CLEVELAND -- With several swipes from the arm of an excavator and applause from spectators, a house where three women were held captive and raped for a decade was demolished Wednesday, reduced to rubble in less than an hour and a half. The demolition had the look of a neighborhood celebration, but some residents have been troubled by guilt for failing to notice tell-tale signs of the women's imprisonment, like windows boarded up from the inside and the kidnapper's practice of keeping visitors from going past the front room.
"It's haunted them, I think, in the sense of how could they not have known," said city Councilman Brian Cummins, who watched the demolition.
The home was torn down as part of the plea deal that spared Ariel Castro a possible death sentence and forced him to turn over the deed to the house and pay for it to be razed. He was sentenced last week to life in prison plus 1,000 years.
One of the imprisoned women, Michelle Knight, showed up early Wednesday before the work began. She made a brief statement and released balloons into the air.
"Dear Lord, give the missing people strength and power to know that they are loved," said Knight, who had rosary beads hanging from her neck. "We hear their cry. They are never forgotten in my heart. They are caterpillars, waiting to turn into a butterfly. They are never forgotten, they are loved."
Knight said the array of balloons "represents all the millions of children that were never found and the ones that passed away that were never heard."
There was applause as a relative of one victim represented the three and took the controls of the wrecking crane for the first smash into the top of the front wall. Later, as the house debris disappeared into the basement, church bells rang.
Police kept bystanders back to prevent souvenir hunting for the debris, which was carted off in trucks.
Rich Comp, 51, who used to live two doors from the Castro house, said he was sorry about the ordeal of the victims and hopes the demolition will help lift spirits.
"I feel sorry for the girls. They should tear it down," he said.
Art McKoy, an anti-crime crusader who has organized vigils for missing persons, watched the demolition and wondered why residents hadn't questioned the house's barricades.
"The neighbors, if they had just paid a little more attention, and looked a little bit harder, they would have seen more and maybe we could have brought this to an end," McKoy said.
Cummins, the city councilman, said some residents have taken advantage of mental health counseling arranged by the city.
"Many of them have lost a lot of sleep, lost their appetites in the first month or so," Cummins said.
Prosecutors had intended to use $22,000 found in the house, including cash hidden in the washing machine, to pay for the demolition, but the work was donated.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said the money was offered to the victims, but they asked that it be used for the community.
McGinty said two adjacent houses would also be torn down and developed into a park or whatever the residents decide.
Prosecutors say Castro cried when he signed over the house deed and mentioned his "many happy memories" there with the women. They highlighted the teary-eyed scene to illustrate Castro's "distorted and twisted" personality.
On Wednesday, McGinty called him "one evil guy."
The three women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16 and 20 years old. Each had accepted a ride from Castro.
They escaped May 6, when Amanda Berry, now 27, broke part of a door and yelled to neighbors for help. Castro was arrested that evening.
At Castro's sentencing, prosecutors displayed photos that provided a first glimpse inside the rooms where the women lived.
Stuffed animals lined the bed and crayon drawings were taped to the wall where Berry lived with her young daughter, who was fathered by Castro. One of the drawings on a shelf said, "Happy Birthday."
The window was boarded shut and door knobs had been removed and replaced with multiple locks. Saucer-size holes in inside doors were meant for circulation.
Another room, shared by Knight and Gina DeJesus, had a portable toilet, a clock radio and several chains.
Across town, plans have been discussed for a memorial at the vacant lot where Anthony Sowell killed 11 women and dumped their bodies around his house and property. That house also has been demolished.
Sowell, who was convicted in 2011 of killing the women, has appealed his death sentence. The case raised questions about how police handle reports of missing women living on the fringe of society.
The sister of one Sowell victim questioned proposals for a memorial, including a children's play area and reflective pool.