The Prison Next Door

In Cleveland, a house of horror hidden in plain sight

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Anyone with an internet connection, almost anywhere on the planet, can type "2207 Seymour Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio" into a Google search and be whisked into a working-class neighborhood of tidy two-stories and postage-stamp lawns. But the house was almost entirely hidden behind a tree when Google's Street View camera rolled past, voraciously documenting the world. Seen but unseen, noticed but unfathomed. Not even the neighbors imagined that the white clapboard structure was a prison or that the fired school-bus driver who lived there was, by all evidence, a monster.

The discovery of three kidnapped women--missing and feared dead for as much as a decade--inside the house on Seymour rattled a nation that can't get used to the banality of evil. Ariel Castro, 52, kept his grass cut, tinkered with his motorcycle, cooked ribs on the grill, played bass in a salsa band. When his friends in the DeJesus family held a vigil for their missing loved one Gina, he was there, watching them weep. All the while Gina was behind the locked doors and blacked-out windows in that house full of ropes and chains, along with Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry.

At last, on the evening of May 6, as a neighbor named Charles Ramsey tucked into his McDonald's supper, the sound of screams and pounding issued from inside 2207. Ramsey dashed up the gray steps to the porch. The voice from inside said she was trapped, that she had been for "a long time." Ramsey kicked a panel out of the door, and Berry escaped, along with her 6-year-old daughter. "Call 911," she said, finally free.

Berry's name was well known to the police, who started searching for her in 2003. Within minutes, dozens of officers were on the scene; they burst through the door, searched the house and freed Knight and DeJesus, who had been missing since 2002 and 2004, respectively. Soon they had Castro in custody. Two days later, he was charged with felony rape and kidnapping.

But questions about the competency of Cleveland's cops followed close behind. Neighbors reported that police were called at least twice to investigate strange noises and unsettling sights at the house and that responding officers did nothing more than knock on the door. Officials said they had no record of those calls and that the one time they visited Castro's home, on a different matter, they noticed nothing suspicious.

This was all too familiar to Cleveland, a once mighty industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie. In 2009 the bodies of 11 missing women were found in the home of a man named Anthony Sowell, and neighbors said the authorities had ignored their complaints of horrid smells coming from the house. A question raised then will no doubt be asked again: Are police in Cleveland--and elsewhere--lax in searching for missing women of color or of scant means?

The shocking news was also a reminder that the death of privacy in America is greatly exaggerated--even as the recent manhunt in Boston proved the growing power of technology to surveil our streets. What the old song says is still true: no one knows what goes on behind closed doors, for better and for worse. Castro constructed his prison on a block where residents don't pry into one another's business. "There are some shady people," said Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from Castro.

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