CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A year after three missing women escaped Cleveland’s so-called House of Horrors, the tale of their long captivity has changed the way experts look for missing persons and inspired legislation aimed at protecting the vulnerable in Ohio.
Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, kidnapped Michelle Knight in 2002 and went on to abduct Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry, hiding them in his dilapidated house for years, torturing them and fathering a child with Berry.
Their escape on May 6, 2013, prompted investigators to ask how many other cases of long-term captivity there might be and how best to help the hostages. It also brought a surge in tips on other cases.
“A lot has changed,” said Jennifer Eakin, a former FBI agent who is a forensic case manager at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “This case and many others like it ... are changing everyone’s thoughts and views on long-term missing children.”
Castro, 53, pleaded guilty to hundreds of charges including kidnapping, rape and murder for forcing Knight to miscarry. He was sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years but hanged himself in his cell about a month after the plea.
Authorities razed his house and mounds of mulch dotted with young trees and small bushes now cover the vacant space.
Investigators learned that Castro had encouraged Berry and DeJesus to watch television coverage about their disappearances and anniversary vigils. He also tried to convince the three women they were damaged and unwanted, Eakin said.
As a result, searchers now aim messages of hope at possible captives to reassure them they are not forgotten.
“We need to keep putting out the message that we want you back and we are not going to stop looking for you as an antidote to the offender’s message,” Eakin said.
After the women escaped, calls to Cleveland’s Rape Crisis Center spiked, ranging from people coming forward for the first time to long-term rape survivors facing recurring memories, said Sondra Miller, the center’s chief executive.
Legislation also changed as a result of the case. Ohio state lawmakers introduced nearly 20 bills aimed at addressing rape and other forms of sexual violence.
Sixty days after the women were found, state lawmakers approved an Ohio Rape Crisis Trust Fund with dedicated money for rape survivors and several other related bills are in committee.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who testified at Castro’s sentencing and consulted with Cleveland police, said the type of abuse and resulting trauma the women have experienced is more common than people think and there is no typical adjustment period for such survivors.
“There really isn’t a new normal we can predict because the situation was so extreme,” said Ochberg, a pioneer in the field of post traumatic stress disorder. “I‘m optimistic particularly for these four because they showed a lot of grit.”
Berry and DeJesus, who are cooperating on a book scheduled to be published in 2015, thanked people for their thoughts and support over the past year in statements released on Monday.
“I have grown. I am strong. And I have so much to live for, to look forward to,” Berry said. “The future is bright.”
DeJesus said she has been spending time with family and learning how to use new technology and how to drive.
“This past year has been amazing, full of healing and hope,” DeJesus said.
Knight, 33, who has since changed her name to Lillian Rose Lee, has been the most outspoken of the women, all of whom have asked for privacy. She has a book due to be published Tuesday.
“If I did something wrong, even if it was a small thing, I would want somebody to forgive me,” Lee said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. “So I can forgive him for what he done wrong because that’s the way of life.”
Editing by David Bailey and Cynthia Osterman