The wiry man said he needed directions.
Jonna Williams — 13 years old and barely 5 feet tall — was riding her bicycle on a city street in Waterloo, Iowa, when a stranger approached. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.
Could she tell him how to get to Mulberry Street? the tall man asked.
Williams began telling him, but he said he couldn’t hear her. So he began walking.
Closer and closer.
“As I was telling him again, he grabbed me and instantly started saying: ‘Shut up, or I’m going to snap your neck. Shut up. You’re coming with me or I’m going to kill you!’ So it was instantaneous,” she said, “and the threat absolutely was immediate.”
Before she could make another move, Williams was taken away and sexually assaulted under a nearby railroad overpass.
It was July 4, 1994.
There were no thoughts of escape that day — just as there surely were none in the remarkable case of the Cleveland kidnappings, Williams contends — because of one, far greater concern: Survival.
Williams, now 31, said she is retelling her story in the hope that the Cleveland women — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight — do not become trapped again in the “victim-blaming” question: How, over 10 years (or more), did they not find a way to escape kidnapping and rape suspect Ariel Castro?
“I can see why people don’t understand that, and that’s my big, big fear — these girls will be questioned about that. And absolutely no one has the right to question them about that, because they did what they had to do to survive. Escaping was secondary,” Williams said.
“And it wasn’t just their own survival they had to think about. It was, for all three of them, the survival of the little baby that was born while they were in captivity. The threats, I can guarantee, were ongoing.”
The man who attacked Williams held her for about two hours. In that time, she was threatened “a hundred times.” He tried but failed to kill her by snapping her neck, she said. Then he tried to strangle her with the string from her hoodie.
Finally, after more threats that he would kill her if she cried or tried to scream, she said she was told to count to 1,000, get back on her bike and go home — and he would be across the street watching everything.
“There are just so many factors — and the brainwashing that goes into that. I was missing for two hours,” Williams said, “and this gentleman made me tell him where I lived and that he was going to come and kill my family.
“When someone has already asserted such a significant amount of power over you, you’re down and you’re going to believe what they say, because you don’t have a choice.”
Others who are following the Cleveland case closely are not so sure.
Internationally recognized forensic psychologist Dr. Carole Lieberman, a U.S. congressional witness on national security issues who also appears frequently to give insights into the criminal mind on CNN, the BBC, the Today show, Court TV and for the New York Times, said she had an immediate reaction to initial accounts of the Cleveland case by authorities.
Within days of the women being freed and Castro being arrested, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty said the victims were held against their will in “a torture chamber and private prison in the heart of our city.”
Lieberman, however, doubts that such things took place throughout the ordeal.
“It’s not believable — that these women did not have an opportunity to get out, to escape, before a decade. There is more here than meets the eye,” she said in a telephone interview from her office in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Lieberman cited the long-established theory known in the psychiatric realm as Stockholm syndrome — so named after a 1973 robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. Two men held four bank employees hostage at gunpoint inside the bank vault over six days.
“When the victims were released,” Time magazine reported in 2009, “their reaction shocked the world: They hugged and kissed their captors, declaring their loyalty even as the kidnappers were carted off to jail.”
Lieberman said she feels the same “psychodynamics” that prompted Time’s examination of the Stockholm theory — soon after the infamous California case of Jaycee Lee Dugard’s kidnapping and release after 18 years — could have occurred in the Cleveland case.
“What I think — why I’m suggesting Stockholm syndrome — is [a situation] where the kidnapped victims come to sympathize with, or have feelings for, or even fall in love with their captor,” Lieberman said.
At the time of the Cleveland abductions, she noted, all three victims — two teens and one young adult — were much younger than Castro, “so he would be like a father figure to them,” she said.
Lieberman also said the psychodynamics of sibling rivalry could have occurred over time, “where three daughters, more or less the same age, are always vying for the favor and attention of their father — competing for that.”
As coldhearted and psychopathic as Castro would appear to be in this early stage of the criminal investigation, Lieberman said, he “would have realized, he would have known, how to use this rivalry to forward his agenda of keeping them captive.”
In the view of retired FBI agent Eileen Roemer, who worked for the bureau for 21 years, also serving as a U.S. Navy Reserves captain with collateral duties as an intelligence officer, Stockholm syndrome has no bearing on the Cleveland case.
Roemer’s background in such cases came from years of experience in the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. Her father also was an FBI agent.
“I don’t really go with the Stockholm syndrome theory,” Roemer said. “I’ve studied that when I learned how to be a hostage negotiator in the FBI, and that would have been in the late 1980s, when it was a big topic, and I personally don’t see these women bonding in that manner with their captor. I really don’t.”
Roemer brought up the example of the 1975 Academy Award-winning movie, Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino played the part of a takeover robber in a downtown Brooklyn bank heist. The movie was based on a similar event, told by writer P.F. Kluge in his story The Boys in the Bank about a 1972 Brooklyn heist.
Pacino’s character was so pathetic, Roemer said, with his home life crumbling on all fronts, that he did become a sympathetic figure to his captives.
“But I don’t believe these young women [in Cleveland] ever felt sorry for this guy, or felt anything good about him. He was a threat to them for 10 years — a complete and utter threat who abused them and who beat them into submission, from all reports. He was using sex as a weapon to humiliate them,” Roemer said.
“I can’t imagine that these girls have any kind of positive feelings, whatsoever, about this man.”
Private investigator Philip Becnel of Washington, D.C., another widely sought expert on criminal matters as president of the Private Investigators Association of Virginia, said he feels another factor could have played out in the Cleveland case.
In explaining how the three young women could have remained captives for so long, Becnel said the influence of “perks” could have weighed heavily.
He said it works like this: “If you comply, I make it easier on you. You’re chained to a bed, and if you don’t struggle while I rape you, you can eat today. Over time, compliance is the easiest choice.
“There are many perks involved with compliance, and one might be: ‘If you comply for six months, I’ll let one of your wrists free. And if you comply for another six months, then I’ll let both hands free.’
“You can think,” Becnel said, “about any number of ways it might have happened, because all the details aren’t out yet.”
In the 1994 case of Iowa kidnapping victim Jonna Williams, the facts were established long ago.
Buried at the scene of her abduction, about 2 inches down in the dirt beneath the railroad overpass, she said that she left a bracelet her mother gave to her as a 13th birthday present.
“After my attacker left and told me to count to 1,000, I thought it necessary to leave some sort of proof that I was there. I knew that it was kind of a freak occurrence, and I wanted to make sure the police believed I was there,” Williams said.
A few days after Williams’ abduction, authorities charged Dale Dean Viers, now 50, with kidnapping. He was convicted of the crime in March 1995 and is serving a life sentence in prison.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.