CLEVELAND (Reuters) - In hindsight, there were signs of a darker side to Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man suspected of abducting three girls and holding them captive for around a decade.
Divorced years ago and never seen in the company of women, Castro suddenly started showing up in the largely Latino, working-class neighborhood with a 6-year-old girl. It was his girlfriend’s child, he told neighbors.
Castro, 52, was believed to have lived alone, yet on his lunch break would bring home enough bags of fast food and beverages for several people.
He was a school bus driver given mostly “excellent” marks on his performance appraisals, but was repeatedly disciplined, including for one incident when he was accused of calling a young student a “bitch” and leaving the child alone on a bus. These incidents eventually caught up with him, and he was fired last November.
Castro was arrested in 1993 after a domestic violence complaint, though a grand jury decided not to indict him.
Family, friends and neighbors were shocked when police rescued three women locked inside Castro’s house on Monday and found a 6-year-old girl who police believe was born in captivity. The three women, today aged 32, 27 and 23, went missing from 2002 to 2004.
Castro and two of his brothers, Onil, 50, and Pedro, 54, were taken into custody on Monday and were expected to be charged within 36 hours of their arrest.
“It could be he was hiding a personality, because if it did happen you would have to have two personalities,” said Julio Cesar Castro, 77, the arrested brothers’ uncle and owner of the Caribe Grocery half a block from Ariel’s home. “He appeared to be something, and be something else.”
For years, Castro’s neighbors on Seymour Avenue saw him as a friendly but private person, an accomplished musician who played bass in Latin bands such as Borin Plena and Grupo Fuego. He liked motor-bikes and showed up at neighborhood barbecues in a vacant lot on Seymour Avenue. He was a self-taught mechanic who loved to talk about cars.
He owned an unremarkable, two-story house in a somewhat dilapidated part of Cleveland. Built in 1890, the home had an assessed value of a mere $13,200 in 2011, according to property records. Its windows were covered to block views from the outside.
One childhood friend said a music session with Castro, who was born in Puerto Rico, suddenly turned bizarre.
“Ariel was in my garage probably five or six years ago. We were recording a song, an idea we had - a little hard rock with some Latin,” said Joe Popow, 45, a father of six who said he has known the Castro brothers since childhood.
“And - you’re going to laugh - he said he was in the CIA. And I don’t know if he was joking or not, but it’s the way he said it, how serious he said it. I didn’t know what he was capable of. That just put me on defense, and I just started stepping away,” Popow said.
Intensely private for years, Ariel Castro recently had been seen taking a young girl to the park and to the playground at the local McDonald’s restaurant, neighbors said.
One of those neighbors, Israel Lugo, 39, said it was the same little girl who was in the arms of one of the abducted women, Amanda Berry, when she and the others were freed from the Castro home. He was there to witness them leave the house, he said.
“I’ve seen him with the little girl once or twice. He said it was his girlfriend’s daughter,” said Lugo, a self-employed roofing contractor.
When family and friends of missing Cleveland woman Gina DeJesus held a vigil last month to mark nine years since her disappearance, one of those attending was Castro, a longtime neighbor said.
“He came to a vigil and acted as if nothing was wrong,” said Anthony Quiros, 24, who lived next door to Castro’s house growing up.
‘LAY DOWN, BITCH’
Lugo said his sister once noticed Castro park his school bus in front of his home and enter with a large bag of food and tray of drinks. His mother called the police, who simply advised Castro not to park his bus there, Lugo said.
Castro was a bus driver for the Cleveland school district for years, driving children as young as preschool to various schools in the city.
He was fired from that job effective November 6, 2012, after a fourth incident that resulted in disciplinary action, documents released by the school district said.
In the most serious incident, a witness told investigators that on January 27, 2004, Castro left Wade Park Elementary School with a child still on the bus and drove to a Wendy’s restaurant, the documents said. The gender and age of the child were not given.
“Lay down, bitch,” Castro is quoted by the witness as saying to the child. He then left the student alone on the bus and went into the Wendy’s for lunch.
The Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, which serves Cleveland, investigated the allegation and concluded the complaint was “unsubstantiated.” Even so, Castro was temporarily suspended by the school district over the complaint.
At the same time, his record includes performance appraisals with dozens of check marks in the “excellent” boxes on the form.
“I do want to say that I have known Mr. Castro to be an effective bus driver,” Joshua Gunvalsen, a school principal, wrote in a letter in one of the disciplinary cases. “I have witnessed him trying to work with students, families and myself to handle student issues.”
Castro was arrested on December 27, 1993, in connection with a domestic violence complaint and released on $10,000 bail, but case was dropped when grand jury declined to indict him, court records show. They did not say who brought the complaint.
According to neighbors who have lived there since before the Castros moved in, that complaint would have come near the end of Castro’s marriage, which people in the neighborhood said produced two or three children.
Authorities had twice responded to the house where the women were held, once in 2000 and a second time in 2004, said Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.
“So now after all this has happened, I think, ‘Oh my God. What did I miss?'” said Popow, the childhood friend of the Castros. “This person came to my house. He was in my garage. I have a daughter the same age.”
Additional reporting by Kim Palmer, Chris Francescani, Robin Respaut and Greg McCune; Editing by Greg McCune and Philip Barbara