CLEVELAND – The mannequin was life-sized, with a mop-like wig and creepy, slanted eyes. Ariel Castro kept it propped against a wall of his house and liked to use it to scare people. Sometimes he drove around town with it in the back seat of his car.
“He threatened me lots of times with it,” said Castro’s nephew, 26-year-old Angel Caraballo, who was terrified of his uncle as a little boy and unnerved by him as an adult. “He would say: ‘Act up again, you’ll be in that back room with the mannequin.”’
Castro installed padlocks on every door leading into his dilapidated home on Seymour Avenue. He kept the basement bolted shut, too. When relatives showed up at his front door, he made them wait for half an hour before emerging, and nobody was ever allowed past the living room.
“He had told me to stay in the kitchen,” said Elida Marie Caraballo, Castro’s niece, who was at his house about seven years ago with Castro’s daughter, Rosie. “I didn’t know why.”
In the days since Castro’s arrest on charges of keeping three women imprisoned in his home for a decade, relatives and acquaintances have sketched a portrait of him as a man with a twisted sense of humor, a compulsion for secrecy and a towering, terrifying rage that led him to savagely beat, torment and control his common-law wife, Grimilda Figueroa.
He was a “monster,” they said.
The image stands starkly at odds with the picture drawn by some neighbors, fellow musicians and others. They described the former school bus driver as an affable guy who played bass in a merengue band and rode motorcycles around town.
“You can talk to him and you think he’s a nice guy,” said Frank Caraballo, Castro’s brother-in-law. “I think it was a female thing. He was really controlling with females. You know, he didn’t want no one to touch his daughters. He wanted to know everything his wife did.”
Castro, 52, is being held in jail on $8 million bail under a suicide watch, charged with rape and kidnapping. Prosecutors said they plan to bring additional counts, possibly including murder charges punishable by death for allegedly forcing at least one of his pregnant captives to miscarry over and over again by starving her and punching her in the belly.
A DNA test confirmed Friday he fathered the now 6-year-old girl born to one of the women while in captivity.
Castro was represented in court Thursday by public defender Kathleen Demetz, who said she is acting as Castro’s adviser if needed until he is appointed a full-time attorney. She said Friday she can’t speak to his guilt or innocence and that she advised him not to give any news interviews that might jeopardize his case.
Figueroa left Castro years ago and died last year after a long illness. During their early years together, Castro worked in a plastics factory and treated his wife well, relatives said. But after their first child was born, they said, something snapped in him.
He beat Figueroa relentlessly, her relatives said. They said he pushed her down the stairs, fractured her ribs, broke her nose several times, cracked a tooth and dislocated both shoulders. Once, he shoved Figueroa into a cardboard box and closed the flaps over her head, they said.
Figueroa filed domestic-violence complaints accusing Castro of threatening many times to kill her and her daughters. She charged that he frequently abducted the children and kept them from her, even though she had full custody, with no visitation rights for Castro.
He kept his wife and children imprisoned, cut off from friends and family, according to relatives. Figueroa couldn’t even unlock her own front door, they said.
“When I go over there to visit her, and I ask her, ‘Nilda, I’m here, open the door,’ she’s like, ‘I can’t. Ariel has the key,”’ Elida Caraballo recalled.
Castro forbade Figueroa to use the telephone, relatives said. After warning her not to leave, he would test her to see if she obeyed.
“He would go creeping downstairs, not telling her that he’s home, spying on her,” Caraballo said. “See who she’s calling. Next thing you know, he’ll pop upstairs.”
One day, Figueroa was returning home with her arms full of groceries when Castro jumped into the doorway with the mannequin, frightening her so badly that she fell backward and smashed her head on the pavement, Caraballo said.
The mind games are echoed in the police report this week on the escape of the three women held at his home. According to the report, their big break came when Amanda Berry, 27, discovered the main door was unlocked, leaving only a bolted screen door between her and freedom.
But she feared it was a test: Castro occasionally left a door unlocked to test them, Berry said. But she called to neighbors on a porch for help and was able to squeeze through.
Castro was strange in other ways, relatives said. He would take his nephew and nieces to fast-food restaurants and let them split a fountain soda, forcing them to pass the drink around. He would let each one sip just enough until the line of soda reached an exact marking on the paper cup.
Then he would tear a hamburger into four pieces and watch them eat it, said Angel Caraballo.
“I was always quiet and nervous around him,” he said. “Always.”
The nice-guy image Castro presented to the rest of the world enabled him to remain close with the family of Gina DeJesus, another one of the women he is accused of imprisoning. Castro comforted the girl’s mother at vigils, passed out missing-person fliers and played music at a fundraiser dedicated to finding DeJesus.
He was a school bus driver for more than two decades, saying on his job application in 1990 that he liked working with children. He was fired last year after leaving his bus unattended for four hours.
“Let me tell you something: That guy was the nicest guy – one of the nicest guys I ever met,” said Ricky Sanchez, a musician who played often with Castro.
But on a recent visit to Castro’s run-down home, Sanchez said, he heard noises “like banging on a wall” and noticed four or five locks on the outside door. Then a little girl came out from the kitchen and stared at him, silently.
When Sanchez inquired about the banging, Castro blamed it on his dogs.
“When I was about to leave, I tried to open the door,” Sanchez said. “I couldn’t even, because there were so many locks in there.”