Louwana Miller never stopped fighting for her daughter, Amanda Berry, who disappeared in Cleveland in April 2003, the day before her 17th birthday.

Louwana Miller never stopped fighting for her daughter, Amanda Berry, who disappeared in Cleveland in April 2003, the day before her 17th birthday. In the days after Amanda's abduction. Authorities believed she may have run away, and local media paid the disappearance scant attention. The rest of the world did not notice at all. So Miller began her fight.

One journalist she recruited to her cause was Regina Brett, a columnist with Cleveland's main newspaper, The Plain Dealer.

On Thursday, Brett told National Public Radio how Miller called her soon after Amanda's disappearance, demanding to know why the paper was not devoting more attention to the story.

Brett visited her home to find Miller sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke before a coffee table equipped with two telephones.

"It wasn't what I expected. You know on TV, you always see the mother crying and soft-spoken, wanting her daughter back. Louwana was like a mother bear. She wanted to find who had her daughter and get that child back. She was fierce in her love for her daughter."

From the coffee table, Miller ran her campaign, relentlessly badgering police, media and even the FBI when they eventually joined the investigation. "I was scared of her," Brett confessed to NPR. "She would yell at me. No one yells at a reporter she wants a story from." Once she even threw the FBI out of the house.

As months became years, Miller's determination - and her pain - never wavered, says Brett.

In 2006, Louwana Miller died. "They said she died of heart failure," says Brett. "She was 43. I believe she died of a broken heart."

Had she lived, Miller would have heard the news she had been waiting for on Monday evening.

Amanda - whom Miller had always called Mandy - was alive. Just before 5pm she had battered at the door of the suburban home in which she had been imprisoned for a decade and attracted the attention of neighbours who helped her - and her six-year-old daughter - to escape.

Police responded and released two other missing women, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. Suddenly the women had the world's attention.

Times have been tough in Cleveland, a middling US city that blossomed during the golden era of American manufacturing only to become a punchline on the rust belt, a city sometimes called The Mistake on the Lake.

On Cleveland's tough west side, the first disappearance barely registered publicly.

Michelle Knight was last seen on August 22, 2002, months before Amanda Berry's disappearance. She was 21 at the time, and according to reports her life was already complicated. She was estranged from members of her family and had lost a child to social services.

It was easy for some to believe she had simply walked away from her life.

Then Amanda vanished in April 2003 after a shift at the local Burger King. At first she was thought a runaway too, but Miller's fierce advocacy (what sort of teenager runs away in her Burger King uniform and leaves her savings at home? she demanded to know) changed that. And there was an ominous phone call too.

In November 2003 the FBI confirmed that a week after she disappeared someone used Amanda's mobile phone to call Miller, saying, "I have Amanda. She's fine and will be coming home in a couple of days."

Then in April 2004, the third neighbourhood victim was taken, 13-year-old Gina DeJesus. The seventh grader had planned to walk home from special education classes at Wilbur Wright Middle School, but she never made it. This time it took just two days for the FBI to become involved.

Police believe 52-year-old Ariel Castro approached his victims on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland and lured them into his car with the offer of a lift.

Officially authorities have released little detail about what the women went through while - allegedly - held by Castro in his dilapidated two-storey home. Unofficially there have been so many leaks that authorities have had to call on those working on the case to fall silent.

A police report obtained by CNN and The New York Times suggests that police will allege that Michelle Knight was kept in the basement where she was raped and beaten so severely her hearing was damaged and her facial structure changed. According to reports, she became pregnant five times, losing the children to miscarriages brought about by beatings and starvation. It says the women were gagged and restrained with chains and ropes.

On Thursday, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said that based on the facts of the case, his office intended to seek charges not only for the sexual assaults endured by the victims, but also "each act of aggravated murder he committed by terminating pregnancies".

Castro was charged with rape and kidnapping, but onlookers were shocked when no charges were levelled against his two brothers. So far no link has been found between them and the victims.

It is understood Knight has told police that during the early days of her captivity a fourth woman was held in the basement for a time. A Fox News report says police found the phrase "Rest In Peace" written on a wall. Authorities will only confirm that an active investigation continues into the disappearance of Ashley Summers, who was 14 when she disappeared in 2007, last seen on a street about five kilometres from Castro's home.

"I can assure you that her disappearance was part of our questioning of the three subjects that we brought in," Cleveland Police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said on Wednesday.

As the other two victims joined Michelle in the basement, they were subjected to the same torture suffered by Knight, police believe.

Amanda Berry became pregnant in captivity and on Christmas Day 2006 she gave birth to a girl. Knight was forced to deliver the child in an inflatable swimming pool and Castro warned her she would be killed if the child died. The little girl stopped breathing before Knight resuscitated her, according to a police report. Amanda called her Jocelyn.

"She looks great, happy, healthy and ate a popsicle last night," Deputy Chief Tomba said. "Seeing her mother smile made her smile."

In a photograph taken in a Cleveland hospital this week, Jocelyn appears to be grinning calmly as her mother and aunt, Beth, sit with her, their faces crumpled by joy.

After Jocelyn was born the women were moved upstairs, where they lived in separate padlocked rooms. Reports suggest that they had limited contact but were able to support one another.

It is understood the women were sometimes tested by Castro, who deliberately left locks open only to hide and punish them if they sought to escape.

So far police have dismissed allegations they missed opportunities to find the women and denied a report that they were informed that a witness had seen a naked woman on her knees in the home's back garden.

As the women's ordeal continued, Castro's life outside his home went on as normal.

Ariel Castro, one of 10 children, was part of an extended family that had moved to the United States from Puerto Rico after World War II. His father had a car lot and he became a bus driver.

Castro was sacked last year for disciplinary problems, and in 2004 was investigated after a child was inadvertently left on his bus. But neighbours describe a friendly man who enjoyed playing base in various Latin bands.

All that changed on Monday evening just before 5 o'clock when Amanda Berry began beating on the locked front door and screaming for help. One of those who responded to her calls was Charles Ramsay, the man who became the unlikely hero of this story.

He helped kick in the door, pulled Berry and Jocelyn from the house and made the first 911 call, telling a dispatcher in full and frantic terms, "I'm at 2207 Seymour, West 25th. Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald's, right? I'm on my porch, eating my li'l food, right? This broad is tryin' to break out the f------ house next door to me. So, it's a bunch of people on the street right now and shit, so we like, well, what's wrong? What's the problem? She like, 'This motherf----- done kidnapped me and my daughter and we been in this bitch.' She said her name was Linda Berry or some shit, I don't know who the f--- that is. I just moved over here, bro."

At one point the dispatcher asks if she looks white, black or Hispanic. "Uh, she white. But the baby look Hispanic," Ramsay replies.

Later again he is directed to ask Berry if she needs an ambulance. He responds, "She need everything. She in a panic, bro. I think she been kidnapped so, you know, put yourself in her shoes."

When media found him later at the scene, Ramsay described how he heard screaming and presumed Berry was the victim of domestic violence. He said of the rescue, "I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrooong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Deeeaaad giveaway. Either she homeless, or she got problems, that's the only why she's runnin' to a black man."

That comment, along with his instant online global celebrity, has caused some unease among commentators, some worried that a black man was being sniggered at for his rich colloquialism, others that the meme trivialised the crime he had helped to end. It only took a day or so for the Drudge Report to uncover Ramsay's own prior domestic violence conviction.

It seems unlikely the debate will matter to the three women he helped to save.

Even as Ramsay made that first call for help, Berry had been handed a phone and she too contacted 911. "Help me. I'm Amanda Berry," she said. "I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years, and I'm, I'm here, I'm free now."

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