Ohio kidnapping probe stirs questions about race, status

USA TODAY, May 11, 2013

By Yamiche Alcindor

CLEVELAND — Judy Martin recites the names of missing people in Cleveland like a well-memorized poem. She knows names, dates, last-known whereabouts and details about dozens of cases dating to 1997.

Martin, who founded Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, also says she knows how race and economic status play a role in how police treat cases, including those of three women held captive for years in a rundown Cleveland neighborhood.

Martin says cases involving people of color and lower incomes don’t get the same law enforcement resources as others. But the Cleveland Police Department says officers did all they could find Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, and they investigate missing-persons cases without any biases.

“When it’s somebody of color or someone from in a poorer area, we don’t seem to get the response that other areas of the country get,” said Martin, whose group works with families of victims. “It needs to stop. When a person goes missing, it shouldn’t matter whether they’re white, black, Hispanic, Asian, purple, green or blue.”

Knight, Berry and DeJesus were abducted in separate incidents almost a decade ago and held hostage until May 6 when Berry escaped and alerted police. Police arrested Ariel Castro, who has been charged with kidnapping and rape.

After Berry and DeJesus went missing, Martin, whose son was murdered in 1994, became an advocate for the women’s families, holding rallies and vigils every week and, later, every year. It was her way of reminding the public of the missing girls, who Martin says police dismissed as teenagers who just took off.

It’s a claim the police fiercely deny.

“The Cleveland Police Department doesn’t care about someone’s economic or social status,” Police Commander Keith Sulzer said Friday. “We don’t care what status you’re from; everybody gets the same treatment.”

Sulzer says he’s insulted that somebody would suggest the department’s work would vary based on race or money — especially in the cases of Berry, DeJesus and Knight. For a decade, officers searched hundreds of streets, investigated vacant homes and followed any information that might lead to the women, Sulzer said.

At a community gathering Thursday near the Seymour Avenue home of Ariel Castro, where the women were found, Sulzer told residents that more than 2,900 people were missing in the city of Cleveland and that families of those missing need to work with officers to keep the cases going.

“If you have a missing person, you need to be on us at all times,” he said, adding that if families feel like officers aren’t doing enough they should contact the department.

Still, Martin maintains that when a person of color or lower income goes missing, police assume that the person has simply walked away — that there’s no criminal involvement. She wants a policy that would make it mandatory that officers file a report each time someone says their family member or friend is missing regardless of the person’s past, economic status or race.

The families of the victims of serial killer Anthony Sowell had similar complaints to Martin’s. The bodies of 11 women were found in Sowell’s Cleveland home in late 2009. They were drug addicts or alcoholics, had criminal records or had mental health problems. Prosecutors said Sowell used drugs or alcohol to lure them into his Imperial Avenue home, where he raped and murdered them.

During Sowell’s trial, victims’ relatives said police didn’t take their missing-person reports seriously. One of Sowell’s victims who survived an attack testified that police didn’t believe her when she reported the assault. Sowell was released from jail without charges after the woman’s report.

Journalist and urban planning specialist Angie Schmitt, co-founder of Rust Wire, blogged last month that although the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran “sympathetic” and extensive profiles of Sowell’s victims, the newspaper “never raises the bigger issue. What made these women such easy targets was being black, being women and being from the highly segregated and desperately poor east side of Cleveland.

“This is a story about racism and inequality and sexism and poverty as much, if not more, than it is about drugs and individual lives going astray,” Schmitt wrote. “Nobody was going to tear up the city looking for a few black women from the east side with sketchy pasts.”

On Wednesday, Schmitt added context to her views. “There are a lot of very vulnerable people in this city. I don’t know if I’d point the finger directly at the city, exactly though. A lot of larger forces are at play,” Schmitt says, citing poverty, inequality and significant underfunding for police and city services.

Marcellette Love, 51, of North Olmsted, Ohio, also believes her missing sister’s case isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

Love’s sister Minerva Tripp, 42, went missing on Aug. 28 from her boyfriend’s Cleveland apartment after the two argued.

Love says her sister has battled with drug problems for more than a decade and at times disappeared for a week at a time. Her family realized Tripp was missing in early September and went to police after she missed calling Love on her birthday, something she often did. Tripp also missed calling her nephew on April 29 for the birthday they share. She also missed her daughter’s birthday.

Love claims police are doing little to help her and that the detective on the case isn’t taking the case seriously because of her sister’s past.

“We know the dangerous life Minerva leads, but in our hearts we know her routine,” Love said. “We know that something is wrong. But the police don’t care because she’s black and is known for doing drugs.”

After Love spoke about her concerns at the community meeting Thursday, Sulzer said his office would be following up with her.

A close family friend of Gina DeJesus, Tito DeJesus, said he doesn’t believe race played a role in how police searched for the young women. However, he’s not sure if authorities did enough to find the her, Berry and Knight.

“It’s hard to say what the police were actually doing,” he said. “In this case, it took the kidnappees to break this.”

Meanwhile, how the Cleveland Police Department handled the investigations is only part of the issue, experts say.

Across the country, missing people from diverse backgrounds and lower socioeconomic statuses are more likely to get less resources and attention than affluent white victims, according to Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University.

Authorities also at times assume people of color and lower incomes naturally are exposed to more violence, Neal said. The assumption might lead authorities to miss chances to save people from dangerous situations.

“We live in a society that places an incredible amount of value on whiteness at the expense of those who can’t fit in the box of whiteness,” he said.

Maya Beasley, a sociology and African studies professor at the University of Connecticut, points to the case of Alyssiah Marie Wiley, 20, as an example. A sophomore at Eastern Connecticut State University, the young woman went missing on April 20 after being last seen on her Willimantic, Conn. campus.

“She’s a young black woman from a working class family and that’s just not the type of case people are particularly interested in,” Beasley said, explaining that the case has received little attention.

Despite expert theories and the questions that surround the handling of disappearance of Berry, DeJesus and Knight, a friend of two of the girls says she’s happy they are home safe.

Sarah Rivera, 20, talked to Amanda Berry on Thursday afternoon. “She’s doing better than all of us,” Rivera, an officer manager said. “She just basically wants to get away.”

Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman