John Makely / NBC News
Fernando Colon was accused by Ariel Castro in 2004 of sexually assaulting the latter's daughters, Emily and Arlene, who also were his stepdaughters. He was initially charged with 28 counts, including rape and kidnapping, but was found guilty of five lesser offenses.
Nearly a decade before being charged with kidnapping, raping and torturing three Cleveland women, Ariel Castro was himself the accuser in a sexual assault case involving his daughters. The accusations, which resulted in the conviction of his ex-wife’s second husband, now offer a new window into Castro’s tangled family relationships.
The case against Fernando Colon also raises questions about whether FBI agents squandered an opportunity to question Castro about the disappearance of two of the women in the months after their abductions.
John Gress / Reuters
Ariel Castro appears in court Thursday in Cleveland.
Castro made the accusations against Colon, 39, in July 2004, shortly after 14-year-old Georgina “Gina” DeJesus vanished on her way home from the west Cleveland middle school she attended.
Colon, the husband of Ariel Castro’s ex-common-law wife, Grimilda “Nilda” Figueroa, says he told two FBI agents nine years ago to investigate Castro in connection with the disappearances of Amanda Berry and DeJesus, but that the agents seemed uninterested in his tip.
Castro has now been charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape for allegedly abducting DeJesus, Berry and Michelle Knight, and was arraigned on Thursday.
When DeJesus, a seventh-grader, disappeared on April 2, 2004, the FBI had reason to question Fernando Colon. Colon, was the stepfather of 13-year-old Arlene Castro, Ariel Castro’s daughter, who was DeJesus’ self-described best friend and had been with her right before she vanished. He also was the last adult known to have seen DeJesus before her disappearance.
According to Chris Giannini, a private investigator who at the time was Colon’s boss, when school let out that day, Arlene Castro and DeJesus walked to Westown Square, the nearby shopping center where Colon worked as a security officer. Arlene asked Colon if Gina could come over and spend the night.
When Colon said” no,” according to Giannini, the girls tried to get around Fernando “by checking with mom” via payphone. He said the girls got a second “no” from Figueroa.
'The last one to see Gina'
After Gina DeJesus disappeared, Arlene Castro told investigators that she and her friend went their separate ways when their sleepover was nixed. But according to a Cleveland police report issued Wednesday, Gina DeJesus has added a new detail. She says that before they separated, they also talked to Ariel Castro. After the girls split up, DeJesus now says, Ariel Castro returned and offered her a ride, which she accepted.
Soon after the disappearance, FBI agents contacted Giannini and said they wanted to question Colon “because he was the last one to see Gina,” according to Giannini. They searched the patrol car that Colon used to cruise the Westown parking lot to make sure Gina had not been in the car. According to Colon, FBI Agent Phil Torsney and another agent whose name he doesn’t recall then conducted a polygraph.
“I guess I passed the polygraph,” recalled Colon. Having taken courses in policing, Colon said he understood why he had been questioned, but realized that there was someone else the FBI agents should contact.
John Makely / Courtesy of Fernando Colon
Fernando Colon keeps this photo of Grimilda "Nilda" Figueroa in his Cleveland apartment.
According to Colon, Castro, who had not spent much time with the girls since splitting from their mother in 1995, and had contributed little to their financial support, had recently started spending more time with them, driving them places and buying them cellphones. Colon said he told the agents that Castro also might have been acquainted with two of the missing girls -- in addition to Arlene’s close friendship with DeJesus, his older daughter, Emily, was friends with Amanda Berry, who had disappeared nearly a year earlier.
“I said that if you’re talking to me because of my stepdaughters you should really be talking to Ariel Castro. He has more chance and opportunity than I do,” said Colon. “These girls are best friends with his daughters. (The agents) told me, ‘Well, we have to deal with you. Whatever arises in the case, we’ll take care of that.’” Colon does not know if they ever followed up and questioned Castro.
Agent Torsney, who is now retired from the FBI and living in another state, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. At a press conference Wednesday, FBI Special Agent Stephen Anthony took issue with Colon’s version of events, telling reporters that his agency had "scrubbed" its records on the case and had found no mention of Colon referring to Castro, and had “no reason to believe” he’d made the statement.
Colon says he heard nothing more from law enforcement about the DeJesus case after the polygraph. Several months later, however, Colon found himself under investigation for a different crime. Ariel Castro and his daughters Emily, 16, and Arlene, 13, alleged that Colon had molested both girls between 1996 and 2001.
Payback seen behind accusation
Colon maintains his innocence, and told NBC News that he thinks Ariel Castro made the accusations as a way of fulfilling a threat he’d made back in 1995, when his wife left him for Colon.
Grimilda Figueroa and Colon met when Colon was working at a local hospital, and Figueroa came in with injuries that she said were the result of abuse by Castro. She had accused Castro of domestic violence in 1993, but a grand jury declined to indict him.
After she’d come to the hospital a few times, Colon said he offered her a way out of her relationship with Castro. “(Castro) had so much control over her,” Colon said. “He had her so wrapped up she had nobody to talk to. She told me his windows were tinted so nobody could see in and there were padlocks on the doors. . . I said, ‘If you were offered help to get out of the situation, would you take it?’ She said, ‘Yes.’”
After the breakup, Figueroa and her four children by Ariel Castro – Anthony, Angie, Emily and Arlene – went to live with Colon in 1995. According to Colon, Castro was furious, and after peppering the house with abusive phone calls, issued a threat to Colon. “He told me very clearly, ‘One day I’m going to get back at you and I’m going to ruin your life.’” Colon said that Castro waited for his moment “and then accused me of something that does the most damage to a person.”
Castro made the molestation accusations in July 2004, two months after DeJesus vanished. “I think he did it to get police attention away from him,” said Colon. “By that point I think he already had all three (kidnapped) women under his roof.”
NBCNews.com/Courtesy of Kayla Rogers
Arlene Castro poses for a picture in march of 2004.
Colon believes that his stepdaughters, Emily and Arlene, went along with their dad’s molestation charges because Castro had begun buying them things and doing them favors, even promising to get them a car, and because the girls resented Colon’s attempts to impose discipline. In court documents, he said that he had a “long history” with the two girls: “Defendant states that they are unruly and they don’t listen.” He also said that Emily was a drug user who at age 16 would stay away from the house for weeks at a time, according to court documents.
Figueroa testified on Colon’s behalf at his 2005 bench trial. She said that Castro had started purchasing clothes for Arlene and had promised Emily an SUV. Figueroa also claimed that Castro, who had recently inherited some money, had promised her an expensive present as well. “Castro told me to go along with the complaints against Fernando Colon and he would buy me a new car,” said Figueroa in a pre-trial affidavit. “Castro was laughing and excited. … Castro believes that we will be together again.”
In the affidavit, she said that Arlene had “never discussed any inappropriate conduct between her and Fernando” and that as a stay-at-home mom, she had never witnessed any inappropriate sexual contact between Colon and his stepdaughters.
Arlene and Emily testified against Colon. But Anthony Castro, Ariel’s son, joined his mother in testifying on Colon’s behalf, saying he didn’t believe the charges of molestation.
Ex-wife sought restraining order
According to Chris Giannini, just before the trial began, Figueroa said that Ariel Castro had threatened to harm her if the girls did not testify at the trial. Arlene did not want to testify, said Giannini, and Emily was in Indiana with her adult boyfriend and didn’t want to return to Ohio. Figueroa sought a temporary restraining order, in which she inventoried years of alleged abuse at Castro’s hands: she alleged he had broken her nose twice, broken her ribs and caused a blood clot or tumor in her brain.
Giannini acted as an investigator for Colon in 2004 and 2005, helping his employee prepare his defense. At one point, he was able to arrange an interview with Castro to ask him about the allegations. Giannini said that Castro claimed that while he was driving Arlene and a friend around, the friend alleged that Fernando had stood over her while she was at a sleepover at Arlene’s house.
According to Giannini, Castro then claimed Arlene said that Colon had penetrated her digitally and demanded to know who she was having sex with.
“I had already heard somebody tell me the exact same story about Ariel,” said Giannini, who described the informant as “a family member.” “Right away I know what (Castro) is doing. He’s projecting his own behavior on to Fernando.”
When the case against Colon went to trial at the end of August 2005, Ariel Castro took the stand to deny that he had ever abused Figueroa. Instead, he said, Figueroa had tried to get physical with him, once hitting her head on a door jamb in the process, which resulted in a trip to the hospital.
He also denied threatening Colon and Figueroa, and said he had gone to police immediately after hearing Arlene and her friend talking about Colon’s alleged inappropriate sexual behavior. When asked if anyone lived with him at his house on Seymour Avenue – the address where police recovered Berry, DeJesus and Knight on Monday -- he said, “No.”
Kathleen DeMetz, Ariel Castro’s public defender in the kidnap and rape case, said she was unfamiliar with the Colon case and declined further comment.
The indictment of Colon originally contained 28 counts, including rape and kidnapping. On Sept. 6, 2005, the judge found Colon guilty on five counts of gross sexual imposition. He was sentenced to three years of probation, and is now a registered sex offender in Ohio.
“He hasn’t been able to get steady work in eight years,” said Giannini. “You can’t work in this field (security) with a felony on your record.” Colon also split up with Figueroa for good after the trial.
When news of Castro’s arrest broke, said Colon, his mother called him from Puerto Rico, sobbing. “She said, ‘I told you that all you had to do is have faith and something would come out,’” said Colon.
Now that Ariel Castro is in custody, said Colon, “I want my life back.” Colon and Giannini see an opportunity to challenge his conviction and repair his reputation. One of the first items on their agenda is speaking to Colon’s former stepdaughters to see if they will reconsider their testimony.
Talking to Emily Castro will require a trip to Indiana. Now 25, she’s currently serving a 25-year sentence in an Indiana state prison for the attempted murder of her daughter.
In April 2007, Emily slashed the then-11-month-old girl’s neck and then tried to slash her own wrists. At trial, defense attorneys argued that she was insane at the time of the attack. Nilda Figueroa appeared as a witness, testifying that Emily had struggled with depression for years and seemed paranoid since her daughter’s birth. She also said she had taken Emily to get mental help prior to the attempted murder.
Colon and Giannini also plan to contact Arlene, whose phone was not accepting calls on Wednesday.
Nilda Figueroa , however, can’t be enlisted in Colon’s bid for rehabilitation. She died in 2012 in Indiana at age 48.
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This story was originally published on Thu May 9, 2013 3:29 PM EDT