ST. PETERSBURG — My phone buzzed late Monday afternoon.
While sitting with my editor on a deadline story, the name of a Cleveland police officer popped up: The caller was one of my best sources from my days of chasing killers and corrupt politicians from 2005 to 2010 in northeast Ohio.
I didn't answer. I expected a message. Minutes later, the phone rang again. Something was up.
"Hello," I said.
"Mark," the source replied.
"What's up, buddy?" I asked.
"We found them. We found Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus," the officer said.
Chills raced up my spine and arms. The young girls disappeared 10 years ago.
"Where's the bodies?" I asked.
"They're alive," the officer declared. "They're f------- alive."
After a pause, I said, "Oh my God!"
I scanned news websites in Cleveland. No one had the story yet.
My adrenaline rushed. I wanted in on the chase— but I'm in Florida. I told everyone who would listen in the newsroom and they— like the country soon would be — were captivated.
I know Cleveland. I know the streets. I know the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods.
The West Side, where the women were held hostage for 10 years, was my old stomping grounds as a crime reporter.
At every vigil for missing persons, I spotted Berry's and DeJesus' family members. They wore shirts emblazoned with the girls' faces. These girls were more than pictures on milk cartons in Cleveland. You couldn't walk into a gas station without seeing the girls on doors and windows.
Their families kept their missing relatives in the public eye. They would not let the cases fade away.
Felix DeJesus, a towering man, always tried to comfort the relatives of other missing people. He urged them not to lose hope. He vowed he would see his daughter again — alive.
I wrote about Amanda Berry in 2009. Wisconsin hunters found remains of a young girl in the woods in Fond du Lac County in late 2008. Deputies initially believed there were striking similarities between Amanda and the found body.
I called Berry's family then, from my cold, dark office in the Cleveland police headquarters. The family had been through hell. I didn't want to offer any false hope or ask whether they thought the body could be Amanda.
I was secretly glad when I couldn't reach them.
Berry's disappearance took a toll on her mother, Louwanna Miller. She died of heart failure in 2006 at the age of 44. The community said she died from a broken heart.
While glued to the TV Monday night, I watched neighbors cheering as a parade of Cuyahoga County sheriff's deputies drove down Seymour Avenue. I spotted many former police sources in front of the house. My first instinct was to call them. Work the phones. Get the story.
How could these three women remain hidden under everyone's noses? In 2008, a former colleague and I chased stories for months about a shady politician in that neighborhood, blocks away from Lake Erie.
We drove past that street countless times, oblivious to the secret hiding on Seymour Avenue.
I spent multiple days and nights riding with undercover officers between 2008 and 2010 in that neighborhood. They, along with SWAT officers, kicked down many doors in that gritty area to catch bad guys.
Just not that one.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.