like James King, remembered that the house “did not look right.”

How did Castro’s victims end up here? And why did he kidnap them?

Ariel Castro’s Beginnings

Ariel Castro, born in Puerto Rico on July 10, 1960, didn’t begin his horrific activities overnight. It all started with his abusive relationship with his wife, Grimilda Figueroa.

The two shared a rocky marriage. She left him in the mid-1990s, after Castro subjected her and their four children to death threats and physical abuse, breaking his wife’s nose and dislocating her shoulder twice. One time, he beat her so hard a blood clot formed on her brain.

A 2005 court filing said that Castro “frequently abducts [his] daughters” and kept them from Figueroa.

In 2004, while working as a bus driver for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Castro left a child alone on a bus. He was fired in 2012 after doing the same thing again.

Despite his volatility, his daughter Angie Gregg had thought of him as a “friendly, caring, doting man,” who’d take her out for motorcycle rides and line his kids up in the backyard for haircuts. But that all changed when she found out his secret.

“I wonder this whole time, how he could be so good to us, but he took young women, little girls, someone else’s babies, away from these families and over the years never felt enough guilt to just give up and let them free.”

The Cleveland Abductions

Ariel Castro later claimed that his crimes were those of opportunity — he saw these women, and a perfect storm allowed him to snatch them for his own agenda.

“When I picked up the first victim,” he said in court, “I didn’t even plan it that day. It was something that I planned…that day I went to Family Dollar and I heard her say something…that day I didn’t say I was going to find some women. It wasn’t in my character.”

Yet he enticed each victim with cliché tactics, offering one a puppy, another a ride, and asking the last for help finding a lost child. He also took advantage of the fact that each victim knew Castro and one of his children.

Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, And Gina DeJesus

Michelle Knight was Castro’s first victim. On August 23, 2002, on her way to a social services appointment about regaining custody of her young son, Knight couldn’t find the building she was looking for. She asked several bystanders for help, but no one could point her in the right direction. That’s when she saw Castro.

He offered her a lift, and she recognized him as the father of someone she knew, so she agreed. But he drove in the wrong direction, claiming he had a puppy at his house for her son. The passenger door of his car lacked a handle.

She went into his house and walked up to where he said the puppies were. As soon as she reached a room on the second floor, he shut the door behind her. Knight wouldn’t leave Seymour Avenue for 11 years.

Amanda Berry was next. Leaving her Burger King shift in 2003, she was looking for a ride when she spotted Castro’s familiar-looking van. Like Knight, she’d remain in his captivity until 2013.

The last victim was 14-year-old Gina DeJesus, a friend of Castro’s daughter, Arlene. She and Arlene’s plans to hang out fizzled, and the two went their separate ways on a spring day of 2004.

DeJesus ran into her friend’s father, who said he could use help finding Arlene. DeJesus agreed and went with Castro back to his house.

Ironically, Castro’s son Anthony, a student journalist, wrote an article about the missing family friend in the wake of her disappearance. He even interviewed DeJesus’ grieving mother, Nancy Ruiz, who said, “People are watching out for each other’s kids. It’s a shame that a tragedy had to happen for me to really know my neighbors. Bless their hearts, they’ve been great.”

The Early Days Of Captivity

Ariel Castro's Home

Wikimedia CommonsBefore it was razed, 2207 Seymour Avenue was a house of horrors for Ariel Castro’s victims.

The lives of Ariel Castro’s three victims were filled with horror and pain.

He kept them restrained in the basement before he let them live upstairs, still sequestered behind locked doors, often with holes to slide food in and out. They used plastic buckets as toilets, which Castro rarely emptied.

To make matters worse, Castro liked to play mind games with his victims. He would sometimes leave their door open to tempt them with freedom. When he inevitably caught them, he’d punish the girls with a beating.

Meanwhile, instead of birthdays, Castro forced the women to celebrate their “abduction day,” commemorating the anniversaries of their imprisonment.

Year after year went by like this, punctuated by frequent sexual and physical violence. The women locked away on Seymour Avenue watched the world go by, year after year, season after season — they even watched the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on a small, grainy black-and-white TV.

The three women learned a few things in this time: how to handle Castro, how to get a sense of what was happening in the house, and how to hide their inner feelings.

They sensed that above all, he was a sadist who craved their pain. They learned to mask their feelings at all times, to keep their turmoil hidden.

They passed years this way until something changed. Amanda Berry realized the years of rape had made her pregnant.

What Each Woman Faced From Ariel Castro

A look inside Ariel Castro’s Cleveland house of horrors.

Ariel Castro in no way wanted a child in his horrific arrangement.

He had Berry continue with the pregnancy, however, and when she went into labor, he forced her to give birth on a kiddie pool to avoid making a mess. Knight, who had a son of her own, assisted in the delivery. Once the baby arrived, healthy as any other, they cried with relief.

The women lived as if in a dollhouse, together yet separate, and always at the hand of the man in control who came and went as he pleased.

Michelle Knight was typically kept with Gina DeJesus, but as the most rebellious of the group, Knight was often in trouble with Castro.

He’d punish her by withholding food, restraining her to a support beam in the basement, and by frequent beatings and rapes. By her count, she was pregnant at least five times, but none came to term — Castro wouldn’t let them, beating her so much she suffered permanent damage to her stomach.

Meanwhile, Amanda Berry was kept in a small room locked from the outside with her child, a daughter named Jocelyn. They’d pretend to walk to school while still trapped in the house, Berry trying her best to maintain any sense of normalcy.

Berry even kept a journal of her life in the house and recorded each time Castro assaulted her.

DeJesus faced much the same fate as the other two women. Her family continued to search for her, unaware that the girl was not far from home, locked away in the house of a man they knew. Castro even ran into her mother once and took a missing person flyer she was distributing.

In a sarcastic display of cruelty, he gave the flyer to DeJesus, with her own face mirrored back, yearning to be found.

Escape At Long Last In 2013

Amanda Berry’s frantic 911 call moments after she escaped.

It seemed like the women’s imprisonment would never end. Year after year, any hope they had of seeing freedom dwindled. Then finally, on a warm day in May of 2013, about a decade after the kidnappings, everything changed.

To Knight, the day felt eerie, as if something was bound to happen. Castro drove to a nearby McDonald’s and forgot to lock the door behind him.

Little Jocelyn went downstairs and ran back up. “I don’t find Daddy. Daddy’s nowhere around,” she said. “Mom, Daddy’s car is gone.”

For the first time in 10 years, Amanda Berry’s bedroom door was unlocked and Ariel Castro was no where to be found.

“Should I chance it?” Berry thought. “If I’m going to do it, I need to do it now.”

She went to the front door, which was unlocked but wired with an alarm. She was able to stick her arm out through the padlocked storm door behind it and began screaming:

“Somebody, please, please help me. I’m Amanda Berry, please.”

She was able to flag down a passerby, Charles Ramsey, who helped break down the door. Ramsey then called 911, and Berry pleaded:

“I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years, and I’m free now.” She begged the dispatcher to send police to help her fellow prisoners at 2207 Seymour Avenue.

When Michelle Knight heard the banging on the ground floor, she was convinced Castro had returned and had caught Berry in her flight to freedom.

She didn’t realize she was finally free from Castro until the police stormed the house and she fell into their arms.

Knight and DeJesus followed the officers out of the house, blinking in the Ohio sun, free for the first time in a decade.

As Knight later recalled, “The first time I was actually able to sit outside, feel the sun, it was so warm, so bright… It was like God was shining a big light on me.”

Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus give an interview to the BBC.

The End Of Ariel Castro

The same day the women earned their freedom, Castro lost his, arrested for aggravated murder, rape, and kidnapping.

He testified on his own behalf during his trial. Equal parts defiant and repentant, Castro painted both himself and the three women as equal victims of his sexual addiction.

He claimed that his crimes were not nearly as bad as they sounded and that his victims lived in some comfort with him, as willing partners.

“Most of the sex that went on in that house, probably all of it, was consensual,” the delusional kidnapper argued in court.

“These allegations about being forceful on them — that is totally wrong. Because there were times where they’d even ask me for sex — many times. And I learned that these girls were not virgins. From their testimony to me, they had multiple partners before me, all three of them.”

Ariel Castro’s full testimony during his trial in 2013.

Michelle Knight testified against Castro, using his name for the first time.

Previously, she’d never refer to him by name to keep him from having power over her, calling him only “him” or “the dude.”

“You took 11 years of my life away,” she declared. Castro was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years in prison. He lasted little more than a month behind bars, in conditions much better than what he subjected his victims to.

Ariel Castro committed suicide on September 3, 2013, by hanging himself with the bedsheets in his prison cell.

Life After The Cleveland Kidnappings

Gina DeJesus speaks out five years after her Cleveland abduction by Ariel Castro.

After the trial, the three victims went about rebuilding their lives. Michelle Knight went on to write a book about the ordeal titled Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness before changing her name to Lily Rose Lee.

She got married on May 6, 2015, the second anniversary of her rescue. She hopes reunite with her son, who was adopted in her absence, when he comes of age.

She’s still sometimes reminded of her horrific ordeal. In a recent interview she said, “I do have triggers. Certain smells. Light fixtures with chain pulls.”

She also can’t stand the smell of Old Spice and Tommy Hilfiger cologne, which Castro used to cover himself with.

Meanwhile, Amanda Berry hopes to find love and marriage. She lives with her daughter, Jocelyn, and has adjusted to making her own decisions in life. She also recently worked on a TV segment about missing persons in Northeast Ohio.

Gina DeJesus, the last of Castro’s victims, wrote a memoir with Berry of their experience together, called Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland. She also joined the Northeast Ohio Amber Alert Committee, which helps find missing people and supports their families.

DeJesus and Berry are not in contact with Knight. According to Knight, “I’m letting them go their own way and they’re letting me go my way. In the end, I hope that we get back together again.”

As for Ariel Castro’s home on Cleveland’s 2207 Seymour Avenue, it was demolished a few months after the revelation of his crimes. DeJesus’s aunt got to man the excavator controls as a demolition claw took the first swipe at the house’s facade.

After reading about Ariel Castro and the Cleveland abductions, read about the story of abusive mother Louise Turbin, who helped keep her children imprisoned for over a decade. Then, learn about Sally Horner, who is said to have helped inspire the infamous book Lolita.

Andrew Milne
Andrew Milne holds a Bachelor's in journalism from Fordham University and his work has appeared on Bon Appétit and Food Network.
Andrew Milne
Andrew Milne holds a Bachelor's in journalism from Fordham University and his work has appeared on Bon Appétit and Food Network.