A video released Monday night shows three Cleveland women, allegedly kidnapped and held for at least a decade, saying they are attempting to move forward with their lives. In it, they also thank the public for raising more than $1 million designed to help them make the transition from captivity to freedom.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors say the women – Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry – were held against their will and suffered physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse in the home of Ariel Castro, a former city bus driver. Mr. Castro faces 329 criminal counts including aggravated murder, rape, kidnapping, sexual assault; more charges are expected. Castro is pleading not guilty.
Three Cleveland City Council members, Brian Cummins, Matt Zone, and Dona Brady, created the fund soon after the women’s rescue in early May. Titled the Cleveland Courage Fund, the money will be equally distributed into four individual trust accounts later this summer, one for each woman plus another for the 6-year-old daughter Ms. Berry is said to have conceived with Castro. To date, the fund has received more than 9,200 individual donations, totaling $1.05 million.
A website, Clevelandcourage.org, allows corporations, groups, or other community organizations to post news of fundraising events, plus it features a portal where individuals can donate money online.
Christopher Kelly, a partner at Jones Day, a Cleveland law firm, is a co-adviser to the fund. He says the three women are relying on the donated money “right now for ordinary, everyday living expenses.”
“These girls were gone for 10 years, some of them don’t have families anymore. They literally have nothing,” Mr. Kelly says. “They’re starting from behind the eight-ball.”
Kelly’s firm is representing Berry and Ms. Knight on a pro bono basis. He says 100 percent of all donations will go directly into the four trusts, as no management fees are being collected.
Soliciting the money from the local community took little effort, he says, because people were energized to donate to help in the women's recovery.
“The only thing we had to do as advisers to the fund was to make ourselves available because people wanted us at their fundraisers. It was really remarkable,” he says. “People who say there’s no community left in this country should have been around here when these three girls were found. We didn’t have to do any coordination or encouragement or planning. People did this on their own.”
In the video, filmed July 2 and released late Monday to YouTube, the women thank supporters, but do not go beyond that to provide other information about their experiences.
“I’m getting stronger each day, and having my privacy has helped immensely,” Berry says in the video. “I ask that everyone to continue to respect our privacy and give us time to have a normal life.”
Each woman was videotaped separately. Knight, who read from prepared remarks, said she is now “strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face and with my head held high and my feet firmly on the ground.… I will not let the situation define who I am. I will define the situation.”
She thanked the public for their prayers and added that the donations would help her “build a brand new life.”
Castro is due back in court for a pretrial hearing on July 24.