Monday, May 13, 2013 11:29 am
Future of house where Ohio victims held debated
By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINSAP Legal Affairs Writer
Patrols cars were still parked across the entrances to the block on Monday to keep away onlookers.
The run-down house has become a two-story piece of evidence in the abduction and imprisonment case of three women, but neighbors who remain shaken by the horrors alleged inside want it torn down and erased from the landscape of Seymour Avenue.
"The girls that was in that house, when they ride by there, if they ever ride by there again, they won't have to see that, to remind them or maybe scare them," said Johnny Wright, 54, who can see the back of the house from his front door. "What they went through, I don't think any human being should ever been through that."
The house and what becomes of it will be a daily talking point for the Seymour community, as city officials deal with the irony of keeping the dreaded site of the women's imprisonment safe while neighbors almost uniformly want it torn down.
The issue isn't simple.
First and foremost, the house is evidence against Castro, who investigators say kept the women in chains in a basement before eventually allowing them to live under close control upstairs. The 6-year-old daughter of one victim, Amanda Berry, was also freed; DNA tests showed Castro was her father, a dark twist on years of captivity during which Castro is also alleged to have induced multiple miscarriages in one of the women by repeatedly punching her belly.
The nondescript white house with a red-and-white tile roof sits on a street of other boarded-up houses, victims of the foreclosure crisis, which hit the city hard. The house has thousands of dollars in unpaid tax liens, which would have to be sorted out as the city attempts to control the property. County records show it was built in 1890 and updated in 1950. Forty-two years later, Castro bought it for $12,000.
Workers over the weekend began boarding up windows and doors and erecting a metal fence around the house.
The plywood and fence have a two-fold purpose, Councilman Brian Cummins said: preserving the scene as evidence and protecting it from the threats already circulating on the streets to burn it down in a stroke of vigilante justice.
"The issue is how do we respect the wishes of the survivors in this case, and it's too premature to know what their wishes would be," said Cummins, whose ward encompasses the property and who is in close contact with police and city officials about the situation.
There's precedent for tearing down scenes of terrible crimes.
In 2011, Cleveland tore down a house on the city's east side where 11 women were killed over several years by a serial killer now on death row.
But first it served as evidence against Anthony Sowell: In June 2011, jurors walked through the house wearing face masks to ward off the smell of decay as Sowell's trial got underway.
That house also had to be protected before trial from people furious at Sowell.
As with the Sowell house, both prosecutors and the defense will want Castro's home still standing until the trial ends, said Michael Benza, criminal law professor at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University.
"The prosecutors are going to want to preserve it so they can take jurors into it to view, and the defense would want it preserved so at least they could do their own investigation," Benza said.
It's unlikely the house would be needed once the trial ends; typically only evidence like weapons or fingerprints are preserved for appeals, he said.
Almost 30 years ago in Chicago, the vacant house where John Wayne Gacy killed at least 33 teenage boys and young men was demolished.
More recently, a panel in Connecticut voted Friday to tear down Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first-graders and six educators were gunned down in December, and to build a new school on the same site.
Demolition isn't always the answer. Columbine High School, site of a 1999 school shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher, replaced the library where most of the killings happened with a new library. Chardon High School in northeastern Ohio, where three teens were killed in February, repainted the cafeteria where the shooting occurred and put in new tables.
Evidence is crucial in such cases and can be an issue when considering demolition.
Last year in Connecticut, parents of three girls killed in a 2011 Christmas morning fire served notice they planned to sue the city of Stamford, accusing officials of intentionally destroying evidence when they demolished the shoreline home a day after the fire.
Victims' wishes aren't always responded to when it comes to such crime scenes. Cinemark reopened a theater in Aurora, Colo., earlier this year that was the site of 12 people killed in a July shooting.
Relatives of several of the victims rejected an invitation to attend its planned reopening, calling it a "disgusting offer" that came at a terrible time - right after the first Christmas without their loved ones.
Betsy Medina, a nurse's aide who lives behind Castro's house with her three children and her fiance, says tearing it down would spare the three women having to see it again.
Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses down from Castro, rejected any idea of keeping it up.
"It'd be a horrifying thing for anybody to go through there thinking something else might happen with the house still standing," she said. "It could be boarded up, locked up - don't mean somebody can't get in from the back and do something else."
Pastor Horst Hoyer, who leads the nearby Immanuel Lutheran Church, said he took comfort in knowing the women would have heard the bells of his church during their captivity.
He said the bells, which once rang to call parishioners to worship, are the only good memory he can have of what happened down the street in what he called "a house of shame."
"They served a real purpose," he said Saturday. "I'm sure they must have given those good ladies hope and what day of week it is and what holiday it is, and were the one thing Mr. Castro couldn't stop going into that house - those sounds."
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus