Cops had near-miss with Cleveland kidnap suspect in 2004

Amber Berry hugs her sister Beth Serrano after being reunited in a Cleveland hospital Monday May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Family Handout courtesy WOIO-TV)

Updated 2:40 p.m. ET

For more than a decade, police and other law enforcement in and around Cleveland chased countless leads looking for missing persons Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. Little did they know how close they came, just before the last of three alleged kidnappings by at least one man and his brothers.

Knight had gone missing in 2002. Berry had gone missing in April of 2003. DeJesus went missing in April of 2004.

In January 2004, police went to the home of current prime suspect Ariel Castro and knocked on his door, according to Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba.

The police did not approach Castro's home to ask about missing girls, however. Castro was a school bus driver, and had left a child on his bus when he returned it to the depot. Officials wanted to know why.

"He was interviewed extensively for this complaint," Tomba said. "He was a bus driver who left a kid on a bus, went to a lunch break and found the young man."

When pressed at a news conference Tuesday as to why little came of the incident, Tomba said there had never been a hint of suspicion about Castro until after the women were freed. There were no other complaints against him or the house, no city code violations.

"Our policies have been revamped over the few years," Tomba said. "I can tell you as part of this division for 28 years the amount of effort (around these missing persons cases), I've never seen it before. Every lead was followed up. We had vigils, we dug up backyards."

Mugshots of Onil, Pedro and Ariel Castro, the three suspects arrested in the Cleveland kidnapping piece.
City of Cleveland, Department of Law/CBS

In January, a prison inmate was sentenced to 4-1/2 years after admitting he provided a false burial tip in the disappearance of Berry. Last summer, the inmate tipped authorities to look for Berry's remains in a Cleveland lot. He was taken to the location, which was dug up with backhoes.

Two men arrested for questioning in the disappearance of DeJesus in 2004 were released from the city jail in 2006 after officers didn't find her body during a search of the men's house.

One of the men was transferred to the Cuyahoga County Jail on unrelated charges, while the other was allowed to go free, police said.

In September 2006, police acting on a tip tore up the concrete floor of the garage and used a cadaver dog to search unsuccessfully for DeJesus' body. Investigators confiscated 19 pieces of evidence during their search but declined to comment on the significance of the items at the time.

Despite officials' insistence that Castro showed nothing unusual outwardly, two neighbors said they were alarmed enough by what they saw at the house to call police on two occasions.

Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses away, said her daughter once saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard several years ago and called police. "But they didn't take it seriously," she said.

Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro's house, which had plastic bags on the windows, in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. "They walked to side of the house and then left," he said.

Neighbors also said they would see Castro sometimes walking a little girl to a neighborhood playground. And Cintron said she once saw a little girl looking out of the attic window of the house.

Four years ago, Cleveland police came under heavy criticism following the discovery of 11 bodies in the home and backyard of a man who was later sentenced to death. The home was in a poor part of town several miles away from where the missing women were rescued this week.

In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city's handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.

Ultimately, police attribute the conclusion of this case the Berry herself.

"Amanda Berry is the real hero," said Tomba. "She is the one that got this rolling."