(NEW YORK) — Michelle Knight had known unimaginable hardship long before she was abducted in 2002 at the age of 21, then held captive and repeatedly raped and tortured for nearly 11 years by Ariel Castro, a school bus driver and local musician.
She’d fought to overcome what she says was the trauma of sexual abuse by a male relative, living on the streets and later losing custody of her son.
She survived still when she escaped Castro’s grip in 2013 and was told by doctors that she had only days to live. She continued fighting by facing her perpetrator in court. And, with time, she found love and created a new family to surround her.
“You can overcome all obstacles that stand in your way,” Knight shared in an interview with ABC News. “Don’t let the darkness control your light in your life.”
Knight and the two other women who were kidnapped by Castro as teens, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, shared their stories of survival with 20/20.
Watch the full story on “20/20” Friday, Jan. 3, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
Knight said she loved growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, but hated her life at home.
“We didn’t have a couch to sit on. We didn’t have a stove,” she said. “Just to give us a hot warm meal, I had to cook on a space heater. It takes four hours for a hot dog to cook.”
Knight said she was almost like a mother to her siblings. A brother, Edward Knight, told ABC News, “she has always been there to help us.”
Knight described her life as “traumatic,” saying she suffered sexual and emotional abuse.
“You name it, I went through it,” she said. “I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m more safer on the streets than I am living in my own home.’ So, I basically ran away.”
She was only 14 at the time.
“I didn’t really know where my next meal was going to come from or what was gonna happen next,” she said. “I lived in a garbage can. I took a blanket from somebody’s back porch. Cuddled up with it. … There was a bridge, where I can hear cars going past. The vibrations just, you know, helped me be calm.”
She said she often sought refuge in a local Baptist church where she was given food, clothes and a place to bathe.
“I [ended] up going there just because I heard beautiful music. And I was a little bit embarrassed because I didn’t smell too pretty,” she said. “I stood in the back and singing along with every hymn that they were singing.”
A congregant saw her at the church one day and reported it to her father. He sent her back to school where she says she was bullied. She started seeing a boy from school, got pregnant and gave birth to her son Joey at 18.
“I wanted to be the best mom. I wanted to be better than … my mom,” she said. “It was difficult because I didn’t have very much money.”
In the spring of 2002, she said, her mother’s boyfriend got drunk and fractured Joey’s knee. Social services eventually put him in foster care.
Knight was desperate to get her son back. On Aug. 23, 2002, she got lost on her way to a case management meeting and stopped at a store to ask for directions.
“I was trying so desperately to get ahold of them. I tried to call them on a payphone. It didn’t work. So I felt like there’s no way I was gonna make it,” she said.
Then a man offered to help her. She recognized him as the father of one of her friends.
“He said, ‘I know where it’s at. I can take you straight to it. It’ll only take me … five minutes.’ And I’m like ‘OK. I’m gonna make it. This is gonna happen,’” she said.
The man she trusted to help her was Ariel Castro.
But instead of going to family court, he took her to his home, on the pretense of first picking his daughter and showing Michelle some puppies. But his daughter didn’t live with him, and there were no puppies.
He ended up holding her captive in his house more than a decade.
“He said, ‘You’re not gonna leave for a long time.’ And then he starts undressing himself,” she said. “I dropped to the floor begging him to let me go. Begging him, saying, ‘I need to get to my son. This can’t happen.’”
“He ripped up my son’s picture right in front of me — the only picture I had — and said, ‘You will never see him.’ … That hurted so bad. The knife felt like it was going deeper and deeper into my chest,” she said.
A decade of suffering trapped in Castro’s home
At first, Knight was kept bound with an extension cord wrapped around her legs, arms and neck. He shoved a sock in her mouth to muffle her screams.
Castro raped her multiple times a day and put on loud music to further mute her cries.
“It was difficult. I had to go blank,” she said. “Any time he was doing anything to me, I had to put myself in a different place.”
Even though Castro had Knight captive in his home, he still wasn’t satisfied.
In April 2003, he kidnapped 16-year-old Amanda Berry as she was walking home from her job at Burger King. A year later, he abducted 14-year-old Gina DeJesus as she returned home from middle school. In each case, the girl got into his car because she knew him as her friend’s father.
The disappearance of Berry and DeJesus alarmed the community, and their families were on the news constantly pleading for their return. But there was never any public mention of Knight, a fact she said Castro taunted her over “every single day.”
“‘Your families don’t care about you. Ain’t you glad I took you?’” Knight remembered him telling her. “I felt like he hated me the most, because I was the one that stood my ground.”
While Michelle’s family had initially filed a missing persons report with police, it was eventually presumed she had run away because she was an adult at the time of her disappearance.
Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor Anna Faraglia said Castro “was very abusive to Michelle ’cause Michelle spoke up the most.”
Knight told authorities she got pregnant five times and each time, Castro used vicious and violent methods to end the pregnancy.
“He’s the reason why I can’t have children now — and that’s the most suckiest feeling ever,” she said. “But he couldn’t break me.”
On May 6, 2013, Knight’s life would change forever. Berry and her daughter, whom she’d given birth to while in captivity, were able to escape while Castro was out of the house. With the help of others in the neighborhood, Berry alerted authorities.
“I hear noises in the hallway. ‘Police! Police!’ I pushed my head out,” Knight said. “I see a badge. … [I] ran up and jumped in their arms and said, ‘Never let me go!’”
First responder Anthony Espada remembered, “I thought she was a child ’cause that’s, ’cause she was so tiny.”
Knight had been held captive in Castro’s home for nearly 11 years.
“It was just [an] amazing feeling,” Knight said. “The first thing that I did is I dropped to the ground. I didn’t care how dirty it was … I kissed that ground. I kissed that ground and thanked God that He helped us get out of there.”
Recovery and building a new life
It didn’t take long before Castro was found driving nearby and was arrested. The women were taken to the hospital, where Knight was found to be in the worst condition of the three.
“They couldn’t find out why I was bleeding, why I was having stomach issues. But they did different tests and they told me, ‘You only got two days to live,’” she said. “’It’s been too long and the antibiotics are not working on you.’”
Still, she refused to be defeated. Knight remembered singing and dancing while receiving treatment.
“I was trying to make the best of the life that I had left,” she said. “They put me on 14 different medications before I was actually better.”
Castro told police that he treated the girls well and described the countless rapes he committed as “consensual.” He confirmed terminating Knight’s pregnancies but claimed it was a mutual decision.
Castro pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus a thousand years.
“You took 11 years of my life away and I have got it back,” she said at Castro’s sentencing. “I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all this that happened, but you will face hell for eternity. From this moment on, I will not let you define me or affect who I am.”
“For as little as she is, she’s a big girl, man. I don’t know how she did it,” said Cleveland police officer Barbara Johnson.
“I had to show him that he no longer has control over me,” Knight told 20/20. “That he doesn’t define who I am. I define who I am by everything I do in life.”
Knight, Berry and DeJesus survived in Castro’s captivity together for a decade. But Castro only spent one month and one day in prison before killing himself.
By then, Castro’s house had already been demolished. Knight watched as it was being torn down, handing out balloons to those in the neighborhood.
“I wanted to show them that they’re not hated because they didn’t know,” Knight said. “That they are loved even though I was in a situation, who would know?”
There was one other person for whom she showed compassion.
“I chose to forgive [Castro], because I didn’t want the emotional chain of that situation,” Knight said. “I didn’t want it to hold me back or control my life anymore, so I had to break free.”
At first, Knight didn’t have a support system to aid in her long recovery. She utilized equine therapy to help heal and over time created what she calls her “chosen family.”
“I got my adopted dad, which his name is Jim [Taylor]. He’s such a sweetheart. He’s the one that showed me that men are not all the same,” she said.
She met her husband, Miguel Rodriguez, who she says “is the love of my life … my other half. He showed me that life doesn’t have to be horrible and you don’t have to be alone.”
“When I first came out of the house, I didn’t even know what love was. What a tender touch was. All I knew was abuse,” she said.
She has since legally changed her name to Lily Rose Lee.
“[I] wanted a new beginning to my new journey of life,” she said.
And, she is now in the process of starting her own nonprofit called Lily’s Ray of Hope to support victims of child abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking.
“Everybody in life that goes through a tragedy, that’s been in the dark for so long, needs to see the sunrise,” she said. “Just show the people that have harmed us that they don’t control us anymore.”
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