Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News
YONKERS, N.Y. - Bianca Cruz remembers the moment with a chill - Ariel Castro, charged with kidnapping and imprisoning three young women in Cleveland for a decade, was sitting next to her, stroking her hair.
"Now, looking back and knowing what I know now, I honestly feel he could've been plotting on me, or thinking about that same situation with me, or thinking of doing it to me," said the 19-year-old Yonkers, N.Y., resident.
"I was 9 years old. I wasn't that far away from Georgina (DeJesus, one of the kidnap victims)," she told The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News on Wednesday during an interview at her family's home. "Georgina's about four years older than me."
Castro, 52, and his two brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50, are now accused of kidnapping three young women between 2002 and 2004 - DeJesus, now 23; Amanda Berry, 27; and Michelle Knight, 32 - and keeping them tied inside Ariel Castro's Cleveland home. Berry had a 6-year-old daughter when rescued Monday.
Cruz said she vaguely recalls conversations with Ariel Castro who she said seemed "really nice. He didn't seem like the kind to do this kind of stuff."
She knew Ariel Castro through her mother, former Cleveland TV news anchor Daisy Cortes of Yonkers, who befriended the former school bus driver through her then-fiance, Roberto Ocasio. Ocasio was the leader of Roberto Ocasio's Latin Jazz Project, a band in which Castro played bass.
"In 2002 when I was working in the TV station, we were covering the story about the first missing girl, Michelle Knight. Then in 2003 Amanda Berry," said Cortes, 45, who was a Spanish-language anchor for the Cleveland Television Network at the time.
"The scary thing is that I was doing the news daily, helping out to try to find that girl. I was sharing the story with him," she said.
"I was sitting down during the break for the musicians, especially with Ariel," Cortes said. "He's a very shy person. He doesn't say many words. Always smiling with his eyes. I was sharing the story, 'Oh my God. Those girls.'And he was saying, 'wow, wow.' And playing with my daughter's hair. No emotion at all. Nothing."
It's a haunting memory for both Cortes and her daughter.
All three Cleveland girls were abducted within a few blocks of each other, and were later feared dead. It wasn't until Monday, when a neighbor heard Berry's screams and broke down the door, that the horrific nightmare ended.
"It's scary," Cortes said. "Those three girls, they live in the same area in Cleveland, in the same neighborhood where I was living for years. I was living 10 blocks away. So my daughter was attending the school close to Amanda and the other girl. So it's scary, horrible having someone like that in your house."
Cortes, who is from Yauco, Puerto Rico, the same town where the Castros hail from, said she lived in Cleveland from 1988 until 2005, when she and her daughter moved to Yonkers. Ocasio, her former fiance, died in a New Year's Eve car accident in 2004, and she has since married and had two more daughters.
Now working as a cooking show host on local cable television, she said the developments in her former hometown, and her link to the suspect in the gruesome case, has been nothing short of chilling.
"The more of the story comes out, the more scary it is," she said. "I still can't believe it. I can't believe it because I spent so much time with him discussing all that. To me, he seemed like a very respectful person. I'm just shocked."