2207 Seymour Avenue

For a century, the house sheltered working-class families, hosted holidays parties and held fond memories. Then Ariel Castro made it into a secret prison.

The day Ariel Castro was sent away for life plus 1,000 years, his house received a death sentence.

Castro had transformed 2207 Seymour Avenue from a home into a coerced accomplice, its closet doors forced to stand guard at windows, its walls made to carry chains.

Beyond its threshold — horrors. He had built a secret prison to isolate, starve and torture. For that, the boarded up house and everything it stood for would have to be erased, obliterated.

With Castro gone, its time on death row would be brief. A mere six days after the judge signed the order, the prosecutor, the press, the neighbors and a victim's family gathered to witness the Aug. 7 execution.

A yellow claw hung over the roof, ready to enact final judgment. Red letters ran up the excavator's arm like a tattoo. "Independence," they read.

The machine's four-pronged hand grabbed the white siding at the house's peak and lifted it off. "Yeah!" shouted someone across the street, and the arm flexed and threw the siding down onto the porch roof.

The hand tore into the house's 121-year-old wooden frame, which crackled and crashed like unruly, nearby thunder. From inside, dust rose like smoke from an unseen fire.

Now a corner of the house was gone, revealing a pink bedroom on the second floor, the 7-foot-wide room where Castro had imprisoned both Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. Before that, it had spent a century as a cheery children's bedroom.

For the first time since Castro blocked the window with a thick wooden door, daylight filled the room. The pink walls stood for a few more minutes before the hand took them down.

* * * * *

Sue Atzberger was watching Good Morning America at home in Eagle Nest, N.M., when she heard the story of Amanda Berry's escape from a house on Cleveland's Seymour Avenue. She turned to her husband, sitting next to her. She had lived on Seymour, she said, from when she was 3 to when she was 8.

She looked at the house, covered with white siding, and didn't recognize it. But then, someone on the TV said Berry had escaped from 2207 Seymour.

"Oh, my God," Sue told her husband. "That's the house I lived in."

Before Sue started kindergarten in 1947, she had to memorize the house number and street name, along with her parents' phone number, in case she ever got lost and needed help. Now Sue is 71, and overnight, her childhood home had become Cleveland's most infamous address.

Sue called her older sister, Eleanor Varga, across the country in Fairview Park.

"Ellie, didn't we live at 2207 Seymour?" she asked.

Eleanor watched on TV as police came and went through their former house's entryway, where her family's piano and telephone once sat below a high window.

Then she got out her mother's photo albums — black pages with white corner-frames holding black-and-white snapshots.

In the pictures, the house was light brown. She and Sue wore bright dresses with a matching pattern by the old back porch. Her dad, Michael Malinkey, stood in the backyard, his white sleeves rolled up. And Sue, looking a few years older, sat on the edge of the new, enclosed back porch their father had just built, her feet resting on cinder blocks because he hadn't built the steps yet.

"We were thinking of all our good memories about the house, and getting more upset and more upset," Eleanor recalls.

Eleanor's grandparents, Dan and Helen Malinkey, bought the house in 1937, the year before Eleanor was born. They grew pink petunias in the backyard. In 1946, just before Eleanor's first Holy Communion, her family moved in.

Sue and Eleanor's grandfather was a floorman for the Smeed Box Co., right by the Cuyahoga River's Collision Bend. He was "a very quiet man," says Eleanor. He'd open a coin purse and hand her a 25-cent allowance — enough for a double feature, popcorn and drink at the Garden Theater, four blocks south on West 25th Street. The Malinkeys didn't have a car, but they didn't need one. Streetcars ran on West 25th, a half-block away.

Their house soon filled with uncles. Michael's six younger brothers all served in World War II, five in the army, one in the navy. "When they got out of the service, they came to our house first," Eleanor recalls. "My parents were always taking somebody in." With four bedrooms plus space in the attic, the family could always make room.

Eleanor's mother, Sue Ann, a homemaker, always seemed to be in competition with her six sisters over "who could cook better, bake better, keep the cleanest house," Eleanor says. "Mother was the strong one. Dad was more quiet, just a nice guy."

Michael, a welder, had all three of the daily newspapers — the Cleveland Press, Cleveland News and The Plain Dealer — delivered to the house. He'd sit in the living room or at the kitchen table listening to Jimmy Dudley broadcast Indians games. The bells rang from the Malinkeys' parish, St. Michael Church at Scranton Road and Clark Avenue, the day the Indians won the 1948 World Series.

Eleanor and Sue would roller-skate through the churchyard, up and down Seymour, and in circles in the house's basement. Eleanor held the support pole in the middle of the floor as she skated, spinning around and around.

When her uncles found places of their own, Eleanor got her own bedroom, the tiny one above the front door. "There wasn't much room," she recalls.

Despite their memories, the sisters are glad the house is gone.

"It puts a bad taste in my mouth that something like that happened there," Sue says. "It sort of takes away from what we had there, like a mock ..."

She stops. She means to say that Castro's crimes mocked everyone who raised a happy family in her former home, mocked the ideas of home and family altogether. But she can't bring herself to finish the thought.

"I'm glad it's down," she says instead. "Mostly for the girls."

* * * * *

Ariel Castro drove a Cleveland school bus for 21 years, and in that one way — his job — he was like most everyone who lived at 2207 Seymour Ave. in the century before he arrived. Built in 1892, the two-story, wood-frame house had always been the working-class address of people who kept the city moving, built cars and boxes, made clothing and weighed steel.

Tom Emsley, a firefighter with Cleveland's hook and ladder company No. 5, took out the mortgage to build the place with his wife, Ida. Two years earlier, they'd bought the land from her parents, Francis and Louisa Cone, who lived next door. Francis Cone was a carpenter, and after he died in his daughter's house in 1893, his estate's public auction included his chest of tools, his hammers and pick, his carpenter's bench and his grindstone.

Seymour Avenue was a German neighborhood then, centered on the Immanuel Lutheran Church at the end of the block. The Scranton Road Cemetery lies just north of the church; those buried there in 1893 included William Berlin, Alma Krueger, Susanna Guntzler and Hadriek Schoenhoff. When the Emsleys moved to Scranton Road soon after Ida's father died, they sold the Seymour house to Jacob Schneider, a machinist, and his wife, Louisa.

The next four owners included a house painter, a laborer, a widow who lived with her woodworker son and a weigher at the American Steel and Wire Co. The whole block was like that. In 1951, Eleanor and Sue Malinkey's neighbors included an electrician, a diemaker, a plumber and a fruit vendor at the West Side Market.

That September, the Malinkey family put 2207 Seymour up for sale. "Immediate possession: 7 rooms, 4 bedrooms," read the classified ad in The Plain Dealer. "Venetian blinds, storm windows, full basement. ... Owner leaving town." The Malinkeys were moving to Johnson City, N.Y., to buy a snack bar from a relative. They moved in early 1952, when Eleanor was halfway through eighth grade.

They sold the house to Bernard and Margaret Hamilton. Bernard was a semitrailer driver for Mohawk Motors, while Margaret was a barmaid on Pearl Road in Old Brooklyn. They'd met when he was a cab driver and she was his passenger.

Bernard was a stocky guy, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with dark hair and blue eyes. "He used to look in the mirror and say [to himself], 'Bernie, you've got the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen,' " recalls his daughter, Carol Brady.

Carol, now 77, cried when she saw 2207 Seymour on the news this year. "I loved that house," she says. "It was beautiful. We had some good times there." Her aunts and uncles congregated there for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But not all her memories there were happy.

Her father had a temper. Once, at a meeting to settle a neighborhood dispute about a broken window, he got so angry that a prosecutor sent him to jail overnight to cool off. In jail, he accused the cops of acting like Nazis. A jailer sucker punched him and gave him a black eye.

"My father was a drunk," Carol says. "He was good when he wasn't drinking." She would imitate how he acted when intoxicated to make her mother laugh.

Margaret was homebound then, sick with lung cancer. Carol dropped out of school in the 10th grade to care for her. Margaret died in 1955, when she was 42 and Carol was 18. "I loved my mother more than anything in this world," Carol says.

Until this spring, Carol would drive by the house on her way to appointments at MetroHealth Medical Center and tell whomever she was with that she used to live there. She felt sick the day it was torn down. "But then, I can see why," she says. "I wouldn't want somebody living there after that."

* * * * *

Almost everyone who lived in the house in its 121 years moved on to something more, a better life.

At 19, Carol Brady moved in with her aunt in Eastlake, where she met her future husband, Richard Brady, a carpenter. They had three girls and a boy together.

Paraska Soljanik, a Parma Hospital worker who bought 2207 Seymour in 1959, eventually moved to Skyline Drive in Seven Hills. She sold the house to Augustine and Carmen Munoz, who lived there with their kids from 1965 to 1978. Augustine Munoz, who was a foreman at Cleveland's Colonial Woolen Mills, later moved to Old Brooklyn, then to West Park.

Edwin Castro and his wife, Antonia, acquired the house from the Munoz family around the same time he bought a Spanish-language record store three blocks away. It stood at West 25th Street and Clark Avenue, which had already become the center of Cleveland's Puerto Rican community. His brothers were also prominent businessmen in the neighborhood: Pedro "Nona" Castro owned a used-car lot near MetroHealth, and Julio "Ceci" Castro still owns the Caribe Grocery, a Puerto Rican bodega at West 25th and Seymour.

Maria Castro-Montes, Ceci's daughter, grew up in the apartment above her father's store. Her memories of her uncle Edwin's house, a half-block away, are of parties at Christmas, New Year's and birthdays — adults gathered in the basement singing carols in Spanish, children running around in the bedrooms upstairs. "It was a happy home," she says.

In the 1980s, Edwin and Antonia moved, rented out the house for a while, then sold it in 1992 to Ariel, their nephew. Today, they live in a hilly stretch of North Royalton, near a lagoon lined by pine trees. Their new house, a colonial built in 1999, is twice the size of the 1,400-square-foot house on Seymour.

His former address reminds Edwin Castro of when his family was young, when he labored to make a better home for them. But since May, his warm memories of each room slide terribly into the knowledge of what his nephew did there afterward.

"My kids learned to ride bikes outside that house," he says. "I did the paneling — everything. I know exactly where the girls were kept."

* * * * *

After the Boston Marathon bomber's arrest, Maria thought, He must've had a crazy family. Three weeks later, her own cousin drew the nation's attention from domestic terrorism to homebound terror.

Now, she's one of the few members of the Castro family willing to talk to reporters.

"I want people to see there is compassion in this family, good people, parents, pillars of the community," she says. "Our family is so close-knit. We're like Big Fat Greek Wedding people, but big, fat Puerto Rican wedding people."

She can't reconcile her family's warmth with the crimes her cousin hid for 11 years.

"Things must have gone wrong before he ever arrived here," she says. "Here, there was nothing but love and caring."

Ariel Castro came to Cleveland around 1972, the year he turned 12. He was born in Puerto Rico. When his parents separated, and his father, Pedro, came to Cleveland and opened his used-car business, he stayed with his mother, Lillian. They later moved to Reading, Pa., where she had family, then to Cleveland.

In court, and in a 2004 note found in his house, Castro claimed he was sexually abused as a boy. If that happened, it was likely before he came to Ohio, says Castro-Montes. "I say 'if' because he could have been lying, to come up with an excuse [for people] to feel sorry for him."

She says Castro's mother asked him about his abuse story during a jail visit. "He changed the subject. Either he didn't want to hurt her with the fact, or there was nothing to tell."

Castro spent his teenage years in Tremont and graduated from Lincoln-West High School. In 1980, he moved with his family to West 98th Street. He started seeing a neighbor there, Grimilda Figueroa. They had a son and three daughters together, and she became his common-law wife, despite their often hostile, abusive relationship.

After Castro bought 2207 Seymour from his uncle in April 1992, he, Figueroa and the kids moved in together. Once they were under the same roof, the abuse escalated.

On the day after Christmas 1993, inside the house, Castro hit Figueroa in the head and face, threw her to the ground and kicked her. Their 12-year-old son, Anthony, ran out the front door. Castro chased him, and Figueroa locked the doors and called the police. The cops caught Castro running through yards on Seymour and arrested him behind the house three doors down. It was his second domestic violence arrest involving Figueroa, but a grand jury voted to not indict him.

Castro also threatened the owners of the houses next door. In 1994, Ernesto Santiago stopped by to check on his rental property, 2211 Seymour, noticed its chain-link fence was gone, and asked Castro about it. Castro got angry, tried to hit Santiago with a shovel, and told Santiago he'd "take care of him."

Castro also appears to have gotten into a heated dispute with Ayana Stokes, who lived at 2203 Seymour. In August 1996, after she moved away, she told police that Castro drove to her new home, pulled up at the driveway and shouted out the window, "I'm gonna get you, bitch!"

Even in the 1990s, Castro shut off parts of the house and limited others' movements within it. Anthony has said his father nailed some windows shut and put locks on the basement door, attic door and garage. Castro sometimes kept Figueroa from leaving the house. "I would go over to the house and be knocking at the door," her sister, Elida Caraballo, told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, "and she was there and he wasn't, and I'd say, 'Open the door,' and she'd say, 'I can't, he locked it.' "

In 1996, Figueroa escaped. She moved out of Castro's house and took the children with her.

* * * * *

For 11 years, things went into Castro's house that didn't come out.

Nearly every room was filled with hoarder's clutter. Castro stacked cases of canned goods, such as Goya beans, next to the fridge. Every time his washer died, he brought another one through the outside cellar doors and set it up next to the others. In one, he hid $22,000.

Each woman Castro kidnapped knew one of his daughters, and he used that fact to lower their guard as he offered them rides, then made up reasons to swing by his house and invite them in.

In August 2002, Castro talked Michelle Knight into the house by promising her a puppy for her 2-1/2-year-old son. He hadn't prepared in advance, leaving his captive chained to the pole in the low-ceilinged, sandstone basement while he readied the second floor.

In April 2003, he told Amanda Berry she could come in to see his daughter, Angie. Upstairs, Berry looked through the hole where a doorknob should've been and saw Michelle Knight in a bedroom. Castro told Berry that Knight was his roommate.

In 2004, again in April, he told Gina DeJesus, his daughter Arlene's best friend, that he needed help carrying a speaker to his car.

Castro screwed a handle and an I-bolt lock onto the outside of one bedroom door. He nailed two heavy closet doors — eight-panel, solid wood — across the window. In the small pink bedroom next door, he cut a hole in the ceiling and stuck a box fan into it from the attic above. Through a hole in the wall, he strung a rusted chain.

In late summer 2005, a sheriff's deputy went to 2207 Seymour three times and knocked on the door. He was trying to serve Castro with a temporary protection order that barred him from any contact with his ex-wife. Castro had broken her nose twice, broken her ribs, knocked out one of her teeth and dislocated both of her shoulders, according to her petition for the order. He threatened to kill her and their daughters three or four times in 2005 alone.

But no one came to the door. By then, four people were living inside the house, but three could not answer.

Castro hung alarm clocks on the front door and wired them together to create a makeshift alarm system. Next to it, the little lace curtain that had once shaded the door's stained-glass window dangled from one hook. He ran one wire all the way through the house to a contact switch on the back door. He blocked the stairs with a porch swing.

Family visited rarely, and when they did, Castro kept them waiting outside before he'd open the back door. He'd always play loud music and insist they stay in the kitchen. One daughter had stayed close to him. Once, she asked if she could go up to see her childhood bedroom. He talked her out of it, saying he had too much junk upstairs.

He collected empty baby food jars and kept trash inside the house, as if afraid a neighbor might see what he was throwing away.

He cut a hole in a bedroom door's bottom panel, and in the summer, he stuck a tube through it to send in cold air from a portable air conditioner. He punished the three women with extremes of hot and cold, shutting them in the attic in summer and the basement in winter.

In their tiny spaces, despite the locks, chains and portable toilets, the women tried to create some small semblance of a normal life. They kept diaries, writing about their dreams of escaping and seeing their families again. One wrote that she felt like a prisoner of war. Castro locked Knight in the house for 3,910 days — twice as long as John McCain spent as a POW in North Vietnam's Hanoi Hilton. Berry was imprisoned for 3,668 days, DeJesus for 3,321 days.

Almost all of the color and signs of humanity in the house came from the presence of Berry's daughter. A row of stuffed animals sat on the bed she shared with her mother. Pages torn from children's workbooks and coloring books decorated one wall. More of the girl's artwork hung in the pink room DeJesus and Knight shared, above the mattress wedged tightly against the walls. One, in scissored letters, spelled, "Love."

* * * * *

The neighbors could set their watches to Castro's routine. He left for work early in the morning, driving one of the many vehicles he collected in his backyard: a blue Mazda Miata convertible, red Jeep Cherokee, Toyota Tacoma or chrome Harley-Davidson. He drove his school bus route, then parked the bus out front at midday and went inside for a few hours, often taking McDonald's takeout with him for lunch. He left to run his after-school route, returned in the late afternoon and rarely emerged at night.

Anthony Westry, who lived three doors down, says Castro would let neighbors ride his three-wheelers and four-wheelers on the snow in a vacant lot on Seymour, but he'd always be outside when the neighbors returned them, so that they wouldn't have to knock.

"He was always creepy, standoffish, but never to the point where you'd be overly suspicious," says Westry. "I just thought he was a very private person. I thought he was depressed from going through a divorce or whatever. You lose your family — you know."

Castro had fewer neighbors by then. The house just east of his had become a boarding house for single men, such as Charles Ramsey. But the two houses on the other side had gone vacant. No one on Seymour knew him well.

Aurora Marti, who lived across the street, thought of Castro as easygoing and friendly, though their neighborly relationship rarely went beyond hellos and goodbyes. He seemed like a loner, a man with few visitors. That's how she explained it to herself when she noticed one strange thing about Castro's house. The windows were never open. The larger ones were covered with shades or blinds, the smaller ones with plywood.

"At nighttime, the only light that you would see would be the porch light, but nothing inside," she recalls. "No lights at all."

* * * * *

Just before 6 p.m. on May 6, two Cleveland police officers crawled through the storm door panel Amanda Berry had kicked out. Once behind the door, the police forced it open.

As two policemen searched the first floor and basement, officers Anthony Espada and Barbara Johnson climbed over the porch swing at the foot of the wooden stairs and headed up, guns drawn. Outside, it was a sunny day, but inside the house, it was pitch black. Johnson turned on the flashlight on her gun. They rounded a corner and saw a heavy brown curtain hanging at the top of the stairs.

"Cleveland police! Cleveland police!" Espada shouted. He pushed the curtain aside. Johnson held it back. He went left, she went right. She saw a light on in a bedroom with kids' toys.

Small pitter-patter steps came from the left. Johnson shined the flashlight. Michelle Knight — a woman so tiny, just 4 feet 7 inches tall, that she looked like a little girl — came through a doorway, paused for a second, then ran out. She jumped into Espada's arms, and wrapped her arms and legs around him.

"You've saved us! You've saved us!" she cried.

"It's OK, honey," Johnson told her. "You're safe."

Espada set Knight down, and Knight ran to Johnson and hugged her so tight, she struggled to holster her gun.

"Please don't let me go," Knight screamed.

"Honey, don't worry," Johnson told her. "I'm not going to let you go."

Another woman emerged from the bedroom, dark-haired, pale and very thin.

"What's your name?" Espada asked her, even though he recognized her right away.

"My name is Georgina DeJesus," she said. She hesitated to come out of the room.

"Honey, it's OK," Johnson said. "We're here to help you."

Espada looked at Johnson. He fought back tears. It took an iron will for him to call in a clear-voiced radio report: "We found them! We found them!"

* * * * *

Near the center of the courtroom, Ariel Castro's house in 1:12 scale stood as a silent witness for his sentencing. Built by the FBI, the facade and the mini-version of the porch where Berry escaped were pure white. Yellow slats blocked the second-floor windows of Knight, DeJesus and Berry's living quarters. A cutaway view revealed the pink room where Knight and DeJesus were kept. A little model porch swing blocked the model stairs.

Before Castro was sentenced, Knight came to court and described the 3,910 days she was trapped inside the house. "Days never got shorter," she said. "The years turned into eternity."

From across the courtroom, Knight confronted Castro. "I spent 11 years in hell," she said. "You will face hell for eternity." She asked him to ponder a question: "What does God think of you hypocritically going to church every Sunday [and] coming home to torture us?"

Then she addressed everyone listening to her around the world. "Writing this statement gave me the strength to be a stronger woman," she said, "and know that there is more good than evil."

* * * * *

In the days afterward, Berry, DeJesus and Knight all visited Seymour Avenue to thank neighbors for helping them escape. Since their liberation, Berry has traveled to Tennessee to reunite with her grandmother. DeJesus lives in her parents' West Side home and rode with them this August in Cleveland's annual Puerto Rican Parade. Knight, who lives on her own, released yellow balloons outside the house just before it was demolished and appeared with DeJesus' parents at Lorain's Hispanic Heritage Parade in September.

Today, on the half-acre where 2207 Seymour Ave. and two vacant houses stood, grass grows and red roses bloom. Maybe a garden will be built there, or maybe a park.

Castro hanged himself on Sept. 3, after 120 days in captivity. He left pictures of his family out in his cell, arranged in what a report called "a poster-board fashion," and a sheet of paper on which he'd written the names of his children and grandchildren. At least two of his children, his son and a daughter, had declared publicly that they would never visit him in prison. He knew his crimes had driven them away forever.

Still, a week before the house was demolished, Castro's son, Anthony, and some of his other relatives went inside one last time. In the dank sandstone basement Castro made into a dungeon, under the low ceiling, near the pole that Eleanor Malinkey held onto as she skated around and around, they found some old school mementoes that belonged to Anthony and his sisters, and some photos of them from when they were young — the last family memories they could salvage before the excavator's arm tore all the rest away.

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