Standing outside the boarded-up, two-story house where Ariel Castro held her and two other women for a decade, Cleveland kidnapping survivor Michelle Knight released dozens of yellow balloons on Wednesday — as heavy construction equipment began to tear to the ground the house that was her prison.
Knight, wearing a rosary around her neck, said a prayer and hugged representatives from the county prosecutor's office as she was accompanied down the street by a small group of Guardian Angels.
"Nobody was there for me when I was missing, and I want the people to know, including the mothers, that they can have strength, they can have hope, and their child will come back," Knight said.
The balloons represented children who were abducted and never found, Knight said, and she said her visit had a simple message: "There is hope for everyone."
Neighbors cheered and clapped as a backhoe began ripping into the roof of the house just before 7:30 a.m., with members of DeJesus' family out front, WKYC reported. In the cab of the backhoe as it took the first chunks out of the facade was the aunt of another victim, Gina DeJesus.
"It felt great," said the aunt, Peggy Arida.
Castro, 53, abducted Michelle Knight, DeJesus and Amanda Berry and kept them against their will at the white-washed home at 2207 Seymour Ave. until Berry kicked her way through the front door in May and escaped with the young girl she bore in captivity. On Aug. 1, Castro was sentenced to life behind bars without parole plus an additional millennium after pleading guilty to a 937-count indictment that included counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder.
"He's going to sit in the bowels of prison now the rest of his life, the rest of his days, in fear himself of the other prisoners. It's fitting," Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said at a press conference on Wednesday.
The demolition came right on time for a community eager for brighter days -- including Castro's uncle Julio, 77, who told NBC News after the house was torn down that it opened "another chapter" for his family.
Knocking down the house was "definitely the right thing," the uncle said. "It's just sad because it's another one of our neighborhood homes."
"It has been a shock to the neighborhood," said local Pastor Horst Hoyer. The bells of his Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, which stands less than half a block from the house, rang as it came down on Wednesday. "I've been here 57 years, but we never got so much publicity. It was a quiet block."
The house's final demolition followed a trying period for residents of Seymour Avenue, who endured having their street closed by police and flooded by reporters, with some neighbors uncertain of whether they would be called to testify in a criminal trial, said Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins.
"We know that it's going to be several years for this level of trauma to subside to any degree," Cummins said. "We know that there's not going to be any interest in investing in the street immediately."
Andrew Welsh-Huggins / AP
Two women walk past the house in Cleveland on July 26 where Ariel Castro kept three women captive for a decade.
There is no definite plan for how the Castro property will be used after the last brick and plank are carried away in trucks on Wednesday, a process that Cummins said should take less than a day.
"We're expecting to have a very thoughtful process in terms of what the future of this vacant lot may be," Cummins said.
The house has had a fence around it and a police officer stationed outside since the women escaped.
Knight, 32, who gave a defiant statement at Castro's sentencing hearing, also revisited Seymour Avenue on Friday to thank residents for their support, neighbor Altagracia Tejada told NBC News. Knight told her that she hopes a garden is planted over the house's footprint once it's torn down, Tejada said.
"She didn't say a lot; she thanked us," Tejada said.
Castro himself is likely the only person in Cleveland -- or Ohio, or the U.S. -- who doesn't see his home as a hideous black blot on the city.
In the rambling monologue Castro delivered at his sentencing hearing, he gave his description of the building where prosecutors said he repeatedly raped and tortured the women, restraining them with chains and nailing closet doors over the windows: "We had a lot of harmony going on in that home."
"I am not a violent person," Castro said in court. "I simply kept them there without them being able to leave."
Knight had another word for his house of horrors: "I spent 11 years in hell."
Pictures displayed by investigators in court on Thursday showed the heavy curtains Castro hung throughout the dimly lit house, as well as chains dangling from the walls and a bedroom, full of stuffed animals and other children's toys, that was shared by Berry and her child.
Two local companies offered to raze the house pro bono, NBC News affiliate WKYC reported. Castro agreed as part of his plea deal to hand over more than $22,000 to Cuyahoga Land Bank to cover demolition costs. Officials offered the money to the three women, McGinty said, but they said they wanted it to go to the neighborhood.
"We didn't want some kind of gruesome or macabre shrine, if you will, that would get gawkers and curiosity seekers," Joseph Frolik, director of communications with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's office, told WKYC. Officials plan to give the community some time to think about what they might want to do with the lot.
"What we want is folks to have a cooling off period, a chance to catch their breath after all the emotion of the last 90 days," Frolik said.
Castro and his family had deep roots in the neighborhood, residents told reporters in May, as Cleveland celebrated the seemingly impossible reemergence of the three girls who had been the subject of ongoing searches throughout the years.
Uncle Julio Castro said he has owned the Caribe grocery store about half a block down from his nephew's house for the past four decades. A great uncle of DeJesus told NBC News at the time that the two families used to have parties at the store.
Castro was a musician who had played with several local bands, according to a sentencing memo filed by prosecutors in July.
But they all said they had no idea what went on inside his home. Now it's time to patch up the neighborhood, Hoyer said, even as some residents question how they missed what was going on for so long.
"There's anger, there's guilt feelings," Hoyer said. "I want to build up the image of the neighborhood, which has been unjustly judged as a bad neighborhood."
Two of Castro's children, Angie and Anthony, who spent several years at the house as children in the 1990s, returned there with Cleveland police on Monday to save personal items before the demolition.
"There were a lot of personal photos in the house, and they were able to find those things – some of the mementoes they had of their mother, as well," said Castro's attorney Craig Weintraub on Monday. "They were amidst a lot of junk that's in that house."
First published August 7 2013, 6:13 PM