Amanda Berry (left), Gina DeJesus (center), Michelle Knight (File photos of the missing women)
, USA TODAY
CLEVELAND - The missing Cleveland girls didn't know Police Commander Ketih Sulzer, but Sulzer feels like he knows them. The girls disappeared on his watch, and for 10 years he has searched for them.
So when his emergency page sounded that Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus had been found in Ariel Castro's decrepit home, he raced to the scene, begging the officers not to let the ambulance leave until he could see the girls for himself.
"Amanda looked exactly the same, the same piercing in her eyebrow. Gina, too, her hair was a little shorter. They looked healthy, they were talking, smiling," Sulzer said. He couldn't see Knight because she was on a stretcher turned away from him.
It was the first time he had laid eyes on them. Sulzer has known the girls only through their pictures, their families and the case he pursued for a decade.
Now as investigators piece together the gruesome story of suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro's alleged torture chamber and private prison, neighbors wonder how such a man could have lived in their midst without out ever leaving a clue.
A neighborhood activist, Judy Martin, who founded Survivors/Victims of Tragedy after her son Christopher was murdered, said race and economic status played a role in how police treated the case.
"If these girls had been white, half the state would have been looking for them," she said.
Critics say police missed opportunities - a 2005 domestic assault and a child left on Castro's school bus, for instance - that would have unraveled Castro's secret life. John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," has said Cleveland Police should have issued an AMBER Alert for Gina.
"It's hurtful, the things in the media," Sulzer said, who last month attended a community vigil for DeJesus. The FBI investigator assigned to the case also attended. "There are guys who have followed this for 10 years, followed every lead."
Police say they and FBI investigators devoted extraordinary resources, at times fueled by personal anguish, to pursue every lead in the case. Family members also pushed to keep police and community involved.
"We were all over it," said police spokesman Sgt. Sammy Morris, who joined the force in 1988. "The community came out."
Sulzer was a lieutenant in the First District when the girls disappeared, leaving not a clue to their whereabouts. Sulzer and his officers were charged with the search. He and his officers mapped the entire city, searching hundreds of fields, vacant buildings, ravines and railroad tracks for two months. They didn't search occupied homes, but they knocked on doors and talked to hundreds of neighbors, they say.
As the years passed, Sulzer worried that somehow he missed the girls.
"It was a recurring nightmare, that someone else would find the girls in a place I had already searched and they'd say why didn't you find them," Sulzer said.
Cleveland Police and FBI investigators acted on every tip, even those that fell just short of implausible, Sulzer said.
Last year, a prisoner accused of murder confessed to killing Berry and burying her on a Wade Avenue lot. Police knew he was hoping for a deal, but for three days they uprooted trees and dug up the 110 by 40-foot lot anyway. It was just a shred of hope.
A few years earlier, police tore up the floor of a garage after getting a tip that Gina's remains might be buried there, Morris said.
Cleveland Police said they never had enough information to meet the criteria for sending an Amber Alert for DeJesus. The alerts require "sufficient descriptive information about the child, the abductor, and the circumstances surrounding the abduction" to indicate an alert will help locate the child.
Even now, as investigators scour Castro's past, they have so far found just one link between him and the girls: One of Castro's daughters was in the same class as DeJesus.
Police are focused now on building a case against Castro and processing more than 200 pieces of evidence, Morris said. The investigation, he said, is far from over. Eventually, he said, police will review the entire case.
"As with all investigations, you look back over them to see what you can learn, what you can do better," Morris said.