CLEVELAND — One neighbor says a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard of the house a few years ago. Another neighbor says he heard pounding on the doors and noticed plastic bags over the windows.
Police showed up at the house both times, the neighbors say, but never went inside.
Now, after three women who vanished separately about a decade ago were rescued from the peeling, rundown house Monday in a discovery that exhilarated and astonished the city, Cleveland police are facing questions about their handling of the case and are conducting an internal review to see if they overlooked anything.
Police Chief Michael McGrath said Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s.
Authorities arrested three brothers, ages 50 to 54. One of them, former school bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home, situated in a poor neighborhood dotted with boarded-up houses. No immediate charges were filed.
The break in the case came when the 27-year-old Berry kicked out the bottom of a locked screen door at the home and used a neighbor's telephone to call 911. Choking back tears, she breathlessly told the dispatcher: "Help me. I'm Amanda Berry. I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years and I'm, I'm here, I'm free now."
Police arrived to find the two other women, along with a 6-year-old girl who authorities said was believed to Berry's daughter. Police would not say who the father was or where the child was born.
"Prayers have finally been answered. The nightmare is over," said Stephen Anthony, head of the FBI in Cleveland. "These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin."
He added: "Words can't describe the emotions being felt by all. Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry."
Authorities would not say how the women were taken captive, whether they were restrained inside the house or if they had been sexually assaulted. Police said they were trying to be delicate in their questioning of the women, given their ordeal.
Cleveland police came under heavy criticism in a separate case a few years ago following the discovery of 11 bodies in a man's home and backyard in another poor section of the city. Neighbors had long complained about foul odors, and the victims' families charged that police didn't take the reports of missing women seriously.
As for whether police this time overlooked hints about the women's fate, city Safety Director Martin Flask said Tuesday morning: "At this point, I can confirm that we have no indications that any of the neighbors, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house."
However, he said authorities were still checking all databases of calls to police, fire and emergency services.
Two neighbors said Tuesday that they were alarmed enough by what they saw at the house to call police on two occasions.
Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses away, said her daughter once saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard several years ago and called police. "But they didn't take it seriously," she said.
Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro's house, which had plastic bags on the windows, in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. "They walked to side of the house and then left," he said.
Neighbors also said they would see Castro sometimes walking a little girl to a neighborhood playground. And Cintron said she once saw a little girl looking out of the attic window of the house.
In the murder case from four years ago, the homeowner was eventually sentenced to death. In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city's handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.
The three rescued women appeared to be in good health and were briefly evaluated at a hospital and reunited with relatives. A photo released by Berry's family showed her smiling with an arm around her sister. Police said they were taken to an undisclosed location in the suburbs.
A sign outside the home of DeJesus' parents read "Welcome Home Gina."
Her aunt Sandra Ruiz told reporters that she was able to see all three. She asked that the family be given space.
"Those girls, those women are so strong," she said. "What we've done in 10 years is nothing compared to what those women have done in 10 years to survive."
Investigators celebrated the news almost as much as the families.
The disappearances of Berry and DeJesus never left the minds of police. Investigators twice dug up backyards looking for Berry and continued to receive tips about the two every few months, even in recent years. But few leads ever came in about Knight, who was the first of the three to disappear, in 2002.
Police said Knight disappeared at age 20 and is 32 now. Berry vanished at age 16 on April 21, 2003, when she called her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. About a year later, DeJesus was last seen at age 14 on her way home from school. They were found just a few miles from where they disappeared.
Police identified the three suspects as Ariel Castro, 52; Pedro Castro, 54; and Onil Castro, 50. Attempts to reach Ariel Castro in jail were unsuccessful.
Police did go to the house twice in the past 15 years, but not in connection with the women's disappearance, officials said.
In 2000, before the women vanished, Ariel Castro reported a fight in the street, but no arrests were made, Flask said.
In 2004, officers went to the home after child welfare officials alerted them that Ariel Castro, a school bus driver, had apparently left a child unattended on a bus, Flask said. No one answered the door, according to Flask. At some point in the investigation, police talked to Castro and determined there was no criminal intent, he said.
The women's loved ones said they hadn't given up hope of seeing them again.
Berry's cousin Tasheena Mitchell told The Plain Dealer newspaper: "I'm going to hold her, and I'm going to squeeze her and I probably won't let her go."
Berry's mother, Louwana Miller, who had been hospitalized for months with pancreatitis and other ailments, died in 2006. She had spent the previous three years looking for her daughter, whose disappearance took a toll as her health steadily deteriorated, family and friends said.