Amidst the initial frenzy surrounding the discovery of three missing women in an Ohio home this week, there were reports that Cleveland police somehow botched possible tips that could have led them to the women years earlier. But the authorities have been sticking to their story, and now that the perpetrator is behind bars and the women are home, the swirling—and perhaps invented—accusations of negligence are spinning back toward reality.
Ariel Castro was arraigned on kidnapping and rape charges Thursday, but police also released his two brothers who were arrested at the same—and who have now been cleared of any wrongdoing. Cleveland police insist that Ariel was the only one involved in the crime. They also claim that, despite some reports to the contrary, the women were never allowed out of the house and no citizens ever called to report suspicions.
So what about those witnesses who said they saw naked women being paraded around on leashes, and strange noises coming from the house and odd faces staring at them through windows? Were those people lying? Not necessarily, but from what we've learned so far it seems that reports of missed opportunities by the authorities are probably not true.
The most damning claims of police negligence all came from one story, a USA Today report published on Tuesday. While it wasn't the focus of the story, it did include testimony from neighbors who said they reported suspicious behavior to police—including "naked women on leashes crawling on all fours"—but the police did not take their claims seriously.
Two days later, police seem to have given no credence to those reports and no has come forward to make similar claims. And remember, police had several days to talk to all three suspects and all three victims. Those victims revealed awful, intimate details of their capture, but don't appear to have mentioned anything about being paraded around yard by leashes. According to police, they only left the house twice in 10 years, and they were fully disguised just to walk to the garage.
Also, despite reports that multiple 9-1-1 complaints were made about the house, police insist that they double checked their records and only got two calls about that house, and even those reports were indirectly related to Castro.
Amanda Marcotte at Slate posited an interesting theory about the eyewitness accounts: They could be false memories. It's possible that some people actually did think they saw women paraded on leashes, because the mind has a way of embellishing or inventing memories. There have been countless studies about the unreliability of eyewitness reports to crimes, and no one who lived through it can forget the fights over "recovered memories" that sent some innocent people to jail in the 1990s. People have an amazing capacity to believe what they want to believe and it's easy to think, after the fact, that you were apart of something that never actually happened. (And of course, some people just lie cause they like attention.)
Take a closer a look at the USA Today story and you also get some clues as to how the stories were morphed. Here's how the eyewitness reports were described.
"Elise Cintro... said her daughter once saw a naked woman ... and called police. ...
Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro's house
Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. "They walked to the side of the house and then left," he said.
"once saw a little girl looking out of the house's attic window."
Lugo said he, his family and neighbors called police three times ... . Lugo grew suspicious after neighbors reported seeing naked women on leashes crawling on all fours behind Castro's house.
Lugo said about two years ago his sister told him she heard a woman pounding on a window..
Later, Lugo's mother called the police because Ariel Castro would park his school bus in front of their home and bring bags full of McDonald's and drinks into his home.
A third call came from neighborhood women who lived in an apartment building. Those women told Lugo they called police because they saw three young girls crawling on all fours naked with dog leashes around their necks. Three men were controlling them in the backyard.
You'll notice that most of the claims come from neighbor Israel Lugo, but notice that he's describing incidents that were told to him by others—not things he personally witnessed. His "sister" heard the pounding, "his neighbors" saw the naked girls, and "his mother" called the police. Also: though it wasn't mentioned in the USA Today story, according to The Washington Post, Cintron is Lugo's mother. All the named witness in both articles are related.
But there's also the sprinkling in of details that were already known about the case. The thing about police walking around the house and then leaving—that did happen. Officials admitted at their first press conference that one of the two occasions they went to the home (on an independent investigation), no one responded and they left. "Three men" were controlling them, even police the two brothers were not involved. Plus, many people are still willing to give police the benefit of the doubt that if they got that many strange reports about one house they would have investigated. (Although would you really call police over a suspicious amount of McDonald's? If you did call, do you really think the police would care?) The witness reports just never seemed that reliable, which is why most the local Cleveland media outlets didn't repeat them.
Again, that doesn't make the witnesses who spoke liars. They were asked questions and merely repeated what they knew or remembered. But people often add incorrect details when recounting stories, even if they don't realized that they're doing it. The family members likely all talked to each other before talking to reporters, and once the ideas were planted, the same story spreads among them all, with each adding their own additional twists. But when police already demonstrated a willingness to dig up entire backyards based on flimsy evidence because there were was a chance they might find Amanda Berry's remains, locals seems willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
(Click here for complete coverage of the Cleveland kidnappings.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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