Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Cleveland police have released departmental records to try to prove they didn't, despite disturbing statements to the media.
After the horror and the relief of Cleveland's triple-kidnapping case came a loaded question: Why didn't anyone notice that three women and a young girl were imprisoned for nearly ten years in Ariel Castro's modest, clapboard house at 2207 Seymour Avenue?
Charles Ramsey, the man who helped Amanda Berry force open the front door on Monday evening, struggled with that fact in an interview with a local reporter that has since been watched millions of times. "I barbecued with this dude," he has said of Castro. "We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music, you see where I'm coming from?"
Other neighbors were less surprised. "One neighbor says a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard of the house a few years ago," the Associated Press reported. "Another heard pounding on the home's doors and noticed plastic bags over the windows." Both claimed to have called the police, who they say arrived but did not enter the home.
But the Cleveland Police Department has insisted that those 911 calls never occurred, first on its blog on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday after completing a search of the Department's record management system. Police were able to turn up only two calls concerning 2207 Seymour Ave. The first, in January 2004, related to a child who had been left on the school bus Castro drove. There was no one home at the time; police later spoke to Castro elsewhere and no charges were filed. The second, in 2009, was from Castro himself, reporting a fight in the street.
Yet the game of he-said, she-said has continued. Local residents Elsie Cintron and Israel Lugo told the BBC on Wednesday they had called police about suspicious activity at the house. Cintron said the police did not take her claim seriously; Lugo says the police arrived but did not enter.
Computer-aided 911 dispatch is the norm in most major U.S. cities. For a certain period of time, at least, Cleveland saves recordings of 911 calls as well. Much of the attention since Monday, as far as 911 reports go, has been directed toward the call that Berry made on Monday from the house across the street -- "I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years, and I'm, I'm here... I'm free now" -- during which her dispatcher seemed gruff and curt, and did not stay on the line until the police arrived. The recording of that call was released to the media, and the department has since announced that it is investigating the call-taker's actions.
Is it possible that Castro's address might have been incorrectly entered in the system, thus hiding a previous police visit from a database search? Yes, though dispatchers are supposed to take great care to be precise with addresses. When Berry told the dispatcher on Monday she had escaped from 2207 Seymour, the dispatcher responded, "Looks like you're calling me from 2210," and stressed the point three times before a bewildered Berry explained that she was across the street.
It is also certainly possible that Castro's neighbors may be embellishing their responses. And it could very well be inadvertent: science has long shown us that our memories are far from reliable. At Slate, Emily Bazelon posits that neighbors might have true recollections of weird happenings, and are "misremembering because they wish to feel more proactive than they really were."
On the other hand, asking how nobody noticed that three women and a child were captive in the house next door seems to ascribe some fault to either Castro's neighbors or the Cleveland authorities. A neighbor, confronted by an inquisitive reporter, might not be trying to self-aggrandize so much as absolve himself of blame.
Top image: A police officer walks past the house where three women who vanished as teenagers about a decade ago were discovered alive, in Cleveland, Ohio May 7, 2013. (REUTERS/John Gress)