LORAIN — Kidnapping victim Michelle Knight and the parents of kidnapping victim Gina DeJesus were honored Saturday at the second annual Hispanic Heritage parade.
“Anything is possible with the love of God,” Knight told a crowd of about 200 people in brief remarks at a post-parade picnic at Veterans Park across from City Hall. “Remember that.”
Amanda Berry, DeJesus and Knight disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004. They were 14, 13 and 20 when kidnapped by Ariel Castro.
They were rescued from Castro’s run-down Cleveland house May 6 when Berry broke through a screen door. Investigators said the women were bound, repeatedly raped, starved and deprived of bathroom use.
Castro was sentenced Aug. 1 to life in prison plus 1,000 years after pleading guilty to 937 counts, including kidnapping and rape, in a deal to avoid the death penalty. Castro, 53, was found hanging in his jail cell Sept. 3.
Felix DeJesus, Gina DeJesus’ father, said before the parade that his family was surprised by Castro’s death.
“We’re speechless,” said DeJesus who attended the parade with his wife, Nancy Ruiz.
DeJesus said his daughter, now 23, is taking classes to earn a GED diploma and he and Ruiz are taking “baby steps” in helping her emotionally recover.
“We don’t pressure her at all,” he said. “When she feels comfortable, she comes and talks to us.”
DeJesus, Ruiz and Knight’s appearance was arranged by the Rev. Angel Arroyo, of the Lorain-based Dotcom Ministries, a ministry that focuses on gang intervention, helping homeless people and reducing recidivism.
Arroyo and Felix DeJesus said they wanted to use Saturday’s appearance to improve efforts to solve adult and child kidnapping cases and reduce human trafficking. Arroyo said the two have traveled to Los Angeles, Georgia and Indiana in the last few months to spotlight the issues.
While conceded missing persons cases can be complicated when they involve runaways, Arroyo said communication between relatives of missing children and police needs to improve. And he said police need to react faster.
“(We need to) change protocol and be able to give Lorain police and any other department all the necessities that they need to find these people,” Arroyo said to applause from the crowd.
DeJesus, 55, said his daughter’s ordeal has been traumatic for him. DeJesus, a former auto parts worker, said he suffered from depression during his daughter’s nearly 10-year disappearance. He suffered a heart attack and now receives Social Security disability payments.
However, DeJesus said the ordeal has motivated him to help missing children and children in general. DeJesus said Congress needs to spend more money to create jobs for youths in cities like Cleveland and Lorain to reduce violence.
DeJesus said he hopes young people will be inspired by the survival of his daughter and Berry and Knight.
“They’re victims of a crime, but they’re strong.” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.