Kidnapping survivor of Cleveland house of horrors visits Jacksonville for rally for missing children

Kidnapping survivor of Cleveland house of horrors visits Jacksonville for rally for missing children

By Derek Gilliam, Florida Times-Union

Gina DeJesus lived for nine years with heavy chains locking her inside a Cleveland house of horrors where her captive repeatedly raped her and two other women. She hasn’t let it break her, and Wednesday night the 25-year-old sent a message of hope at a Jacksonville rally for missing children.

The rally at Hemming Park focused on the case of Mark Anthony Degner and Bryan Andrew Hayes.

Mark and Bryan walked out of what is now James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School — formerly Paxon Middle School — Feb. 10, 2005. At the time of the disappearance, Degner was 12 and Hayes was 13. Their families haven’t seen them since that day and any leads have long since gone cold.

The DeJesus family faced the same circumstances. No leads and their daughter had been missing for almost 10 years. However, she said Wednesday that she was able to watch her family’s efforts covered on news stations giving her hope that one day she would be reunited. She had a simple message to any potential captive.

“Always keep fighting,” she said. “Never give up hope.”

DeJesus escaped from her abductor in May 2013. Ariel Castro imprisoned his captives in a basement in a run-down area of Cleveland, Ohio. He tricked Gina — who trusted him because he was the estranged father of one of her friends — into his house after he told her he would giver her a ride home when she was 14.

He was later found dead in his cell after pleading guilty to 937 criminal charges earning him a life prison sentence plus 1,000 years.

Gina DeJesus told her story with Amanda Berry, one of the other women held captive by Castro, in “HOPE: A Memoir of Captivity in Cleveland” — a New York Times best seller.

Angie Campbell, Degner’s aunt, said both boys had developmental delays that would have placed their mental capacity at 9 or 10. She said the boys met at school and quickly became friends. She said neither had lived in Jacksonville long and both didn’t know their way around the city.

Dennis Bair, who recently relocated to Jacksonville to coach at a baseball academy, remembers watching a documentary about the parents of a missing child. The former minor league pitcher immediately recognized the role ballparks and stadiums could play in locating missing children.

The BairFind Foundation raised enough money to place the billboards with pictures of an area’s missing children in 40 minor league stadiums including the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville where the Jacksonville Suns play.

One of his billboards had Gina’s picture featured. Her family met Bair during the search for their daughter. They came to Jacksonville after he asked for their help to bring awareness about missing children, such as the Jacksonville boys who’ve been missing about as long as she was. Bair said the Jacksonville rally is the first Gina has attended.

His foundation’s goal is to put a billboard in every one of the 160 minor league stadiums in the country where 42.5 million fans attended games in 2014.

Nancy Ruiz, DeJesus’ mother, said her family never gave up hope. She said she just knew her daughter was still alive and the family continued to hand out fliers and hold vigils for Gina despite many who thought they should give up.

“The families have to stay strong,” Felix DeJesus, Gina’s father, said.

Ruiz said she wishes there were more support for families of missing children. She said there should be a guide of things to do. She said she wishes she wouldn’t have hesitated and that she would have started search efforts sooner. The first people to make fliers for her daughter were neighbors.

Ruiz said she would only put the numbers for law enforcement on fliers because the family got several prank phone calls after they put their personal contact information on them. They also received many bogus tips. She said it was emotionally exhausting.

Campbell said when she heard about DeJesus’ rescue and reunion with her family, she celebrated too. Both families haven’t given up, she said.

“We choose to hold onto the hope that they will be located,” she said.

Derek Gilliam: (904) 359-4619

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