We are reeling in Cleveland.
Not 24 hours after President Barack Obama took the stage at Ohio State University’s commencement ceremony and celebrated our country’s collective response to recent tragedies, news broke that three young women who had vanished more than a decade ago from this city were found in a home on the near west side.
“We’ve seen the petty divisions of color and class and creed replaced by a united urge to help each other,” Obama said on Sunday. “We’ve seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty, and a recognition we are not a collection of strangers.”
On Monday, our nation watched, riveted, as it emerged that Ariel Castro and his two brothers, Pedro and Onil, allegedly held Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight captive in a house on Seymour Avenue for years.
Neighbors never suspected a thing.
“He was a nice guy,” Juan Perez told Cleveland’s NewsChannel5. “He would come around and say hi. He gave the kids rides up and down the street on his four-wheeler. He would ask me if I wanted a ride. . . . He seemed like he was a good guy to the kids that were here. . . . I didn’t think anything of it.”
Residents here are stunned for reasons beyond the immediate shock. Surely, we celebrate that these young women are alive. We cheer for good samaritan Charles Ramsey, who responded to Berry’s screams for help, broke down the door to free her and called 911.
Still, a haunting narrative, born of too-recent history and unhealed wounds, kicks in:
Again, this has happened to our women.
Again, right under our noses.
In the fall of 2009, Cleveland police found the bodies of 11 African-American women buried on the other side of town, at the home of convicted sexual predator Anthony Sowell. This was no ordinary crime scene, and our town was overrun by national and international media as the story unfolded in horrifying detail over several days.
Two women were buried in the basement. Five were buried in Sowell’s back yard. Four bodies were found in the third-floor sitting room near Sowell’s bedroom.
As I wrote at the time for the Plain Dealer, neighbors had complained for nearly two years about the stench. The city flushed drainpipes and replaced the sewer line, but the stink persisted. Some residents tried to blame the sausage shop next door, but employees there also complained about the smell.
As for the missing women, they had troubled histories and distant family ties, triggering indifference among police. After their bodies were found at Sowell’s house, city officials responded to public outrage with an independent investigation and new police policies. Sowell, who enjoyed binding his victims and forcing eye contact as he killed them, was convicted on 11 counts of murder and sentenced to death.
When the news of Sowell’s crimes first broke, I was in Hong Kong for a two-week seminar with graduate journalism students. I will never forget that classroom, most of them young women, all of them born under China’s “one child” policy, asking me over and over, “How could these women have disappeared and no one knew where they were?”
This time, the headlines from Cleveland are better, but the news still leaves us breathless and full of questions. Amanda Berry, who is 27, was 16 when she was abducted. Gina DeJesus, who is 23, was only 14. Michelle Knight was 20 when she vanished in 2002, and police considered her a runaway. Little has been confirmed about these young women’s captivity, but it is too easy for mothers to imagine the horrors.
Steadily, more details about Ariel Castro dribble out. He was arrested for domestic violence in 1993, but the grand jury did not indict him. In 2000, he called police about a fight in the street, but there were no arrests. In 2004, police knocked on his door after Castro, a school bus driver, reportedly left a child on a bus. No one answered the door, and he was later absolved of any criminal wrongdoing.
“I’m not the only one on the block that feels ashamed to know that we didn’t notice anything,” Perez told the TV station. “I mean, I feel like my head’s low, I work at a school, I work with kids. . . . I have a heavy heart right now.”
His pain is our pain. We all know that no one person is to blame, but everyone is at fault when we are a community of strangers.
Connie Schultz is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.