The aunt of Gina DeJesus, one of the missing women found alive after nearly a decade, tells reporters in Ohio their family "always knew" she was alive.
The nightmare could have been over nine years ago.
In 2004, Cleveland police showed up at Ariel Castro's home on Seymour Avenue after Castro, a school bus driver, left behind one of his young passengers.
When no one answered, the cops left — never realizing that behind the door were two women who had vanished off the streets and would remain captive until they were rescued this week, along with a third woman missing for almost a decade.
Cleveland Dept. of Public Safety
Mug shots of the three brothers accused of holding three women captive for a decade or longer. From left to right, Ariel Castro, Onil Castro, Pedro Castro
As the city celebrated the rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, authorities said they were trying to figure out how Castro and two brothers had kept them out of sight for so long.
"We're happy that they have returned to us," Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said at a Tuesday news conference after the women were released from the hospital and before the Castro brothers were charged.
"We have several unanswered questions. Why were they taken, how they were taken and how they remained undetected in the city of Cleveland for all this time.”
A neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he called police in 2011 after his sister spotted a woman with a baby in the home, banging on the window "like she wants to get out."
"The cops came. They pounded on that man’s door around 15, 20 times, real hard. They looked in the driveway, they got back in the squad car and left," he said on MSNBC.
Police did not mention a 2011 call during their accounting of police visits to the home.
The three women vanished between August 2002 and April 2004 in separate incidents; they were between 14 and 20 years old.
Police, who had not fully debriefed the victims, provided little detail about their years in the house, including whether they were physically or sexually abused or how their kidnappers kept them from bolting.
Berry, who disappeared after leaving her job at a fast food restaurant in 2003, gave birth during her captivity and now has a 6-year-old child, police said. It wasn't clear who is the father.
It was Berry, now 27, who brought the ordeal to an end, with a frantic 911 call on Monday evening.
Family handout via AP
Amanda Berry, right, hugs her sister Beth Serrano after being reunited in a Cleveland hospital Monday May 6, 2013.
“Help me, I’m Amanda Berry,” she told the dispatcher. “I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m out here. I’m free now.”
Authorities seemed in awe of the young mother and bewildered that it took her kicking through a door to solve a case that years of running down tips, even digging up backyards, had failed to crack.
"The real hero here is Amanda," said Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba.
Neighbor Charles "Chuck" Ramsey, who lives across the street from the Castro home, never noticed anything amiss until Monday when he spotted Berry trying to get out.
“This girl is kicking the door and screaming,” he said. “She says, ‘I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been in this house a long time and I want to leave right now.’”
When police arrived, they were stunned to find not just Berry, but DeJesus, who had been missing since 2004, and Knight, whose 2002 disappearance did not generate the same concern or attention as that of the two younger girls.
“The nightmare is over,” said Cleveland FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony. “These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.”
John Makely / NBC News
An FBI investigator exits the house on Seymour Avenue on Tuesday.
The investigation is expected to last weeks. Authorities said they had not yet questioned Ariel Castro, 52, or his brothers Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50.
"We're going to charge those suspects," Tomba said.
Officials were reviewing their records to see what contact police had with the Castros and the Seymour Avenue home.
In 2000, they responded to a call from Ariel Castro about a fight on the street. In January 2004 — well after Berry and Knight were last seen and three months before DeJesus would vanish — Castro was accused of leaving a student unattended on his school bus and child-welfare authorities asked police to investigate, officials said.
Officers went to his home to question him but couldn't find him there. They later determined the bus incident was not criminal and the matter was dropped, although after three suspensions for "lack of judgement," his bosses recommended his termination last year.
After the 2004 visit by cops, nearly a decade would pass before the Seymour Avenue home would be the center of attention again. The women who came out of the narrow, two-story, white-sided house Monday were taken to the hospital and reunited with loved ones who said they had never given up hope.
John Makely / NBC News
Noel Ruiz Sr, the great uncle of Gina DeJesus, sips a Corona just down the block from the home where she had been held captive.
"I knew that she would come one day. I just don’t understand why it took so long. I’m just happy that she’s here," Tasheena Mitchell, a cousin of Berry's, told WKYC.
"We always knew," said Sandra Ruiz, an aunt of DeJesus.
She said her niece "recognized everyone" in the family and explained that it was "sisterhood" that had allowed her, Berry and Knight to survive.
"They're stronger than you, you, you and me," Ruiz told reporters.
DeJesus' great uncle, Noel Ruiz Sr., said he is still adjusting to the news that she is alive.
"It seems like we can breathe a little better. … today is like a holiday for us," he said. "She's alive, but too bad it has to be this way."
NBC Latino's Maria Alcon and NBC News' John Makely contributed to this report
Mark Duncan / AP
Members of the FBI evidence team remove items from a house in Cleveland Monday, May 6, 2013. Three women who went missing separately about a decade ago, when they were in their teens or early 20s, were found alive in the house, and a man was arrested. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
This story was originally published on Tue May 7, 2013 11:41 AM EDT