SubScribe: Did reporters do their job on Cleveland trio? Google+

Thursday 9 May 2013

Did reporters do their job on Cleveland trio?

Too much speculation and too little research - or maybe we just don't care

1: Burger King where Amanda Berry worked; 2: last sighting of Amanda, 2003;
 3: last  sighting of Michelle Knight, 2002; 4: last sighting of Gina DeJesus, 2004.
Width of picture = c 400 yards. Map created from Google Street view

An athlete could cover the ground in less than a minute. A fast-food glutton would take much longer because there is just too much temptation along the way - two burger bars, a diner, a couple of pizza houses.

This is the 400-yard stretch of Lorain Avenue in Cleveland from which three young women were abducted in the early years of this century. They were, as you will know, discovered on Monday night at a house 'a few blocks away', where they had been kept prisoner and where one of the women gave birth to a daughter.

When such stories break it is difficult to get hard facts: the central characters and their families are unlikely to speak, the police selective in their dissemination of information. But there will always be bystanders willing to chip in with 'I never suspected a thing' or 'I always thought there was something odd...'

In this instance, TV reporters hit paydirt with the loquacious Charles Ramsey, the man who heard a woman scream as he walked down the road, broke down the door and found himself a hero. Animated and with a colourful turn of phrase, Ramsey was the star of the show for most of Tuesday, 'the best television interviewee ever'.

The man certainly has charm and had he not responded to Amanda Berry's cries, the women may well have remained incarcerated for another decade But there was something jarring about the coverage of his interview, something of the 'poor, black man doing a funny turn' that made for uncomfortable viewing.

This disquiet was compounded by chatter about his becoming the latest internet sensation, taking it almost as read that Twitter acclaim is now the ultimate accolade. (It has since become clear that two other neighbours - neither of whom spoke English - were also involved in the rescue, see this report from Josh Levin) Still, Ramsey had a proper story to tell and that was enough to keep everyone happy until more details of the women emerged.

Charles Ramsey's description of how he rescued Amanda
 made him an instant star. Photograph: Radio Times
But the details didn't emerge. Anthony Castro, son of the owner of the house, talked about his violent father, how areas of the house were kept locked and and how badly his late mother had been treated before she moved out with their children. And of course there were the neighbours with their conflicting tales.

Reporters gobbled down and regurgitated every word that landed on their plates. They were rewarded with almost as much space as that devoted to speculation that Sir Alex Ferguson was about to announce his retirement.

So with a full 24 hours from the escape to press time in London, what did they have to tell us that we hadn't already learnt from the internet or the TV news? Precious little.

Amanda, right, reunited with her sister Beth
Looking at all the coverage since Ramsey broke down the door (which is why this blog is a day late), this is what we know:

Michelle Knight, 20, disappeared from near her cousin's house in August 2002. Her grandmother said police and social workers had concluded that she ran away after her toddler son was taken away from her, but her mother, Barbara, continued to search and handed out fliers on Cleveland's West Side. She told the police some years ago that she was convinced she had seen Michelle being dragged along by an older man at a shopping mall, but the woman had not looked around when she called her name. Barbara Knight now lives in Florida and has had another daughter since Michelle's disappearance. Michelle is still in hospital. She is said to be the most frail of the three captives, but that her condition is 'good'.

Amanda Berry vanished the day before her 17th birthday in April 2003 on her way home from work at Burger King. Her mother died from heart failure, aged 44, three years later. It was Amanda who called out to Ramsay on Monday, emerging from the house with a six-year-old daughter called Jocelyn. She was reunited with her sister Beth in hospital on Monday and the three are now at Beth's home.

Georgina DeJesus, 14, was last seen by her friend Arlene Castro on their way home from the Wilbur Wright Middle School in April 2004. They had stopped at a payphone to call and ask Arlene's mother if Gina could go back to her house. The answer was no and the girls parted. Arlene is the daughter of Ariel Castro, owner of the house where the women were imprisoned. She told her story in a documentary called America's Most Wanted in 2005. The documentary linked Gina's disappearance with Amanda's a year earlier. Gina went home to her family yesterday.

Ariel Castro, 52,  appeared in court today, charged with four counts of kidnapping (one relates to Jocelyn) and three of rape.
A school bus driver who plays bass in a salsa band, Castro is the owner of 2207, Seymour Avenue, Cleveland, where the women were found. His wife Nilda, who died last year, had moved out with their two daughters and son in 1996.
The police had twice called to see Ariel Castro at the house, which he bought in 1992: when he reported a street fight in 2000 and when he left a boy unattended on his school bus in 2004.
His brothers Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50, who were arrested with him, have not been charged and police say there is nothing to suggest that they were involved in the abduction or imprisonment of the women.
Onil lives alone and Pedro lives with their mother, Lillian Rodriguez, 71.

2207 Seymour Avenue. Photograph: Belfast Telegraph

After that it is all speculation. One neighbour claimed to have called the police after seeing a naked woman on her hands and knees in the garden of Castro's house. This later turned into someone having seen three naked women on all fours being led by three men on dog collars and leads around the garden. Another man who lived three doors away said he had heard a piercing scream that prompted him to call the police.

Some neighbours spoke of a little girl looking out of the attic window, and still more of Jocelyn having been in the park with Castro on Monday morning. He would apparently take her out early in the morning when there would be no one to see them. Still others spoke of the little girl making frequent visits to Mrs Rodriguez, whom she called Grandma. At the same time 'police sources' were saying the child had never been out of the house in her life.

After the arrests, there was an immediate assumption across the media that the three brothers had been 'in it together', almost as though there was a woman each for them, and so followed lurid tales of drunkenness - 'Pedro guzzled a pint of rum in two shots' - and how 'creepy' and 'seamy' they were.

Chains and ropes were found in the house, giving rise to claims that the women had been kept tied up or tortured. Several papers quoted police sources as saying that there had been multiple pregnancies over the years and that there had been five miscarriages because the women were malnourished and/or beaten. Headlines were similarly lurid:

How Castro brothers fooled everybody during decade of dungeon kidnap horror

There is clearly a huge appetite for such a remarkable story, but that doesn't mean we should feed our readers tittle-tattle. The paucity of detail about the hostages' lives in captivity should not have been the signal for a diet of hearsay; it should have inspired reporters and newsdesks to carry out their own research. Instead we gave our customers a cuts job on previous cases, Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Fritzl among them. But Jaycee's words of wisdom about what the women would face after the initial jubilation of freedom were almost lost in the melee.

The spotlight also fell, inevitably on Madeleine McCann. The Times even ran a leader saying  the Cleveland case proved that miracles could happen and thus raised some hope that Madeleine or Ben Needham might yet be found alive. This notion was put forward without any recognition that people who kidnap three and four year olds are not of the same mindset as those who snatch teenage girls.

Only the Mail put together even the most basic map. The Times asked Dr Mark Porter to write about the women's health. The Guardian's Colin Freeman produced the most thoughtful 'how could it have happened?' piece. He looked more thoroughly into the previous cases, Stockholm Syndrome and the simple logistics of  keeping four people locked up. How could a man ostensibly living alone feed, water and guard them without anyone noticing extra bags of groceries being taken in or rubbish being taken out.

Outside of the mainstream media, Fleet Street Fox used her blog to raise the point that we should be worrying about what Cleveland means to the rest of the world  as well as cheering the women's liberation. Until the Fritzl case no one would have believed anything like this could happen, now we must ask whether there are many more undiscovered prisoners. And remember, all of these high-profile cases involved white girls; nobody ever seems to care as much when a black child goes missing.

On the reporting side, there was too much vagueness:  Michelle 'was between 18 and 20' when she vanished. The women were kidnapped 'a few blocks away' from the house in Seymour Avenue. There was no proper geography and no sense of place. It was almost as if those previous cases had engendered the feeling  'been there, done that. It's just a couple more women this time'.

But where were the basic facts? Where do the women's families live? We've seen pictures of Amanda and Gina being welcomed home - but where? In Cleveland or in another state? Round the corner from Seymour Avenue or miles away? Of course reporters shouldn't be hassling the women or their families, but there are some glaring omissions. Why do we know so little about Michelle Knight (and that includes the authorities)?

1: Wilbur Wright school, 2-5: see top map, 6: 2207 Seymour Avenue; 7: Ashley's great uncle's house;
8: Ashley's home. Width of map = c 3.5 miles. Map created from Bing Maps
We know that all this took place on the West Side, but what does that mean? Is that an affluent area, middle class or down-at-heel? Where do people work? Is industry thriving or devastated by recession? What have we been told about the city itself, its population, the rich and the poor, the locality?

A quick look at a map reveals that Seymour Avenue is near the cemetery and closer to a big motorway interchange than most people would care to live. A little more surfing tells us that the Castro house was built in 1890, has eight rooms, including four bedrooms, one bathroom and a detached garage on a plot of about a tenth of an acre. It is probably worth about $95,000.

Where were the colour pieces to show that real reporters had turned up and taken stock, the 'Standing at the Snow Street sign outside McKenna's Irish pub on Lorain Avenue with the traffic racing by, it is easy to see how everyone would be too busy to notice a slight teenager climbing into a car...'

Did anyone go to Lorain Avenue, to the school, walk the route Amanda or Gina would have taken home? Ah, but how could they? We don't even know where the girls lived.

How many people go missing in Cleveland, in Ohio, in America every year? How many turn up safe? What are the police procedures in such cases? What steps,  if any, should parents take to protect their children and how soon should they panic if they don't turn up where they are supposed to?

The spot where Gina was abducted.
Photograph: Google Street view

The police are taking flak for failing to put enough effort into the search for the girls, but the criticism is of the 'they should have done more' level than any forensic examination of what they did do and what they might have done better. Even the 2005 documentary that showed the police linking the cases of Gina and Amanda was vague as vague, the one precise detail coming courtesy of a police dog that picked up Gina's trail at the payphone and  lost it at the Snow Street sign.

Michelle Knight's mother may have been convinced that she had not run away from home, but she wasn't even on the Ohio missing persons website. Who took her off? There is clearly a sad story in the background from beyond the kidnapping - the separation from her son.

Ashley aged 14
Ashley as she may look now
And most important of all - now - where is Ashley Summers?

Ashley was 14 when she disappeared in July 2007. She lived about a mile from Lorain Avenue where the other girls were snatched - but her family say she went missing from her great-uncle's home in Holmden Avenue, some half a mile from 2207 Seymour Avenue.

The police had linked Ashley with Gina and Amanda - and the use of cadaver dogs at the Castro house may be seen to suggest that they might have thought she was there, too, whether dead or alive.
Her case has been pursued by the local papers and by her step-grandmother, Linda Summers, particularly through the websleuths forum.

Cleveland police have 96 missing people on their files. They might now put Ashley at the top.

Some facts
  • Ashley is one of 96 people currently on Cleveland's missing persons list. They range in age from six to eighty-five and half  were minors when they disappeared. 
  • About 2,300 people are reported missing in America every day and the vast majority are found quickly. 
  • Kidnappers fall into three categories: family (49%), acquaintance (27%) and stranger (24%). 
  • Teenage boys are most usually responsible for acquaintance kidnappings, which tend to be linked to sexual assault. 
  • Teenage girls and school-age children are the most frequent victims of stranger kidnappings, which often involve being lured into cars within a quarter of a mile of home.
  • Four out of five children reported to the FBI's national centre for missing and exploited children are ultimately found alive.
  • 74% of murdered children are dead within three hours of being abducted.
  • The FBI had 85,820 active cases of missing people at the end of 2010, the last year for which figures are available.
  • 692,944 new cases were reported and 703,316 were removed from the register.
  • Of the new entries, 531,928 were under 18, of whom 288,213 were female.
  • 314,117 were white or hispanic; 187,564 were black; 10,025 Asian; 7,524 Indian and 12,698 of unknown race.

Sources: FBI's NCIC Active/Expired Missing and Unidentified
Analysis Report;

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