Needless to say, the kidnapping case in Cleveland has garnered a ton of media attention now that the three women — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michele Knight — have been recovered from the house in which they were kept prisoner for a decade. But before it became a national story, Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett was on the case. Brett, a columnist since 1994 who’s been at the Plain Dealer since 2000, spoke with Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, several times in the years between Berry’s April 2003 disappearance and Miller’s 2006 death. She tells CJR what covering the case for the past decade has been like and how she feels now that it’s solved — years too late for Miller.

When Berry first went missing, on her way home from work at Burger King, police suspected she might have run away from home rather than been abducted. Desperate for media coverage, Louwana Miller reached out to Brett:

[Miller] was very upset and said, “My daughter would never run away.” And her daughter had left $100 on the dresser. And no teenager wants to go missing wearing a Burger King uniform. I mean, think about it, those are your mom instincts … Her daughter wasn’t on national TV and it wasn’t getting all the coverage that some of the other kidnappings get.

… I think it’s one of those things as a journalist, sometimes something just lands in your lap and says, ‘write me,’ and that’s the thing you’re called to write. You can’t even go looking for the story, it just comes to you. And I think the story, you know, came to me when Louwana called me.

Meeting Miller for the first time:

I went to her home, and Louwana Miller was a gruff woman — chain-smoking her Marlboros and, you know, probably had a few drinks. And when I walked in the door, she said, “Close the goddamn door!” I’m like, Whoa!

It wasn’t your typical weepy, sad mom. She wanted to kill somebody for her daughter being missing. And I think the media didn’t know what to do with somebody like Louwana because she didn’t fit the stereotype. And so I think, in some ways, Amanda didn’t show up on the radar screen for people right away.

Writing about Berry:

I wrote about her, and then I wrote another column about her, and then we just ran out of facts. I mean, I couldn’t keep writing about it because there was nothing new to say, which broke her heart because she kept wanting it in the news. I kept saying, “Louwana, if there’s nothing new, there’s nothing more I can say,” which is hard to say to a mom.

… I called the police constantly, I called the FBI: “Any change?” They’d say, “No.” I’d call Louwana back and she’d say, “But write something anyway!” And how do you tell a mom, you know, you can’t? So I did the best I could, I think I wrote five columns about Amanda being gone.

Her volatile relationship with Miller:

She would yell at me and then she’d call me honey and say, “Oh, I just want to find her, please write about her, please let me know if you can see if anything else changed.” I mean, I wish we could’ve found her daughter somehow. I remember walking from that Burger King to her home on West 111th over and over and over, trying to play detective — what could it be, where could she be? You want to solve it for the mom and give her her happy ending. And she never got it.

Georgina “Gina” DeJesus disappeared in 2004, a year after Amanda. Brett covered that, too:

When Gina DeJesus went missing, I thought right away, wow, there’s gotta be a connection here because they went missing a year apart, in April … That stood out. They’re the same height. They lived in the same general neighborhood. And I talked to the detectives, I said, You don’t think they might be … ? You know, maybe I watch too much cop shows on TV, I’m not a cop … And they said, Well, we’re checking it out, but so far nothing has connected them.

So I tried my best as a journalist to — you know, I didn’t want to sensationalize something and make something be there that wasn’t … I mean I suggested it in a column. But I know my editors were even like, Let’s not be alarmist. You know, if they’re saying there’s no connection, we can’t really say there is.

The problem is, we never knew about Michele Knight. I never even heard her name until they rescued her Monday. And as a journalist, I’m appalled. How could I not know? You know, if we had known three women were missing in the same area, I hate to say it but they always say, you know, more than two is a trend. Once you have three things happen, it’s a pattern.

I think if we’d have known there was a third in the same area, we would’ve have jumped all over this as a serial something. A killer or kidnapping or whatever. But the police categorize missing persons differently when they’re different ages, and that’s something I think we’ve got to change. And that’s something as journalists I think we can kind of beat the drum on. To make a difference.

On finding out that Berry and DeJesus were alive:

I was sitting in a restaurant Monday night, my husband was checking his emails and said, “Hey, you’re not gonna believe this. They found Amanda Berry.” And he goes, “Alive.” I’m like, “What?” I nearly fell out of my chair. And he goes, “She’s with Georgina DeJesus,” and I’m like, “There’s no, I mean, no way!” And then he goes, “There’s a third one,” and I’m like, “Holy you-know-what.” Like, oh my God, I nearly just fell out of the chair. Somebody had all — they had three women? And I knew Amanda had been missing 10 years. Ten years! So I think what happened was we were experiencing total joy and shock, and then the heartache set in for me, thinking of Louwana and all those days. Imagine the worst day of your life and then repeat it every day for three years. That’s how she lived. Until she died.

… And I keep thinking of Louwanna, like, God, she must — I mean, if you can know from the beyond what’s going on — wow, how ecstatic and yet how heartbreaking to know all these horrible things that happened to her daughter.

After Miller’s death, Brett wrote once more about Berry, in 2009, saying “it weighed me down carrying Amanda in my heart”:

I never stopped thinking about her.

 

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.