US police probe how triple kidnap was hidden 10 years

CLEVELAND (AFP) - US police searched an unremarkable home in a working-class neighbourhood of Cleveland on Tuesday after three women who had been missing for around a decade were rescued from kidnappers.

Three brothers have been arrested in the Midwestern city after one of the captives managed to alert a neighbour, who broke down the door to free her and the six-year-old daughter she apparently bore as a prisoner.

Police responding to a desperate 911 emergency call found two more women in the modest detached home with American and Puerto Rican flags on the porch. All had been reported missing in separate incidents around 10 years ago.

Journalists and local residents descended on Seymour Avenue, where officers had sealed off the property with barriers and crime scene tape, astonished that anyone could have kept such a crime quiet for so long.

The women - Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32 - were freed on Monday night and examined at a local hospital before being released to their families. The FBI was due to interview them.

"We have evidence response teams there, we have victims specialists working with the families, with the Cleveland police, trying to determine how it did happen," said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.

Relatives of the missing women were shocked and overjoyed.

"She's like my best friend. I'm glad she's home," Ricardo DeJesus, brother of Gina DeJesus, told CNN, vowing to never let his sister out of his sight again.

"It is a miracle by God that she came home. That's all I can say."

Police confirmed that Ms Berry has a six-year-old daughter, apparently born while she was in captivity.

The three Ohio women were abducted separately in 2002, 2003 and 2004 but were found together in the home of 52-year-old Ariel Castro.

Castro and his brothers - Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50 - have been detained.

Police mugshots revealed them to be thick-set men with gray beards.

"For Amanda's family, for Gina's family, for Michelle's family, prayers have finally been answered," FBI special agent Steve Anthony told reporters.

"The nightmare is over. These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin."

Cleveland Director of Public Safety Martin Flask said police had not been alerted to anything untoward happening at the house on Seymour Avenue.

Deputy police chief Ed Tomba said: "Obviously, there was a long period of time where nobody saw them. So we have to wait until we interview them and hopefully they are going to tell us exactly what went on in there."

"They were the only ones there along with the suspects," he said, adding that the women seemed to be in fairly good health.

The nightmare ended when Ms Berry - kidnapped just before her 17th birthday - reached through a crack in the front door and called for help.

"I heard screaming ... and I see this girl going nuts trying to get outside of the house," neighbour Charles Ramsey told a local ABC news affiliate. "I go on the porch, and she said, 'Help me get out. I've been here a long time'."

Mr Ramsey said he could not pull the door open, so he kicked out a lower section and she crawled through carrying a little girl.

Ms Berry went to a neighbouring home and called police, begging them to come as soon as they could - "before he gets back" - according to a recording of her 911 call to emergency services.

When police arrived, she said two other women were being held captive.

Ms Berry was last seen on April 21, 2003, when she left work at a fast food restaurant just a few blocks from her home.

Ms DeJesus was 14 when she vanished while walking home from school on April 2, 2004. Ms Knight, who was 20 at the time of her disappearance, was last seen at a cousin's house on August 23, 2002, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

At least one window at the house on Seymour Avenue was boarded up, AFP saw at the scene.

Residents at the scene told AFP they were shocked, and had no idea that the neighbour who would sometimes share food grilled in his yard, could have had such a grim secret locked away.

Mr Joe Torres, a stocky and heavily-tattooed 32-year-old cook, stood by his parents' home, the front lawn strewn with children's toys.

"It's like having a snake in the street," he told AFP. "It's just like a regular house. No one heard anything, anything. I don't know where he had those girls. Maybe he kept them quiet?"

And mother-of-three Rachel Williamson, 30, expressed horror: "I've passed by a lot of times. It's sad to know they were in there all the time."

Kidnap ordeal survivor Jaycee Dugard - the subject of a media frenzy in 2009 when she was found alive 18 years after she had been abducted at age 11 - called for the women to be given time to heal.

"The human spirit is incredibly resilient. More than ever this reaffirms we should never give up hope," said Ms Dugard, who bore two daughters fathered by her captor.