CLEVELAND (AP) – In the tight-knit neighborhood near downtown where many conversations are spoken in Spanish, it seems most everyone knew Ariel Castro.
He played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands. He parked his school bus on the street. He gave neighborhood children rides on his motorcycle.
And when they gathered for a candlelight vigil to remember two girls who vanished years ago, Castro was there, too, comforting the mother of one of the missing, a neighbor said.
Neighbors and friends were stunned by the arrest of Castro and his two brothers after a 911 call led police to his house, where authorities say three women missing for about a decade were held captive.
A 6-year-old girl also was found in the home, and a neighbor said she was at a park a week earlier with Castro, who referred to her as his “girlfriend’s daughter.” Israel Lugo lives down the street from the house where the women were found Monday and said he was stunned to see one of them holding the girl, who was screaming and crying.
Castro and his brothers, ages 50 to 54, were in custody Tuesday but had not been formally charged.
Castro was friends with the father of Gina DeJesus, one of the missing women, and helped search for her after she disappeared, said Khalid Samad, a friend of the family. He also performed music at a fundraiser held in her honor, Samad said.
“When we went out to look for Gina, he helped pass out fliers,” said Samad, a community activist who was at the hospital with DeJesus and her family Monday night. “You know, he was friends with the family.”
Tito DeJesus, one of Gina’s uncles, said he played in a few bands with Castro over the past 20 years. He remembered visiting Castro’s house after his niece disappeared, but he never noticed anything out of ordinary, saying it was very sparsely furnished and filled with musical instruments.
“That’s pretty much what it looked like,” DeJesus said. “I had no clue, no clue whatsoever that this happened.”
Castro’s son, Anthony Castro, said in an interview with London’s Daily Mail newspaper that he now speaks with his father just a few times a year and seldom visited his house. On his last visit two weeks ago, he said, his father would not let him inside.
“The house was always locked,” he told the newspaper. “There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage.”
Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from the house, has known Castro for decades.
“He was always happy, nice, respectful,” Perez said. “He gained trust with the kids and with the parents. You can only do that if you’re nice.”
He said Castro had an ATV and a motorcycle and would take children on rides. Nothing seemed wrong with it then, he said, adding that he now thinks that was one way Castro tried to get close to the children. He also worked until recently as a school bus driver.
Castro’s personnel file with the Cleveland public school district, obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information request, shows he was hired in 1990 as a bus driver after saying on his application that he liked working with children.
The personnel file includes details on his dismissal, approved by the school board last fall after he left his bus unattended for four hours.
Police identified the other two suspects as the 52-year-old’s brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50.
A relative of the three brothers said their family was “as blindsided as anyone else.”
Juan Alicea said he hadn’t been to the home of his brother-in-law Ariel Castro since the early 1990s but had eaten dinner with him at a different brother’s house shortly before the arrests Monday.
Lucy Roman lives next to a house she said is shared by Pedro Castro and his mother. She said police arrested him Monday night.
“I feel sorry for her,” Roman said of the mother. “She’s a very nice lady.”
Several residents said they saw Ariel Castro at a candlelight vigil for the missing girls.
Antony Quiros said he was at the vigil about a year ago and saw Castro comforting Gina DeJesus’ mother.
One neighbor, Francisco Cruz, said he was with Castro the day investigators dug up a yard looking for the girls.
Castro told Cruz, “They’re not going to find anyone there,” Cruz recalled.
Castro’s Facebook page identifies him as a Cleveland resident and says he attended the city’s Lincoln-West High School. His interests include Virginia Beach, the Chinese crested dog breed and Cuban-born salsa singer Rey Ruiz.
On April 11, he wrote to congratulate “my Rosie Arlene” and wish her a fast recovery from giving birth to “a wonderful baby boy. That makes me Gramps for the fifth time. Luv you guys!”
Associated Press writers Mike Householder, Thomas J. Sheeran, Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Cleveland and Meghan Barr and Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.
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