Dr. Casey Jordan, Criminologist - Attorney

Ohio kidnappings: what makes men take women and children prisoner?

Photograph: Cuyahoga County Sheriff/EPA


Phillip Garrido, right, and Nancy Garrido in court


The accusations against Ariel Castro have shocked the world – but experts fear many crimes of sexual slavery go undetected

The Observer, Saturday 11 May 2013 08.38 EDT-- 
He is accused of kidnapping three girls, keeping them captive for years in his suburban home and using them as sex slaves. The staggering joy at the rescue last week of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight was tempered by the revelations of what they had endured in a busy, working-class Ohio neighbourhood. No one suspected a thing.

Castro, 52, was a school-bus driver; grilled ribs with his neighbours and was a friendly soul who played in a band. "He was a very good bass player, and I'd say a happy person," said Miguel Quinones, who managed the band Grupo Fuego with whom Castro played. "There was never anything that would let you imagine anything like this."

Yet his alleged crimes are far from unique, either in America or elsewhere. There was the case of religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell who kidnapped young Mormon girl Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City and kept her as a "wife" for nine months. Or Phillip Garrido who kidnapped Jaycee Dugard in California in 1991 when she was 11 and kept her for almost 20 years. Or Michael Devlin who abducted the young boy Shawn Hornbeck in 2002 in Missouri and kept him prisoner for five years. Further afield, Josef Fritzl kept his daughter, Elisabeth, a prisoner and sex slave in a dungeon in his Austrian home for 24 years – all while her mother lived upstairs apparently oblivious. And Wolfgang Priklopil, also from Austria, kept Natascha Kampusch in a cellar for eight years.

Those are the headline cases. But others are far from the collective memory of society, despite the appalling nature of the crimes. Few will have heard of Kenneth Parnell, who kidnapped Steven Stayner in California in 1972, when he was seven, convincing him that his family did not want him, and keeping him for seven years. Or Cameron Hooker, who kidnapped 20-year-old Colleen Stan in California in 1977, kept her locked in a box, horrifically abused her and even forced her to sign a slave contract. She endured her captivity for seven years.

Amid all that horror is one troubling theory: That we only know of the fate of these young girls and boys because men like Castro made mistakes. Their victims escaped to tell their stories. As with other criminals and other crimes, the police catch the ones who slip up. The more accomplished kidnappers are still out there, still keeping their victims alive behind some suburban facade. The idea that everyone who commits this sort of crime gets found out is not likely to be true. The opposite is probably the case: most incidents go undetected.

"I don't think there is any question there are other victims in similar situations. We are only catching the dumb ones," said Professor Sherry Hamby of the University of the South in Tennessee, and editor of the journal Psychology of Violence.

What drives them, most experts believe, is simple enough: power. To kidnap and control someone for an extended period is to exert influence over another person that few can imagine, but that these men – and they are almost always men – crave. Castro seems to fit that bill. The house where the women were kept was fitted with ropes, chains and padlocks and secure rooms. His physical domination of his captives was extreme, though as the years ticked by, they were sometimes allowed outside.

Those are the headline cases. But others are far from the collective memory of society, despite the appalling nature of the crimes. Few will have heard of Kenneth Parnell, who kidnapped Steven Stayner in California in 1972, when he was seven, convincing him that his family did not want him, and keeping him for seven years. Or Cameron Hooker, who kidnapped 20-year-old Colleen Stan in California in 1977, kept her locked in a box, horrifically abused her and even forced her to sign a slave contract. She endured her captivity for seven years.

Amid all that horror is one troubling theory: That we only know of the fate of these young girls and boys because men like Castro made mistakes. Their victims escaped to tell their stories. As with other criminals and other crimes, the police catch the ones who slip up. The more accomplished kidnappers are still out there, still keeping their victims alive behind some suburban facade. The idea that everyone who commits this sort of crime gets found out is not likely to be true. The opposite is probably the case: most incidents go undetected.

"I don't think there is any question there are other victims in similar situations. We are only catching the dumb ones," said Professor Sherry Hamby of the University of the South in Tennessee, and editor of the journal Psychology of Violence.

What drives them, most experts believe, is simple enough: power. To kidnap and control someone for an extended period is to exert influence over another person that few can imagine, but that these men – and they are almost always men – crave. Castro seems to fit that bill. The house where the women were kept was fitted with ropes, chains and padlocks and secure rooms. His physical domination of his captives was extreme, though as the years ticked by, they were sometimes allowed outside.

That sense of warped morality is frequently present. In keeping his daughter captive, Fritzl once explained that he felt he was protecting her from the world and her wild teenage years, even sometimes bringing her flowers. "I had to do something; I had to create a place where I could keep Elisabeth, by force if necessary, away from the outside world," he reportedly told his lawyer. That raises the question: are these men insane? Many think not. They often come from abusive backgrounds, they have warped senses of sexuality but many experts believe they are not mad.

"Castro is clearly in control of his faculties," said Dr Casey Jordan, a criminologist and behavioural scientist at Western Connecticut State University. Not all are. Smart's captor, Mitchell, believed that he was a prophet destined to battle the antichrist. But he was the exception. Most experts believe that these men do not suddenly become monsters. They become that way over a longer period, dealing with their demons and eventually letting them take over. It is often this appearance of normality in the rest of their lives that allows so many to get away with it for so long. "It can be a series of bad decisions. You can make just one decision that is small but takes you a little away from the rest of humanity. Pretty soon you can end up a long way from the rest of us, and suddenly it becomes easy to do something extreme," said Hamby.

And therein lies the rub. There is, for these criminals, a moment when a Rubicon is crossed. When, by force or trickery, they find themselves taking away an innocent person and forcing them into slavery and abuse. "It is like a floodgate. Once they have acted on it, there is no going back. They have plunged off the cliff," said Jordan. 

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