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Women's rescue a triumph and relief for searchers who 'never gave up'

John Makely / NBC News

Gina DeJesus' home is covered with balloons from well-wishers as close friends and family gather at the house in Cleveland.

When Amanda Berry and Georgina DeJesus disappeared in 2003 and 2004, a community rose up to help them.

Activists and neighbors in Cleveland’s West Boulevard area helped to organize searches near where the girls lived and were last seen – then kept the cases in the spotlight as months stretched into years.

On Tuesday, those involved in the efforts expressed joy that Berry and DeJesus, along with another woman, Michelle Knight, and Berry’s 6-year-old daughter, had been found alive at a house just a few miles east of their old neighborhood. Berry had been missing since April 2003, DeJesus, known as Gina to family and friends, since April 2004.

“Absolutely, totally relieved, overwhelmed, happy. Just amazed. All the wonderful adjectives you can think of,” said Judy Martin, one of the community activists who got involved after the girls disappeared.

Martin founded Survivors Victims of Tragedy, a support group for families of victims of violent death, after her son was killed in 1994.

“We reached out to the families to try to help them with rallies ... the media,” said Martin, who lives in Euclid, Ohio. “They welcomed us with open arms.”

The outpouring of support was not a given in an area that the hometown newspaper described in a 2004 article on the disappearances as diverse, but also struggling with drug and prostitution problems.

Handout / Reuters

Amanda Marie Berry, left, and Georgina Lynn Dejesus.

A week after DeJesus disappeared, 200 people turned out to distribute fliers door to door, covering a 50-block area around her home and a half-mile radius around her school in an effort coordinated by City Council members, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported at the time.

Her father, Felix, went out at night to search for her and once was accused of breaking down the apartment door of a sex offender who lived in the area near Lorain Avenue where his daughter was last seen. He denied the allegations and no charges were filed.

Martin said rallies for the DeJesus family were held every Friday for several years after Gina disappeared.  

She said the public shows of support for the families maintained pressure on police to solve the disappearances.

“If it hadn't been for the families in these two cases, nothing would have been done,” she contended. “Police were going to write them off as two teenagers out having fun. And Michelle Knight, they said, she's an adult who decided what she wanted to do. It's not true, is it?"

Art McKoy, a longtime Cleveland activist who participated in the searches, echoed her comments.

“We never gave up,” he said. “In this city, without the volunteer searches there probably wouldn’t be any searches.”

The area surrounding the West 71st Street home where DeJesus lived is on Cleveland’s West Side but south of Interstate 90 – far from the well-known and historic market that is a magnet for tourists. The area, with a mix of single-family homes and businesses, is home to an eclectic mix of residents, with Hispanics, African Americans and Asians who more recently joined the descendants of Eastern European immigrants who originally built homes there.

Lorain Avenue near West 105th Street, where the girls were last seen, is a commercial center on that side of the freeway.

The area has crime problems, though some residents told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2004 that they felt safe and were proud of the community’s diversity.

Khalid Samad, who worked for the gang unit in the Cleveland Public Safety Department at the time that Berry and DeJesus disappeared and helped organize volunteer searchers, remembers the feeling in the community after DeJesus disappeared as “intense.”

Tony Dejak / AP

A daring escape and a dramatic 911 call led to the rescue of three women who allegedly had been held captive for years inside a home in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Everybody was up in arms and trying to stay alert,” said Samad, now a community organizer who is president of the International Council for Urban Peace, Justice and Empowerment.

Time passed and no apparent progress was made on the investigation. In September 2006, authorities searched a man’s home, dug up his garage floor and jailed him and a roommate before concluding they had no connection to the DeJesus case. Last July, a tip from a prison inmate led authorities investigating the same case to dig up a vacant lot. They found nothing.

McKoy said that the years of uncertainty took a toll on Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, and that she took a downward turn after a psychic said that her daughter was dead. Miller died in 2006.

“I watched Louwana sink from a vibrant woman to a dying woman, grieving over not being able to find Amanda,” he said, adding, “Right now she’s probably shouting in heaven.”

DeJesus’ mother, Nancy Ruiz, on the other hand, always maintained that her daughter was alive, even after all the false leads, he said.

“Her strength gave us strength to press forward, to consider these girls were still alive,” McKoy said.

Samad and Martin credited Berry with bringing the women’s ordeal to an end.

“If she hadn’t done this, we might never have found them,” Martin said.

The suspected kidnappers had previously been linked to two of the rescued women: in TV appearances and in an article about DeJesus' disappearance in 2004. NBC's Ron Allen reports.

Martin and McKoy said that points to a problem in society today – neighbors aren’t looking out for each other. McKoy noted similarities to the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted at age 11 in 1991 in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and found 18 years later after having been held in a house in Antioch.

The home where DeJesus, Berry and McKnight were found “had the same kind of setup as they had in California” with high fences around a back yard, McKoy said.

“Those neighbors, they’re shaking their heads right now, saying, ‘Damn if we’d just paid a little more attention,’” he said.

“It seems like when it happened in California, it didn’t wake people up in Cleveland. Now that it’s happened in Cleveland, maybe it’ll wake people up in New York or Chicago.”

NBC News’ Bill Dedman contributed to this report.

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