Missed opportunities, or a job well done in Cleveland kidnapping?
By Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY
Some argue that the missing girls in Cleveland’s horrifying kidnapping were not aggressively sought, but police strongly deny the claim as unfair
CLEVELAND—Judy Martin recites the names of missing people in Cleveland like a well memorized poem. She knows names, dates, last known whereabouts, and details about dozens of cases dating back to 1997.
Martin, who founded Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, also says she knows how race and economic status play a role in how police treat cases, including those of three women held captive for years here in an impoverished Cleveland neighborhood.
She, along with experts, believe cases involving people of color, low-income residents, and working class victims don’t get the same law enforcement resources as others. Officials from the Cleveland Police Department, however, say they did all they could find Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight and regularly look into missing persons cases without any biases.
“When it’s somebody of color or someone from in a poorer area, we don’t see to get the response that other areas of the country get,” said Martin whose nonprofit regularly works with families of victims. “It needs to stop. When a person goes missing, it shouldn’t matter whether they’re white, black, hispanic, Asian, purple, green or blue.”
Knight, Berry, and DeJesus were abducted in separate incidents almost a decade ago by Ariel Castro, police said. Castro, who now faces kidnapping and rape charges, kept the three women hostage until Monday when Berry escaped and alerted police.
In the years after Berry and DeJesus went missing, Martin, whose son was murdered in 1994, became an advocate for the women’s families holding rallies and vigils every week and later every year. At each event, she and the families tried to keep the public aware of the cases while Martin says police brushed off the cases as teenagers who just took off.
It’s a claim the police fiercely deny.
Police say they and FBI investigators devoted extraordinary resources, at times fueled by personal anguish, to pursue every lead in the case.
“The Cleveland Police Department doesn’t care someone’s economic or social status,” Police Commander Keith Sulzer said Friday afternoon. “We don’t care what status you’re from, everybody gets the same treatment.”
He’s insulted that somebody would suggest their services would vary based on race or money—especially in the cases of Berry, DeJesus, and Knight.
For a decade, officers searched hundreds of streets, investigated vacant homes, and followed any information they thought might lead to the women, Sulzer said.
Thursday night at a community nearby the Seymour Avenue home of Ariel Castro, where the women were found, Sulzer told residents that more than 2,900 people were missing in the city of Cleveland and that families of those missing need actively work with officers to keep the cases going.
“If you have a missing person, you need to be on us at all times,” he said, adding that if families feel like officers aren’t doing enough they should contact the department.
Still, Martin maintains that police often assume cases involving people of color and lower income victims involve a person walking away without criminal involvement. She wants protocols that would make it mandatory that officers file a report each time someone says their family member or friend is missing regardless of the person’s past, economic status, or race.
A similar question arose in 2009 when the bodies of 11 murdered women were found in the Cleveland home of a serial killer. Anthony Sowell specialized in luring poor, drug addicts into his Imperial Avenue home, raping and strangling them.
During Sowell’s trial, relatives of some of his early victims said police didn’t take missing-person reports seriously, and one victim who survived an attack said police didn’t believe her when she reported the assault. Sowell was released from jail without charges after the woman’s report and went on to kill several others.
Journalist and urban planning specialist Angie Schmitt, co-founder of Rust Wire, blogged last month that although the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran “sympathetic” and extensive profiles of the Sowell victims, the paper “never raises the bigger issue. What made these women such easy targets was being black, being women and being from the highly-segregated and desperately poor east side of Cleveland.
“This is a story about racism and inequality and sexism and poverty as much, if not more, than it is about drugs and individual lives going astray,” Schmitt wrote. “Nobody was going to tear up the city looking for a few black women from the east side with sketchy pasts.”