The Cleveland Kidnappings
Ariel Castro once lured Michelle Knight into his Cleveland home and turned her into his slave. Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus were later imprisoned. For the first time, Michelle shares the story of the torment she endured, her longing to reunite with her son—and her emotional journey from heartache to healing.
#1 NYT BEST SELLER | BOOK EXCERPT | HACHETTE | MAY 2014
In 2002, Michelle Knight, a young single mom in Cleveland, was on her way to a social services appointment in hopes of regaining custody of her son. She couldn’t find the address, and as she circled back home, she stopped to ask for directions one last time. What happened next forever altered her path. This scene is from the chapter entitled “Vanished”:
Around 2:30—the time of my scheduled appointment—I had just made it back into my neighborhood. I passed the Family Dollar store that I’d shopped in a bunch of times, the same one where I’d once gotten Joey all those Christmas gifts. I was dying for something to drink. Once inside, I noticed that the store seemed crowded. Making my way to the soda aisle,I noticed a nice-looking woman. Maybe she can help me, I thought.
“Excuse me, miss,” I said, pulling out my crumpled paper, “do you happen to have any idea where this address is?” I pointed to the top of the sheet. She lowered the container of deodorant she was holding and looked at me, then at the address. “I wish I could tell you, honey,” she said, “but I’m not even from this area.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t think this address is in this area. It could be someplace downtown.”
“Sorry,” she said, placing her deodorant into her basket. “I don’t think I’ll be much help.”
Feeling hopeless, I pushed the paper into my front pocket, grabbed a soda, and lined up at the register. The cashier, a stocky blonde woman, seemed a little frazzled. After I paid, I started for the door. Then I thought, Maybe I should ask the cashier if she knows where the address is, and I circled back to the counter. As she was ringing up another customer, I pulled out my sheet and showed it to her.
Something seemed off, but once Ariel apologized, I excused his strong grip as an innocent mistake. Plus, I trusted him more than I would have trusted a stranger. After all, he was my friend’s dad, not to mention an angel who was sent to get me to my appointment.
“Excuse me. Do you know where this is?” I asked. She eyed the address for a moment. “Actually, I think you just go right up here to the corner, then swing a left, but I’m not 100 percent positive about that,” she said.
Just as I was about to turn and leave again, I heard a male voice from a few feet away: “I know exactly where that is.” I turned and immediately recognized the man from his photo. It was Ariel Castro, Emily’s father.
“Oh, hi,” I said. He stepped forward to pay for his items, a couple of screwdrivers and a can of car oil. “I’m Michelle—Emily’s friend,” I continued. “I know your daughter.” He smiled. “Oh, yes,” he said in a soft tone, the same one I’d heard him use on the phone with Emily. “If you give me a second here, maybe I can show you how to get there.” Thank you God. I’d be late—but at least I could still make my appointment.
As the cashier finished ringing him up, I got a better look at him. He was about as scrubby as he’d seemed in the photo Emily once showed me. His thick, wavy hair was uncombed and fluffed out a bit over his olive skin. His hands were rusty, like he hadn’t lotioned them in months, and the skin was peeling. He looked about forty years old. His pot belly spilled out over the top of his black jeans. He wore a checkered, long-sleeved flannel shirt with a couple grease stains on it, as if he’d been working on a car. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows. How can he walk around with flannel on in the summer? I wondered. He looked Mexican to me, but I knew from talking to Emily that he was from Puerto Rico. He caught me staring, and when I shifted my gaze, he smiled at me again. As ratty as he was, he certainly seemed like a decent enough guy.
He shoved his change into his back pocket and stepped toward me in his brown work boots. “I’m a little turned around myself today,” he said, chuckling. “Do you happen to know where there’s a Key Bank?”
I did. “It’s right out there,” I said, pointing. “Just take a right.”
He nodded. “But first I can help you find your address,” he said. “Want me to give you a ride?”
“Yes,” I heard myself say, but then something told me that I should probably check in with my friend to let her know I’d be accepting a ride from her father. “Um, can we call Emily first and let her know?” I asked.
When he leaned in toward me, I caught a whiff of him: He smelled just like transmission fluid. “Emily’s in school right now, and I don’t want to bother her,” he said. I paused. “Well, I guess you could just give me a ride,” I said.
As we walked out the front door together, he took me by the upper arm. His grip seemed a little too tight. But not even a second later he loosened it. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Ariel said, laughing a little. “I was holding your arm too tight, wasn’t I?” I laughed nervously and nodded, then straightened the upper sleeve on my tee. “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength,” he said. “Forgive me.”
In that moment, something seemed off, but once he apologized, I excused his strong grip as an innocent mistake. Plus, I trusted him more than I would have trusted a complete stranger. After all, he was my friend’s dad, not to mention an angel who was sent to get me to my appointment.
The inside of his truck looked as grubby as he did. Big Mac wrappers were scattered all over the floor. A couple of old Chinese food containers were wedged in a corner near the carpeted foot rest on my side. The knobs to open the two front windows were both missing. “Wow, you must live in this place,” I said, my eyes darting about.
He laughed. “I know, it’s kinda messy. I’m such a bachelor.”
He slid the key into the ignition and started the car. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, he jerked the steering wheel hard and we began spinning. “Woo-hoo!” he said. Frozen, I clutched the side of the seat. “Oh, calm down,” he said when he noticed the worried look on my face. “I’m just having a little fun. I like to do that with my kids sometimes.”
I giggled a little. I knew from Emily that her dad was a bit silly, like when he talked to her in a hillbilly voice. I sat back in my seat and tried to relax. We pulled out of the lot.
As we rode along and chatted, I told him about Joey, about how this appointment was so important because I wanted to get him back. “I miss him so much,” I said. Ariel nodded sympathetically. Right then, even though I couldn’t see the streets very well without my glasses, I noticed we didn’t seem to be heading back downtown, where my appointment was.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Oh, I just need to stop by my house for a minute and pick up some stuff,” he said. “Emily should be home soon—school just got out. I can give her some money, and maybe you two can go to the mall together later on. But don’t worry. First, I’ll first take you to your appointment.”
I looked over at him. “Okay,” I said, “but I really can’t stay that long. I’m already late. I need to get to that appointment or else I’m going to be in big trouble. Emily and I can go to the mall another day.” The clock on his dashboard read 3pm.
“It won’t be too long,” he said. “I promise.”
We rode along for another minute while he talked all about how much he loved motorcycles and how he was trying to sell one. “I might know someone who’d like to buy it from you,” I said, thinking of a guy who lived in my neighborhood.
He then shifted the topic: “Hey, do you like puppies?” he asked.
“Oh, I love them,” I said, “and so does my son.” Every time we used to run into a dog on the street, Joey would get really excited and want to pet it.
“I’ve actually got some puppies at my place,” Ariel said. “My dog had babies a while back. When we stop there, maybe I can give you one. Then when you get Joey back, you can give him a puppy. I bet he’d like that.”
What a nice idea—Joey would love another puppy, I thought. That would make a great coming-home present.
On Seymour Avenue, we slowed down in front of a white, two-level house that was within blocks of where I lived—I recognized the street. Surrounding the house was an eight-foot chain-link fence.
“We’re here,” he announced.
I looked into the front yard to see even more trash than there was in his truck—lots of newspapers and empty aluminum soda cans. The yellowing grass clearly hadn’t been cut in days, maybe even decades. To get to his place, we’d driven for at least seven minutes, and yet we both lived just a two-minute drive away from Family Dollar. Did we just go round and round in circles or something? I thought.
If Ariel’s truck and yard were a hot mess, they were nothing compared to his house. Sheets of newspaper were all over the kitchen and in the living room just beyond it. Crusted-over dirty dishes were stacked in the sink. Beer bottles were everywhere. It smelled like a mix of piss, beer, and rotten black beans.
He got out of the car and opened a gate that led to a driveway along the house. He then hopped back in and shifted the vehicle into reverse, looked over his shoulder, and slowly backed into the driveway. A van was parked farther into the yard. Afterward he locked the gate with a big padlock. That made me nervous.
“Why are you parking and locking the gate?” I asked. “I thought we were just staying for a minute.”
“Because this is a terrible neighborhood,” he shot back. “I don’t want my truck to get stolen.”
Why would anyone want this piece of crap? I thought to myself.
From the window of the truck, in the trash-littered backyard, I could see a reddish-brown furry Chow Chow on a chain. “Aw, she’s cute!” I said. He beamed.
“Her name is Maxine,” he said.
“Why isn’t she in the house with her puppies?”
“I have to take her out because she sometimes pees in the house,” he explained. That didn’t quite make sense to me—hadn’t he house-trained the dog when she was just a puppy?—but whatever. I didn’t make much of it. “I’ll be right back,” he said. He got out of the car but left the motor running.
Less than a minute later, Ariel returned and opened my side of the door. “Why don’t you come in for a sec,” he said.
I wrinkled my nose. “Why?”
“Because then you can pick out your own puppy,” he said. Noting my hesitation, he pressed on. “You don’t have to be nervous,” he said. “Emily’s here. Just come in for a sec and see the puppies.”
I drew in a breath, and in a moment I’ll regret for the rest of my life, I finally said, “Okay—just for a minute.”
He helped me down from the truck and we walked toward his wooden back door. Just before I stepped inside, I saw an old white man in the neighboring yard. I recognized him from the area; his kids were brats. I waved and yelled out “Hello!” He gave me a hard stare and then waved back. The exchange immediately put me at ease. He has neighbors who know him, I thought. And Emily is here. I’m being ridiculous.
If Ariel’s truck and yard were a hot mess, they were nothing compared to his house. Sheets of newspaper were all over the kitchen and in the living room just beyond it. Crusted-over dirty dishes were stacked in the sink. Beer bottles were everywhere. It smelled like a mix of piss, beer, and rotten black beans. A lot of the windows were boarded up from the inside. How could his daughter stand to visit here? I thought. I wondered if Emily felt as grossed out as I did.
“Welcome,” he said, motioning for me to step farther into the kitchen. “Like I said, I’m a bachelor. I don’t get a chance to clean up much.”
I didn’t speak—I just gawked. I followed him into the living room, wondering how I could get out of this smelly pit without seeming rude. I saw a photo resting on top of a large TV, which was right next to a fireplace mantel. “Aw, I love that picture of Emily—she looks so cute,” I said. “You said she’s here?”
He nodded. “She’s right downstairs, putting some laundry in the machine,” he assured me. “She’ll be up in a minute. Why don’t you come with me upstairs so you can go ahead and pick out a puppy?” He pointed to a staircase off the living room.
“Uh uh—I’m not going up there,” I said, backing up by a step.
“C’mon,” he said, “you really don’t have to be afraid. It’s me, AC—Emily’s dad.”
That’s true, I thought. I’m probably just being silly. I didn’t want Ariel to tell Emily I’d acted like I was afraid of him. Besides that, I could already see Joey’s face if he came home to the surprise of having his own puppy. “I could try to bring the puppies downstairs,” he said, “but I don’t want them running around loose down here.”
I studied his face. He seemed so sincere. So, a beat later, I caved. I overrode my reluctance, put my right foot on the bottom stair, and began walking up. He followed from behind, his heavy boot stomps sounding like an elephant’s would.
About halfway up to the top of the staircase, I still didn’t hear any barking. “How come I don’t hear the puppies?” I asked.
“They’re probably asleep,” he said. “They’re so little, they spend half the day snoozing. Wait ’til you see them—they’re so cute when they’re all snuggled up together.”
They sounded adorable; I couldn’t wait to hold one. At the top of the stairs, there was a room. “They’re right through here, in a box,” he said. We stepped through the bedroom with white walls and continued into a connected room that was pink.
“The puppies are underneath the dresser,” he said. I looked down to where he was pointing and then suddenly—Slam!—he closed the door.
“Let me out of here!” I screamed. “Oh, please—let me out! I’ve gotta get to my appointment!”
He slapped his big hand over my mouth and nose and pressed his other hand against the back of my skull. “I’ll kill you if you scream again!” he yelled.
The man I’d first met at Family Dollar—that gentle guy who’d talked on the phone with Emily and who’d seemed so nice to me—had suddenly turned into a madman. He yanked my hands behind me and pushed me to the ground.
In that moment, a whole string of memories from the last two decades filled my head. The back of our ugly brown station wagon. My family’s canary-yellow house. My blue trash can under the bridge. Arsenio’s warm smile. Sniper and Roderick playing pool with me in the basement. Joey’s giggling and my fake tree during our final Christmas together. I closed my eyes and tried to prepare myself for what might happen next. To this day, I still cannot believe what did.
Excerpted from the memoir entitled Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed. Published by Weinstein Books. Hardcover edition released on May 6, 2014.