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Domestic abuse cases never snared accused Cleveland abductor

Workers unload materials at Ariel Castro's home in Cleveland, Ohio, May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan
Workers unload materials at Ariel Castro's home in Cleveland, Ohio, May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan

By Mary Wisniewski

(Reuters) - The mother of Ariel Castro's children repeatedly went to authorities with accusations he was beating, abusing and threatening her. But her complaints never reached the point where Castro was imprisoned or triggered additional police investigations.

The late Grimilda Figueroa's accusations against Castro began in 1989 and the last came in 2005, three years after he allegedly kidnapped the first of three women and held them in a run-down house in Cleveland.

In the first case, he was not sentenced to prison and in the other two Figueroa chose to drop proceedings. Domestic abuse experts said victims in such cases often change their mind because they are afraid, or they lack knowledge of the legal system.

Castro now has been charged with three counts of raping Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight and four counts of kidnapping the three women and his daughter born to Berry while in captivity. An Ohio prosecutor said on Thursday he intends to charge Castro with murder in connection with the starvation and abuse of Knight during pregnancies that led to miscarriages.

Figueroa died in April 2012, at the age of 48, from an accidental overdose of painkiller oxycodone, according to an Indiana coroner.

Her last complaint against Castro, a 2005 request to the court for an "order of protection," could have been a missed opportunity to expose him, domestic abuse experts said. If he had violated the order he could have been investigated by police and possibly arrested. That could have been an opportunity to find the women he allegedly held captive, or it could have made things worse if they had been abandoned without him and unable to leave the house.

Figueroa also filed a police report in 2005 saying Castro had threatened to "beat your ass" in front of their daughter, according to the report.

A spokeswoman for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said that police told Figueroa that year to go to the county prosecutor's office and file a criminal complaint but she did not.

Instead, Figueroa sought a civil order of protection in county court. In Ohio, a victim can get a civil order without criminal charges because they believe this will be less upsetting to the offender, said Anne Murray, director of the domestic violence and stalking unit for the city of Columbus, which is 140 miles from Cleveland.

Figueroa eventually dropped even that request for a protection order and so the court case was dismissed.

"That breaks my heart," Murray said.

LONG STRUGGLE

Figueroa had four children with Castro - Anthony, Arlene, Angie and Emily - and her efforts to protect herself from him spanned at least 16 years.

The first incident was in 1989. Castro pleaded no contest and was given a year of probation after Figueroa made a domestic violence complaint against him, according to a Cuyahoga County court document.

On December 26, 1993, Castro was arrested after he arrived home drunk and began beating Figueroa, police said.

"I was afraid that he would come home in this condition so I had already called police," a police report at the time quoted Figueroa as telling them.

She told police that he had thrown her to the ground, hit her about the face and head and kicked her, according to a Cleveland police report.

Their 12-year-old son, Anthony, ran out of the house to get help for Figueroa and was pursued by Castro, the report said.

When a grand jury considered the incident, Figueroa said she could not remember the abuse, according to court documents. The case was dropped.

"She was afraid," said Chris Giannini, a former police officer and owner of International Investigations, a private investigations company, who tried to help protect Figueroa from Castro.

Domestic violence experts say abuse victims often raise charges and then back down from pursuing them out of fear or other difficulties with the legal system.

"If they don't have the support and the knowledge to go through with what they need to do, a lot of victims stop," said Linda D. Johanek, chief executive officer of Cleveland's Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center.

According to Cuyahoga County court documents, Figueroa had been granted full custody of her and Castro's children by 1997. By then, she was in a new relationship with a man named Fernando Colon, who was a guard at a hospital where she went for her injures from Castro's beatings, according to Colon.

NEW PARTNER

On August 29, 2005, Figueroa went to court again, seeking an order of protection against Castro. She also said he had threatened to kill her and her children during the previous year and had "abducted" the children.

A year before that complaint, two of the daughters, Emily and Arlene, accused her new partner, Colon, of sexual abuse, Giannini said. He investigated the case on behalf of Colon, and believes that Castro manipulated his daughters into accusing Colon. Figueroa and Colon denied the abuse.

Colon was convicted in September 2005 on five charges of child molestation based on the testimony of the daughters, and was sentenced to three years of community supervision, according to court documents.

Arlene Castro declined to be interviewed by Reuters. Emily Castro is in prison serving a 25-year sentence after being convicted of attempting to murder her baby daughter in 2007 by slashing her throat.

Also in September 2005, authorities tried to serve Castro with a summons to attend a hearing on Figueroa's complaint.

"They went to his house three times and no one answered," said Diane Palos, administrative judge for the domestic relations court in Cleveland. Castro came to the court to get the summons, she said.

The hearing on Figueroa's petition was held in November 2005. Court records show Castro and Figueroa both attended the hearing as did Castro's lawyer.

Figueroa's lawyer, Robert Ferreri, did not show up, citing a conflict with another case in juvenile court, records show.

Ferreri, a former Cuyahoga County judge, resigned from the practice of law in 2011 as he was facing discipline, according to the Ohio Supreme Court. His law license had been suspended twice before in 1999 and 2000.

Repeated attempts by Reuters reporters to reach Ferreri by phone or at residences listed for him were unsuccessful.

Figueroa decided not to proceed with the request for a protection order, according to court documents. Her lawyer advised her that she would be at a severe disadvantage if she went ahead without him, documents show. The case was dismissed and she did not exercise her legal right to revive it.

"She feared this man (Castro)," said Colon, who now is unemployed and on disability. "This man had her psychologically under control. Every movement she made, he was aware of. He threatened to kill her and the kids."

Since 2005, victims' advocates have been added to the justice system in Ohio to guide women through the hearing without a lawyer, said Alexandria Ruden, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

Another innovation is that in the past 15 to 20 years the justice system has become more sensitive to the pressures on battered women, said Mat Heck, prosecuting attorney for Montgomery County, Ohio, and chairman-elect of the American Bar Association's criminal justice section.

Authorities are now more willing to prosecute domestic violence cases even when the victim does not want to, he said.

If Figueroa had gotten the protection order, it would have been effective for five years. Any violation by Castro could have been prosecuted as a crime.

"It's possible that had she gotten that order, there could have been follow-up prosecution, absolutely," Ruden said.

Figueroa decided in late 2005 to move her children to Indiana, according to Giannini and Colon. After she died last year, her son Anthony Castro, who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, posted on the funeral home online guest book: "Dear Mom. You are gone too soon. But your suffering is over."

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Kim Palmer, Kevin Gray, Dan Trotta, Brendan O'Brien, Susan Guyett and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Greg McCune, Frances Kerry and Bill Trott)

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