An American woman held captive for a decade and made to bear a child after being kidnapped as a teenager was being hailed as a heroine, after freeing herself and two other women from their prison inside the home of a school bus driver.
Amanda Berry, missing since the eve of her 17th birthday in 2003, made a desperate call to 911 after breaking through a door inside the house in Cleveland, Ohio, and screaming for help from a passing neighbour.
She also released Gina DeJesus, 23, who vanished in 2004 aged 14, and Michelle Knight, 32, who was presumed to have run away 11 years ago. The house's owner, 52-year-old Ariel Castro, was arrested with his brothers Pedro, 54, and Oneil, 50.
"The real hero here is Amanda," Ed Tomba, Cleveland's deputy police chief, said at a press conference today. "She came out of that house and started it all." Stephen Anthony, the head of the FBI office in Cleveland, declared: "The nightmare is over".
Police were, however, facing questions about their past inquiries after it emerged that all three women were last seen within yards of the same spot, about 3.5 miles from Mr Castro's house, and that a daughter of Mr Castro said in 2004 that she was the last to see Miss DeJesus alive.
The women were taken to hospital, where they were treated for dehydration and malnourishment before being released. Miss Berry was at the bedside of her six-year-old daughter, who was believed to have been fathered by Mr Castro while she was in captivity.
There were unconfirmed reports tonight that chains had been found inside the house, that "Rest In Peace" was discovered written on a basement wall alongside another woman's name, and that the captives had become pregnant several times.
Officers confirmed they visited Mr Castro's home in 2004 after he left a child on his bus, but denied they had reason to suspect he was a kidnapper. Yet two neighbours claimed to The Daily Telegraph that they complained to police after hearing screams near the house in recent years.
The emergence of the three women from the home of Mr Castro, described as a "happy-go-lucky" grandfather who frequently joined neighbours for beers and barbecues between shifts on his bus, startled residents of the west side of this city in America's midwestern heartland.
Mr Castro's son, Anthony, a 31-year-old journalist, even wrote a detailed account of Miss DeJesus's disappearance for a local newspaper in 2004. He denied having any knowledge of wrongdoing. "This is beyond comprehension," he told local news. "I'm truly stunned."
Neighbours were struggling to come to terms with their failure to notice what Mr Castro was allegedly doing. They claimed to have been duped by the "mask" of a charming, harmless figure who would chat at length to their children and entertain them with his motorcycle.
They learned that the young girl they saw with Mr Castro, and presumed to be a granddaughter from a daughter who was jailed for attempting to kill her child, was in fact the six-year-old daughter he is believed to have fathered with Miss Berry.
Records show that Mr Castro, who has at least three other daughters, one son and five grandchildren, was arrested for domestic violence and disorderly conduct in December 1993, but was not prosecuted.
He lost his job as a bus driver last November after being caught making an illegal U-turn. In a post to his Facebook page last week, he said: "Miracles really do happen, God is good".