This week's edition of True Crime Thursday is the first two chapters of The Lost Girls by John Glatt—the chilling account of the three Cleveland women that were kidnapped and imprisoned in a basement for a decade by Ariel Castro.
They were held in brutal captivity—and managed to make it out alive.
“This is their story.”
The Lost Girls are Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus—three innocent young women who were kidnapped, imprisoned, and repeatedly molested and beaten in a Cleveland home basement for over a decade by a depraved man named Ariel Castro. Their incredible escape, in May 2013, made headlines all over the world.
In this up-close-and-personal account—including exclusive interviews with Castro's family members, secret girlfriend, neighbors, and others—veteran investigative journalist John Glatt reveals what it was like as Michelle, Amanda, and Gina DeJesus waited, bound and chained, to be found.
Ariel Castro was born on July 10, 1960, in Duey, Puerto Rico, the third child of Pedro “Nona” Castro and Lillian Rodriguez. He had two elder siblings, Marisol Alicea and Pedro Jr., and his younger brother, Onil, was the baby of the family.
Duey is a tiny village on the outskirts of Yauco, the coffee capital of Puerto Rico. Over many generations, the Castro family had become the preeminent family in the isolated mountainous barrio, owning most of the land in a section called La Parra.
Despite the family’s preeminence, however, their living conditions were primitive. Ariel was born in his father’s little wooden shack at the very top of La Parra. At that time there was no running water or electricity, and all the cooking was done over coal on the dirt floor. Every morning, Pedro would drive his jeep several miles down the steep mud track to a well to fill up large plastic water buckets. He would then haul them back up the hill so that his family could wash and have fresh drinking water.
When Ariel was a young child, his father started an affair with a young girl named Gladys Torres, who lived one house away down the mountain. Over the next few years Pedro lived a double life, dividing his time between his wife, Lillian, and his girlfriend, who bore him four children.
“Lillian never suspected anything was wrong,” said Ariel Castro’s aunt, Monserrate Baez, who was married to Lillian’s brother Milfon Rodriguez. “Nona had another family, unknown to us, just a few yards down the mountain.”
In 1962, Lillian finally discovered Pedro’s secret family.
“Lillian was pregnant with her last child when she found out he had another woman and children,” said Monserrate. “She was furious.”
When Lilllian confronted him, Pedro announced he was leaving her and the children forever. He then packed his bags, moving in next door with Gladys and their children. They married soon afterward.
In despair, Lillian then relocated to Reading, Pennsylvania, with her father, Americano Rodriguez. She left her four young children behind to be brought up by their grandmother, Hercilia Carabello, rarely returning to see them.
“I was abandoned by my father and later by my mother,” Ariel would write. “My grandma raised me.”
The Castro children had little parental supervision as they grew up. Ariel would later claim to have been sexually abused at the age of five, by a nine-year-old male friend of the family.
Years afterward, Ariel would be asked by a psychiatrist why he hadn’t reported the abuse, which lasted more than a year.
“People who are abused keep quiet,” he said, “so I did.”
He also said he had begun masturbating as a child, starting a lifelong obsession with sex.
In 1966, Lillian Rodriguez sent for her children, who joined her in Reading, where they lived at 435 North Second Street and Ariel was enrolled at Lauer’s Park Elementary School.
He would later claim that his mother physically abused him every day, using “belts, sticks and an open hand.” He also accused her of verbal harassment, “yelling negative things and cursing at us.”
“I would ask God for her to die,” he told the psychiatrist.
One Christmas, Ariel’s uncle Julio Castro, better known as “Cesi,” arrived from Cleveland, bearing presents for his nephews and niece.
“He took Ariel a little guitar,” said Cesi’s daughter, Maria Montes, “and [we] saw music bud in him.”
Little Ariel loved the guitar and soon started entertaining at Castro family gatherings. Cesi Castro took a special interest in Ariel, telling him he was his “special nephew” and a natural musician.
“[He had] the smarts,” said Cesi. “There are very few people who can teach themselves how to play bass.”
* * *
In 1968, Pedro Castro left Puerto Rico with Gladys and their children to settle down in Cleveland, Ohio, where he already had family.
Pedro had a good head for business and opened a used-car lot on Twenty-fifth Street and Sacket Avenue, which was soon thriving. In 1969, his brother Cesi joined him in Cleveland, opening the Caribe grocery store on Twenty-fifth Street and Seymour Avenue. They were followed by their brother Edwin, who opened Cleveland’s first Latino record store on Twenty-fifth Street near Clark Avenue.
In 1970, Lillian Rodriguez moved her family to Cleveland, as well, settling down at 2346 Scranton Road. By now her ex-husband and his brothers had established themselves as successful businessmen, becoming one of the leading Puerto Rican families in the city as they had been in La Parra. And they kept Yaucano traditions alive, later financing a social club and an annual coffee festival to commemorate their hometown.
“The Castro clan is a big clan,” explained Adrian Maldonaldo, who grew up on the lower West Side, where the Castros flourished. “They are very industrial- and business-minded.”
But in 1971, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that FBI agents had raided Cesi Castro’s Caribe bodega in a Bolita numbers’ racket sting. According to the article, agents seized cash, guns and numbers’ records from eleven family members, including Pedro and Cesi.
* * *
In September 1973, thirteen-year-old Ariel Castro started at Scranton Elementary, before joining Lincoln Road West Junior High School a year later. He was a below-average student, with poor test results for cognitive ability, but he did make the wrestling team, played softball and was in the school band.
While in junior high, Ariel was suspended for “touching a girl’s breast,” and punished for fighting classmates.
In September 1976, Ariel moved to Lincoln West High School, where his elder brother, Pedro, Jr., had just graduated as a straight-A student.
“Ariel was just a regular kid,” recalled Daniel Marti, who was a year below him. “He was smart and already into bikes and classic sports cars.”
At Lincoln, Ariel joined his first Latin band, Los Steinos, playing bass with them in local churches. He was also drinking beer and smoking marijuana.
“He was popular, outgoing and smart,” said Marti. “He played the bass real good and had girlfriends. Everybody knew him.”
Daniel’s brother Javier Marti was in the same class as Castro at Lincoln West High School.
“The guy was just a regular Joe,” Daniel recalled. “He’s got a great family and always had nice cars and bikes.”
* * *
On June 30, 1979, Ariel Castro graduated from Lincoln West High School, near the bottom of his class, with a C average and a low grade-point average of 2.15. Over the next several years he worked a variety of menial jobs, including bagger and cleaner for the Pick-N-Pay supermarket on West Sixty-fifth Street. He also began establishing himself as one of Cleveland’s most promising Latin musicians, playing weddings, bar mitzvahs and anything else he could get.
“It was mostly like every weekend,” he would later tell a judge, “but there were times we did perform two or three times a week.”
Still living at home with his mother and two brothers, Ariel now had money to indulge his passions for expensive clothes, sports cars, motorbikes and musical instruments.
In early 1980, Lillian Rodriguez moved the family to a new house at 1649 Buhrer Avenue, just a mile down the road from where they had been living. Ariel soon noticed a shy seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican girl named Nilda Figueroa, who lived opposite with her parents and five siblings. Whenever they passed each other on the street, he would compliment Nilda on her looks, and the insecure girl was flattered by his attention.
One day he invited her to hear him play with his band and she eagerly accepted. Within a week they were a couple.
Grimilda Figueroa was born on July 30, 1963, in a small village in Puerto Rico, just a few miles from Yauco. When she was sixteen, her father, Ismail, moved the family to New York, where they spent a few months before settling down in Cleveland.
Nilda, as everyone called her, started classes at the Max S. Hayes High School, but struggled with English and soon dropped out. She found a job in a factory and dreamed of settling down and raising a family. Nilda was a plain girl with low self-esteem and had few boyfriends. Her one promising relationship with a young man she had hoped to marry ended shortly before Ariel Castro asked her out.
Over the next few weeks, Nilda saw Ariel Castro play several times, and after the shows he would take her for expensive meals. Nilda’s mother, who was close friends with Lillian Rodriguez, approved of the relationship and hoped it might go further.
“We were seeing each other,” Ariel Castro testified in September 2005. “[I] was not in love.”
But Nilda was enamored with the well-dressed salsa musician, losing her virginity to him one night by the banks of Lake Erie. When he drove her home afterward, Nilda’s mother confronted him.
“We were making out,” Castro said, “and when I brought her back home, her mother was waiting on the porch. She says, ‘Where were you?’ And I told her and she had a talk with me. She says now you have to take her.”
That night Nilda moved across the street into Ariel Castro’s room, and would remain with him for the next fourteen years.
* * *
Around Christmas 1980, Nilda Figueroa became pregnant and Ariel Castro found them a two-bedroom apartment, a few blocks from his home. He was now working as a drill press operator for Lesner Products, and making a name for himself in the Cleveland Latino music scene.
The Figueroa family liked Ariel Castro and were delighted Nilda had found somebody.
“He was a nice guy,” said her sister Elida Caraballo. “He was real good to my sister at the beginning.”
Ariel Anthony Castro, Jr., was born on September 27, 1981, and his twenty-one-year-old father was delighted. He would have Nilda bring their new baby to gigs, so he could show him off to everyone.
But soon after becoming a father, Castro’s behavior toward Nilda began changing.
“He just started being too controlling, too possessive,” said Elida. “And he would abuse her. I think having the child … made him feel she was his property.”
In 1985, Nilda, who was just five feet tall and weighed 135 pounds, would testify how Ariel Castro had started attacking her, soon after Ariel, Jr., was born.
“It was over a small argument,” she said. “He just punched me in the face and grabbed me by the head and threw me back against the concrete floor. The second time, he punched me so hard that he broke my nose.”
Too scared to tell anyone about the abuse, Nilda began wearing a headscarf and heavy makeup to hide the severe bruising from his constant beatings.
Ariel Castro had also instituted a strict set of rules for Nilda to follow. She was never to leave the apartment without his permission, and when she did, she had to wear long dowdy dresses so other men wouldn’t look at her. Castro even stipulated where she could do her grocery shopping and what items to buy, right down to breakfast cereals and milk brands.
He would constantly try to catch her out by pretending to have left the apartment, and then lying in wait downstairs. If he ever caught her disobeying him, there would be a savage beating.
“He isolated her,” said Elida, “she never had any friends anymore [and] saw us less and less.”
Castro even told her what television programs to watch, banning The Cosby Show, as he did not like black people. Every night he would come home and run his hand over the back of the television, to see if it had been turned on. Then if it was still warm he would check the TV Guide to see what shows had been on, and beat her if she had watched something he disapproved of.
When Nilda became pregnant again in March 1982, the beatings became worse.
“I was pregnant,” she recalled, “and he wanted me to get up and do the dishes.”
When Nilda said she had morning sickness and would clean up later, Castro viciously attacked her.
“He just punched me in the mouth and knocked two of my teeth out,” she said. “I had told him I was too tired to get up.”
* * *
Ariel Castro was now working for the Cosmo Plastics factory, and with a second child on the way, the family moved into a small apartment in Nilda’s father Ismail Figueroa’s house to save money. But even living under her father’s roof did not temper his violent behavior.
“He regularly locked her in there,” Ismail told journalist Allan Hall, “and I know he beat my daughter, [who] told us not to get involved.”
On January 13, 1983, Nilda gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Angie. But when Elida and her brother Frank arrived to see the newborn baby, Castro refused to allow them.
“He was so strict,” Frank recalled. “Angie was a little baby, and he wouldn’t let us touch her. He didn’t want anyone near his daughter.”
After Angie was born, Ariel Castro’s behavior became even more extreme. During one argument he shoved Nilda into a large cardboard box and closed the flaps.
“He told her, ‘You stay there until I tell you to get out!’” said Elida. “That’s when I got scared and ran downstairs to get my parents.”
A few months later, Ariel Castro was fired from the Cosmo Plastics factory and went on welfare. He was now at home most of the time, using Nilda’s food stamps to buy cocaine. His toddler son kept out of his father’s way as much as possible, especially when he was in a bad temper.
Outside his immediate family, no one suspected what was going on in Ariel Castro’s house, as he was so good at hiding it. He had no real friends other than his brothers Pedro and Onil, who both drank heavily and still lived with their mother. On weekends, he would arrive at gigs in his blue Mustang with his bass guitar and amplifier. He could be charming and charismatic, although some thought him weird and eccentric.
“I’ve known Ariel since he was a kid,” said Bill Perez, who owns Belinda’s Nightclub, where Castro often played. “He was a musician at a young age and was always different.”
Castro would dress up for a show, wearing a black silk shirt, a panama hat and sporting a flashy diamond earring. Even if the band who had hired him for the night had a uniform, he refused to conform.
“Ariel was weird and used to stand out,” said Perez. “He could be demanding and cocky at times, and always wanted to be king of the group.”
* * *
In 1985, Ariel Castro found a driving job for Cumba Motors, and moved Nilda and their two young children into a new apartment at 9719 Denison Avenue. There his violence escalated even further. During one argument, he punched Nilda in the nose and broke it again. He made her swear not to report him to the police, before allowing her to go to Grace Hospital to have it set.
A few weeks later, Nilda was back in the hospital, after Castro repeatedly kicked her in the ribs when she said something he didn’t like.
“They took an X-ray,” Nilda later said, “and they found that I had my rib shattered.”
On another occasion, Castro dislocated her shoulders by twisting her arm behind her back and throwing her around the bedroom.
“He felt that it was some kind of punishment that I needed,” she would explain.
Once he hit her over the head with a metal bar, putting her in the hospital for three days. She suffered a serious concussion and it took more than forty stitches to close up the wound. As before, Castro first made her promise not to call the police before allowing her to get treatment.
“That’s the only way he would let me into the hospital,” Nilda later explained, “because he wanted me to die that day. He wanted me to bleed to death.”
Although the doctors at Grace Hospital were aware of the abuse she suffered, they were powerless to call in the police without her permission.
“They weren’t too happy about me going home,” she said.
During one attack in 1987, Castro punched her in the eye, causing permanent damage.
“He came at me full force with his fist,” she later testified. “He punched me in the eye. There’s a lot of nerve damage.”
Then in January 1988, when Nilda was pregnant again, he hit her over the head with a barbell.
“I was nine months pregnant,” she said. “He hit me over the head with a hand weight. Beat me.”
Amazingly, just a few days later, Nilda gave birth to a healthy baby girl they named Emily Lisette.
* * *
Over the next two years the savage beatings continued, but on September 30, 1989, it became a police matter. At six that night, Onil Castro arrived at their apartment, wanting to go out for a drink. When Nilda asked where he was going, Ariel started slapping her in the face. When Nilda tried to run away, he grabbed her, slamming her hard against the wall repeatedly. Finally, she managed to escape and ran up the stairs to her neighbors, who called the police.
Ariel Castro was then arrested and taken into custody on suspicion of assault. Nilda and two of her small children were taken by ambulance to St. John’s Hospital, where she was treated for a bruised right shoulder and interviewed by police.
A Cleveland Police Department report of the incident states that she told officers she had been Ariel Castro’s common-law wife for nine years.
“Victim states she was assaulted by the suspect on several other occasions,” it read, “but made no official complaint.”
As Nilda was still too scared to swear out a criminal complaint against Ariel Castro, police had to let him go without charging him.
“Life with my father growing up was abusive and painful,” said Ariel, Jr., who was just eight years old when he witnessed this attack. “He was a violent, controlling man and my mother was the one who bore the brunt of his attacks, although I wasn’t spared either.”
Many times the brave little boy attempted to protect his mother, only to receive a beating himself.
“I remember crying myself to sleep,” said Ariel, Jr., “because my legs were covered in welts from belts and seeing my mom getting beat up in our home. No one should ever have to see their mom crumpled up in a corner on the floor the way I did so many times.”
* * *
A few months later, a young salsa piano player named Tito DeJesus was at a rehearsal with his fiancée, when he met Ariel Castro for the first time. The bassist immediately made a lewd comment to her.
“He came off to me a little weird,” recalled DeJesus. “My fiancée had jeans on and was sitting on a table with her legs open. Ariel said, ‘Hey, do you want me to take a picture, since you’re smiling already?’ And he didn’t mean it facially. I just looked at him … who is this guy? Later my fiancée explained that Ariel had always been trying to get in her pants.”
Nevertheless, Tito became close friends with Castro, as they often played in the same bands together.
“He was one of the best bass players in Cleveland,” said Tito. “He didn’t read music all that well, but he would sit down and listen to a tape or CD and practice hard and play it almost [perfectly].”
As a freelance musician, Castro performed with many of the top Cleveland Latino bands, including the Roberto Ocasio Latin Jazz Project, Sin Ti, Groupo Fuego, Groupo Kanon and Los Boyz Del Merengue.
But he was often argumentative and difficult at rehearsals, making himself unpopular with many bandleaders, who did not want to work with him.
“At rehearsals,” said DeJesus, “Ariel would ask the bandleader, in front of everyone, why he was doing these songs. He’d say, ‘This song is too tough. We don’t have to be doing this stuff.’ And the bandleader didn’t want to hear it: ‘Listen, just do your job.’”
Then Castro would argue and argue and deliberately play it his way at the show.
“That was his nature,” said DeJesus. “If you tell him the sky is blue, he would try and find reasoning to tell you the sky was red. He was a controlling person.”
* * *
At the beginning of 1990, Nilda became pregnant again, giving birth on September 6 to Ariel Castro’s third daughter, Arlene. She would be their last child together.
They were now living in an apartment on West Ninety-eighth Street and Western Avenue, and soon after Arlene was born, Castro was fired by Cumba Motors for laziness.
On December 11, 1990, he filled out an application to become a school bus driver for the Cleveland Board of Education. It asked what qualified him for the job and what his future goals were.
“I enjoy working with children,” he wrote. “I have a good driving record. I speak English and Spanish. I plan to drive a bus and working [sic] with young people.”
Listing his clerical skills, he wrote he could use a calculator and adding machine, and gave the names of three friends as character references. He also filled out an affidavit, stating that he had not been convicted of any crime involving “moral turpitude.”
On February 19, 1991, Ariel Castro was officially hired by the Cleveland School District to drive a school bus at ten dollars an hour. After taking a road test and passing a physical examination, he reported for training at the Ridge Road Bus Depot.
Copyright © 2016 John Glatt.
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John Glatt is the author of Lost and Found, Secrets in the Cellar, Playing with Fire, and many other bestselling books of true crime. He has more than 30 years of experience as an investigative journalist in England and America.