"We're doing great" 10 years after Cleveland escape
It's hard to believe, even for Amanda Berry, that it's been a decade since she broke free from the Cleveland home where she and three others were being held captive and made that frantic 911 call: "Help me, please! I’m Amanda Berry! I’ve been kidnapped! I’ve been missing for 10 years, and I’m here and I’m free now!"
Berry made her daring and courageous escape on May 6, 2013, that also freed Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Jocelyn, the 6-year-old child Berry gave birth to in captivity. Before long, images of their abductor's dilapidated house on Seymour Avenue that became their prison were broadcast around the world as their astonishing story unfolded.
This Saturday, May 6, marks 10 years since the day that touched off neighborhood celebrations in Cleveland and gave hope to families with long-term missing children everywhere. Berry and DeJesus were just teenagers – 16 and 14 respectively; Knight was 20 but appeared much younger – when Ariel Castro abducted them off the city streets, one at a time from 2002 to 2004.
"We're doing great," Berry, now 37, said in an interview this week with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). "Ten years – it seems like yesterday. But we've lived a good life in 10 years. We have good days, bad days. But we've really been blessed. I've done a lot of things that I normally wouldn't have done. We're just living life."
They've now been free the same length of time that Castro held them captive, sometimes in chains, and subjected them to unimaginable emotional and physical abuse. He hid them in plain sight. Neighbors, even friends who visited his home, had no idea they were imprisoned there.
The house that became their prison.
That day 10 years ago, Berry finally saw a chance to escape when Castro left one of the two heavily secured front doors unlocked. She went for it, pounding on the outside door until a neighbor, Charles Ramsey, heard her screams and helped her break free. That's when she made the now infamous 911 call to police who rescued the others in the home and later arrested Castro.
Since their recoveries, they've all embraced life, adjusting to a world that moved on without them, navigating some bumps along the way and giving back to their communities.
Berry conquered her fear of being in the public eye and does a daily segment, called "Missing with Amanda Berry," at a Cleveland TV station, on Fox 8 News, to help find missing children and adults. DeJesus and her cousin started the Cleveland Center for Missing, Abducted and Exploited Children and Adults, a nonprofit organization she purposely – and defiantly – opened on Seymour Avenue, just down the street from the "house of horrors," which has since been demolished. Knight, who changed her name to Lily Rose Lee, moved away, got married, and is trying to help others by telling her story.
Amanda hosts a daily segment on Fox 8 News called “Missing with Amanda Berry."
It's startling for Berry to realize that her daughter, who marked a milestone of her own in December at her Sweet 16 party in a pretty pink Cinderella gown and tiara, is now the same age Berry was when Castro offered her a ride as she was walking home from her part-time job at Burger King.
Washington Post reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, who wrote a No. 1 bestseller with Berry and DeJesus, Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland, have stayed in close contact with them over the past 10 years and attended Joceyln’s birthday party and NCMEC’s Hope Awards Gala, where the young women were honored for their courage. They find their journey remarkable.
"These girls endured hell, and now they're back with their families and enjoying life," Jordan said this week to NCMEC." It's a testament to the human spirit."
Amanda and Gina.
Amanda and Gina flew to Washington, D.C. to receive NCMEC's courage award.
DeJesus, at age 14, was the last and youngest of the three girls abducted on April 2, 2004, when Castro, the father of her friend, asked her if she wanted a ride on her way home from middle school. She hopped in his car, and he drove her straight to his home where he lured her inside and chained her to a pole in his basement. Knight and Berry were already confined in the house, having been abducted in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
Castro pleaded guilty to a raft of charges, including abduction and rape, and was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years with no chance of parole. He hung himself in prison one month later.
It was the steadfast support from their close-knit families, friends, and neighbors that kept their story and hope alive, both Berry and DeJesus said. They were allowed to watch some TV in captivity and were buoyed by the televised vigils held by their families each year on their missing dates. Television gave them glimpses of the life that was stolen from them. While watching the news, Berry devastatingly learned that her mother had died, many believe of a broken heart.
After they vanished, Berry and DeJesus became household names in Cleveland; Knight did not have the same family support system or receive the same news coverage. She was an adult when she went missing, and police assumed she ran away from a troubled life.
Since then, they've had to fill in the gaps of a stolen childhood. In an interview with NCMEC seven years after her recovery, DeJesus said the first thing was just getting used to hearing her real name spoken out loud. They were forbidden from using their real names during their captivity, so she chose Chelsea, a character on the soap opera Days of Our Lives that her parents used to watch. She was startled when they were being taken by ambulance to the hospital after their rescue when Amanda's 6-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, was told her real name by her mom and said it for the first time: “Gina.”
"I had to do a lot of catching up," DeJesus said. "I had to go through all the stages from 14 to 23. I was still doing kid stuff when I returned home, hanging out outside, going skating."
DeJesus had to re-learn Spanish, which she forgot how to speak in captivity. Amanda and Michelle only spoke English. She had to learn how to drive and get her driver's license. She paid her first bill. A cousin took her to the prom, and the high school she never got to attend let her walk on stage and get an honorary degree. But most of all, she was just grateful that her mom got to see her again. At the time, her mom was going blind.
DeJesus, whose nonprofit has given hope and comfort to many families, has removed herself from the spotlight and is "taking some space" for herself, said Berry, who encouraged her to pursue other things and enjoy life. They’ve both done a lot of traveling, including a trip to Las Vegas, but, like everyone, Covid forced them back inside. Now they're hoping to see more of the world. They cherish being outdoors.
Amanda and her 16-year-old daughter, Jocelyn.
Berry, who lives with her sister Beth, her rock, goes to middle and high schools to talk to students – not to scare them, but to tell them ways to stay safer. She says she has her "first real boyfriend" now and an extremely close relationship with her daughter, “my baby,” who she danced with at her Sweet 16 party.
"I mean, it's still tough sometimes. I still have thoughts of certain things, but I have a great support system,” said Berry. “But I’m happy; It’s so weird. I never thought I was going to be able to trust and love somebody. It’s nice to have a normal life sometimes. I know I’ll never truly have a normal life, and I’m kind of coming to grips with that. It’s okay. As long as I make the best out of it that I can. It's been a good 10 years."