CLEVELAND — Stylish and smiling, three women allegedly held captive in a Cleveland home for a decade offered thanks on YouTube for emotional and financial backing they’ve received since going “through hell and back.”
From Amanda Berry, 27: “I want everyone to know how happy I am to be home, with my family, my friends,” she said.
“I would say ‘thank you’ for the support,” said a soft-spoken Gina DeJesus, 23, in response to prompting from a narrator.
And from Michelle Knight, 32, who wasn’t a familiar face on a milk carton around town like the other two, came a sometimes halting yet defiant reading of a statement.
“I may have been through hell and back, but I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face and with my head held high,” she said. “I will not let the situation define who I am. I will define the situation. I don’t want to be consumed by hatred.”
The 3½-minute video, produced last week and posted at midnight Monday, was filmed in a Cleveland law firm overlooking treetops, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Lake Erie.
DeJesus’ parents, Felix DeJesus and Nancy Ruiz, joined the heartfelt statements of gratitude, thanking the public for donations to a fund set up to help the women. More than $1 million has been donated.
Ruiz encouraged parents with missing loved ones to reach out for assistance. “Count on your neighbors,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for the help because help is available.”
The women have turned aside media interview requests and appealed again for privacy since they were rescued in May when Berry broke through a door and yelled to neighbors for help.
The women had disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16, and 20 years old. The owner of the home where they were found, 52-year-old former bus driver Ariel Castro, was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to a 329-count indictment alleging he kidnapped them off the streets and held them captive in his two-story home.
In the video, none of the women had any visible scars of the abuse they said they suffered. Castro fathered a 6-year-old daughter with Berry and is accused of starving and punching Knight, causing her to miscarry.
“I am getting stronger each day,” Berry said. “Having my privacy has helped immensely.”
The trio wants to maintain that privacy, according to a statement from the team of lawyers and crisis management experts helping them without charge.
Castro’s trial is scheduled for next month but could be delayed if the defense asks for more preparation time. Last week a judge rejected Castro’s request to see Berry’s child fathered by him.
Castro’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the video and on whether they were concerned it might bias jurors.
In the video, the women smiling and appeared upbeat.
Berry, the only one who has been in photographs that have appeared publicly since her release, had shorter hair with a blonde streak in it. Knight, who authorities said had been taken captive first, wore glasses, had closely cropped hair and spoke a bit haltingly.
Kathy Joseph, Knight’s attorney, said in a statement that the three women wanted to “say thank you to people from Cleveland and across the world, now that two months have passed.”
She said they’re being recognized in public, “so they decided to put voices and faces to their heartfelt messages.