Kidnap victim free but shuns family

A house where three women escaped in Cleveland. Photo / AP
A house where three women escaped in Cleveland. Photo / AP

With US kidnap victim Michelle Knight now free, a horrifying story is emerging of chronic abuse and trauma well before her 11 years of captivity in the Cleveland "house of horrors" began.

The 32-year-old, one of three women dramatically rescued from a home in the major Ohio city on Monday, is the only one not to have reunited with her family.

A lawyer for the kidnapping victims read a statement from the three women on Sunday, saying they were they were happy to be home and needed time to heal.

But where fellow captives Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry spoke of rejoicing with their relatives, Knight's statement said she would "reach out to family, friends and supporters in good time".

Her smiling face - seen in three blurry photos, the only ones released to the public - shows a young woman with round cheeks and curly brown hair. At less than 1.5 metres tall, she was nicknamed "Shorty".

Unlike Berry, 27, and DeJesus, 23, police stopped searching for her years ago.

Knight was the first of the three to be taken. On August 23, 2002, then 20 years old, she accepted a ride in the car of suspect Ariel Castro and wasn't seen again for more than a decade.

Her family called police. But just 15 months later, according to local media, the FBI removed her from their list of missing people, apparently concluding Knight had a mental condition and had likely run away.

Yet on the very same day she was taken, the young woman was expected in court, where she was battling fiercely to regain custody of her young son, Joey.

As a high school student, Knight had been raped by several classmates, became pregnant and left school, a family member told the New York Daily News.

Meanwhile, at home, her mother's boyfriend became violent. According to local television station WOIO, the man was jailed for breaking Knight's son's arm.

He was also accused of raping Knight, though he was never charged after she disappeared.

Knight's mother, Michelle, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that becoming involved with the abusive man - whose violence toward Knight's son may have caused her to lose custody - was among her greatest regrets. It is not clear where the child now lives.

BRUTALISED BY HER KIDNAPPER

After accepting that ill-fated ride from Castro, Knight found herself held captive in the basement of his Seymour Avenue home, where she was alone for eight months before Berry's arrival and then, a year later, Gina's.

She appears to have suffered the most brutal treatment of the three - and she was the last to be released from the hospital, on Friday.

According to her grandmother Deborah Knight, "she was severely beaten" while in captivity.

"He had beat her so bad in the face, she has to have facial reconstruction, and she's lost hearing in one ear," the grandmother told WOIO.

During her hospitalisation, Knight told police she'd gotten pregnant at least five times.

But Castro starved her for at least two weeks during each pregnancy and punched her in the stomach until she miscarried, according to media reports.

When Berry was pregnant, Castro allegedly bought a plastic kiddie pool where he forced her to give birth, on Christmas Day 2006. Castro, now 52, is an unemployed school bus driver and musician.

He ordered Knight to help, and threatened her "if the baby died ... he'd kill her," according to a police report cited by US media.

The baby stopped breathing at one point and Knight frantically performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to save both their lives. She then cleaned everything up.

At the hospital, she refused to receive visitors, including her mother, who flew in from Florida, where she now lives.

Barbara Knight "went to the hospital and tried to deliver flowers to her daughter and was told that her daughter's not keeping visitors," the mother's lawyer Jay Milano told reporters.

It is not clear where Knight went when she left the hospital, though there are reports that DeJesus's family wanted to adopt her.

On Saturday, supporters marched in Cleveland to help Knight, circulating a petition to social services asking them to help her find her son when she is ready.

- AFP

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