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'Best of friends': Neighbors describe close bond between victim, Castro's daughter

NBC News

Classmates and best friends, from left, Kayla Rogers, Gina DeJesus and Arlene Castro, who were classmates at Wilbur Wright Middle School in 2004.

The three girls were "like Three Musketeers" in sixth grade. Now, the father of one of them, Ariel Castro, has been charged with kidnapping one of the other "musketeers" and holding her captive for a decade with two other women, and raping all three, in a westside Cleveland home. The women were rescued on Monday.

Friends Kayla Rogers, Arlene Castro and Georgina "Gina" DeJesus attended Wilbur Wright Middle School in Cleveland together. In their sixth-grade yearbook they are pictured pages apart, with the smiles of young teenagers.

John Makely / NBC News

Leonard Allmon looks on Wednesday, May 8, 2013, as his daughter Kayla Rogers flips through the pages of her Wilbur Wright Middle School yearbook to show photos of her best friends Arlene Castro and Gina DeJesus. "It could have been my daughter. It could have been my daughter because they all used to walk home together," said Allmon.

"They were the best of the best of the best of friends," said Lupe Collins, whose daughter Jackie, 22, was also friends with the girls. She called Arlene "Ariana."

"Kayla and Ariana and Georgina, they were tight, they were like three musketeers," Collins said. "They wouldn't leave each other's sight."

Kayla met Gina in elementary school, and they both met Arlene in middle school. The girls realized they all hung out in the same neighborhood around the DeJesus home on West 71st Street. That home was ringed by squad cars and police tape on Wednesday afternoon as family members and close friends gathered. Dozens of balloons decorated the house's front porch, and a banner on the side of the house proclaimed: "Welcome Home Gina!" as the kidnap victim returned to the world she'd left behind nearly 10 years ago.

Arlene Castro and Gina DeJesus were "pretty close," said Lupe's daughter, the girls' friend Jackie Collins, 22. They spent most of their time together doing "normal middle-school things," she said.

Yet much about why DeJesus, who along with two other women -- Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight -- might have been targeted to be kidnapped and held in a house on Seymour Avenue remained unclear two days after their escape.

John Makely / NBC News

Gina DeJesus in a yearbook photo on which her friend Kayla Rogers wrote "I love you" after Gina went missing.

Arlene Castro was interviewed for an "America's Most Wanted" video in 2005 in which she said she called her mom to say she had been invited to the DeJesus house on the afternoon the girl disappeared. Castro's mother -- separated from Ariel Castro and living with Arlene elsewhere -- said she could not go. The video also mentions the disappearance of Amanda Berry, who vanished only blocks away.

"And so I told her I couldn't, and she said, 'Well, OK, I'll talk to you later,'" Castro says in the video. DeJesus wasn't heard from again for 10 years.

Going to DeJesus' house after school would not have been unusual, their friend and  fellow "musketeer" Kayla Rogers, 22, told NBC News. She had spent plenty of time hanging out in the neighborhood with the two other girls. Rogers' father, Leonard Allmon, remembers the girls as happy-go-lucky teens -- and said that the tragedy struck so close to his daughter still chills him.

"Gina loved to dance. She was over here dancing and listening to music, just having a good time," Allmon, 45, said. "It could have been my daughter. It could have been my daughter because they all used to walk home together."

"We used to hang out on Gina's porch," Rogers said. "We had a couple sleepovers."

The girls did what most kids in the neighborhood did, Rogers said. They hung out around each others' houses and at school. They listened to Spanish music and rap and practiced their dance moves.

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.

The three would "listen to music, talk on the phone, talk about boys," Rogers said. "We were gossips. Gossip girls."

"I remember going to Wilbur Wright and the girls running up the hallways like girls do," said Collins, mother of Gina's friend Jackie. "You know how they hang out, push boys and run."

The DeJesus and Castro families have known each other for years, according to Gina DeJesus' great uncle Noel Ruiz Sr. On Tuesday, he sipped a Corona in a corner store owned by Julio Castro, Ariel Castro's uncle, only about half a block from where the three girls, including DeJesus, were held.

"We used to throw parties here," Ruiz said of Castro's store, where he said he's been coming for decades.

Members of the Castro and DeJesus families also mixed at a 14th birthday party for Gina DeJesus shortly before she disappeared in 2004, Kayla Rogers said. Members of DeJesus' large extended family were there, she said, as well as Arlene Castro.

Rogers said she never saw much of her friend Arlene's father except at his job as a school bus driver.

"He was my bus driver, also," Rogers said. "He'd wink at me and … ugh."

Rogers said she used to call Arlene "Rosie," for her rosy cheeks. They fell out of touch after DeJesus disappeared, she said, and she has not heard from Arlene in nearly 10 years.

She also said she has not seen DeJesus since she was rescued by police Monday night. The image in her mind of the girl is 10 years out of date at this point. "She would always wear her hair curly. She would swoop it over and wear it in a ponytail," Rogers said.

Looking at DeJesus' photo in the yearbook, the young teen beaming and wearing her eyeglasses, Rogers wished away the years.

"I hope she looks exactly the same," Rogers said. "I hope she does."

John Makely / NBC News

Leonard Allmon hugs his daughter Kayla Rogers after looking at photos of her best friends Arlene Castro and Gina DeJesus in her 2003 Wilbur Wright Middle School yearbook.

 

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