It Happened a Mile from My Home: Inside the Dungeon

8 May

If you’re squeamish, or if you’re in a really great mood tonight, you might want to pass on this blog.  It’s dark and dreary, but worth sharing.  After telling stories for 16 years, I’ve learned some stories get surprising happy endings, even if the beginning and middle are terrible.  The end is a chance to get it right.  I hope that happens in the sex slave case in Cleveland.   

I was in the atrium of the CNN studio center this week when I first saw the dated pictures of the Cleveland, Ohio kidnapping victims – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight – flash across the screen during Anderson Cooper’s show.  The faces were an unexpected reminder of my anchoring days at CBS 5 News in Syracuse ten years ago.

But wait.  What?!?  The pictures jarred me.  My mind was confused.

Those girls are alive?

Ten years later?


And living in the same house?

Are you kidding me?

Who could do that?


And how?

It just didn’t make sense.

It just doesn’t make sense.

But, heinous crimes aren’t supposed to make sense.

In the coming days, news reports will reveal ugly stories about what happened in that Seymour Ave. home, what went wrong, and who’s to blame.  For me, the events in Cleveland are eerily similar to one of the most disturbing stories I ever covered as a reporter.  Even the timing of how one began as the other ended is unsettling.

In April 2003, just two weeks before 16-year-old Amanda Berry was about to begin the worst ten years of her young life, a 16-year-old Syracuse girl was about to end the worst year of her life, breaking free the captor who kept her as a sex slave in his dungeon.

Built inside the yard of his home.

A mile from my home.

It was a typical spring day in April 2003, when crews from every television station in Upstate New York, swarmed 7070 Highbridge Road in Dewitt.  I was on the phone with police as we pulled up to the familiar home where I’d regularly exchange slight waves with the frail, seemingly harmless, white-haired man as I maneuvered the second of a five-mile-trek,  four-times-a-week.  The man often worked in the yard or on his car.  Well, not really worked.  Tinkered is more like it. I sometimes thought I should be more friendly.  Poor old guy.

Good thing I wasn’t.

The non-descript 1950’s grey ranch with burgundy shutters stuck out like a sore thumb, not because of the horrors going on inside the home, but rather, because it was oddly nestled near newly built million dollars homes a stone’s throw away.   John Jamelske’s decision to sell the land behind him to a developer helped make him a millionaire.

On that particular day in April, for whatever reason, Jamelske decided to collect nickels at a local bottle return store, bringing his latest victim in public with him.  It would turn out to be a bad decision for him, and a good decision for her as she found a break to make a hushed rushed phone call to her sister.  Police arrested the 68-year-old an hour after the phone call was made, ending his 15-year reign of terror on vulnerable at-risk women.

The 16-year-old was the last of five women Jamelske held captive through the years since 1988, the same year his wife was bedridden from cancer, oblivious to his sinister lifestyle below her.

For years, I was oblivious that I’d been waving at a serial kidnapper-rapist who picked up his victims with a police badge before blindfolding them and forcing them into his dungeon.

Creepy.  Just like what will happen in Cleveland, the ugly truth slowly emerged.

In 1988, Jamelske kidnapped and held a 14 year old Native American for two years, first in his mother’s well, before relocating her in his newly built dungeon.

In 1996, he kidnapped and held a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl captive before dropping her off at her mom’s home months later.  She went to police, but the case was dropped because of her shady past.

In 1997, Jamelske kidnapped and held a 50-something-year-old Asian woman for nine months before dropping her off at a bus station.  She too, told police.  The case went cold.

In 2001, Jamelske kidnapped a 26-year old Latino drug addict he found in downtown Syracuse, keeping her for months before releasing her.  She went to police. The case went cold with misinformation and inconsistencies.

In October 2002, Jamelske kidnapped his last victim, an African American runaway.  While he was inside the bottle return, the victim called her sister, who called back the number and spoke to the store manager, who called 911.

A few months after the disturbing discovery, Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick asked me if I’d report with him live from inside the dungeon.  Being claustrophobic, I knew it would be hard, wasn’t sure I could do it, but said ‘yes’ anyway.  Reporters are used to being taken out of their comfort zone.  We don’t like it.  We just do it.

But this was macabre.

It took a full day and a large scale crew to get the logistics just right for the live shot.  Crews are dealing with that now in Cleveland, Ohio.  Live television requires multiple producers, production crews, layers of cable, numerous cameras, lighting and a host of other details that take a lot of expertise and the right people to manage.  Add in a dungeon burrowed behind walls and tunnels, and the logistics are complex.

Jamelske poured his dungeon on the east end of the home.  To get to the bunker, we had to walk up the front steps into the living room, weaving through a thin worn trail of ceiling-to-floor piles of papers and magazines rounding us into the kitchen where a pet gold fish swam in a bucket.  The trail continued through the kitchen into the garage, curving left down a slight flight of stairs into the basement, where a sign above read, “Peace to all who Enter.” The long, narrow, dim walk through the basement was lined with thousands of beer cans and bottles neatly stacked on revolving shelves.

As you walked past the last bin, THERE it was.  The entrance to the dungeon was sinister and low to the ground. It resembled a dirt crawl space where animals lived.  We crouched on hands and knees, in single file, crawling through the eight-foot-tunnel, through several steel doors, each equipped with a padlock, before turning around feet first and descending down a three-rung ladder into the 8 ft. high, by 24 ft. long, by 12 ft. wide, bunker.  A crucifix hung above the ladder.

I felt panicked entering, despite working alongside some of the best people in the business. I couldn’t breathe and kept trying to quell the panic inside me. I couldn’t get past what happened in those rooms. There were no windows. No doors. No hope. I pulled it together for the three hours I was live, at one point muttering the line, “If hell has an address, this is the place.” I went in with eyes wide open. The victims did not, each of them blindfolded, confused and scared as Jamelske, similar to the Cleveland case, tied them up with chains and ankle bracelets. Sometimes, he’d reward them with french fries and ketchup.  He thought he was being a good guy when he did so.

The bunker was divided into two rooms with the three-rung latter descending into the ‘bathroom,’ equipped with only a rust-stained bathtub on a raised wooden deck, a garden hose to drain cold water, and a transistor radio.  Lack of a drainage system left the dungeon cold, damp and musty. A bucket was the toilet. An extension cord and aluminum hose pumped warm air into the bunker from the house furnace.

Poorly strung dim lights lead to the second room, the ‘bedroom,’ which comprised only of a folding chair and a couple of wood pallets as a bed.  To pass the time, the enslaved etched religious phrases and peace symbols on the walls, sang to themselves, or occasionally danced with their captor.

Unspeakable things happened in that dungeon at 7070 Highbridge Rd.  What struck me most was one victim telling me at least she knew when her master came home, she’d live another day.  Her worst fear wasn’t what he’d do to her, but rather him being killed in a car crash or dying of a heart attack and she’d never be found.  She also worried about the house catching on fire.

Jamelske, who believed he’d get off with community service, is serving a life sentence.

The gold fish, was adopted by the District Attorney’s office, and was named Archie Bunker.

All of Jamelske’s victims survived.

As did the three victims in Cleveland, Ohio, which undoubtedly is a miracle for the families, who today, are able to hold the daughters and sisters they probably thought they’d never see again.

Perhaps, tremendous amounts of counseling, love and support will enable the three victims to recover.  Other prisoners have recovered and lead productive lives:

Senator John McCain.

Ernie Brace.

Terry Anderson.

Jaycee Dugard.

Elizabeth Smart.

I want to believe these victims can recover.

Perhaps the only thing we can take away from dark moments like these is that none of us really knows how strong we are, until strength is all we have.


9 Responses to “It Happened a Mile from My Home: Inside the Dungeon”

  1. Rebecca May 8, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    Donna, I’m so glad you weren’t Jamelske’s 6th victim. One never knows what turns life will have for them. We never know who we’re dealing with. Sometimes the most gentle looking person, can be a depraved monster. As was the case with Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight…we don’t know what awaits us around the corner that will hurts us…or the turn of events that will save us.

    • dadamo102 May 9, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

      Thank you Rebecca for your thoughts. As a footnote, John Jamelske has since ‘found Jesus.’ D.

  2. Janice Anne Wegener Grieshaber Geddes May 8, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Donna, It is rare to get this kind of insightful view into the “back door” of the news. Thank you for sharing and for being the conduit for understanding in this kind of strange, horrible crime, even as we acknowledge that there is NO understanding for people like Castro, Jamelske, etc. but only for the victims. To them, I send my gratitude for their survival and strength and hope that that strength will help them to recover and live productive, happy lives.

    • dadamo102 May 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

      Janice, there really is NO understanding. It’s amazing how strong each of us can be, though, as you, of all people know, resilience takes much longer. There’s hope these young ladies will find a new amazing life.

  3. Michael May 9, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Donna…articulate, insightful and wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing something so personal.

    • dadamo102 May 9, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

      Thank you, Michael. I’d tucked that dark day far behind me – until this week. D.

  4. May 9, 2013 at 4:57 am #

    Donna, Excellent column. It’s the price we pay for the job we do. I call them my “ghosts”; those stories I did where I can remember all the horrible details. I remember the sights and smells; the weather, the sounds, the smallest of details. As I read your lines it all came back. My defense against the “ghosts” is the hope that, perhaps, what we reported helped make things a little better, somehow. I remember your courage, dear. I still pass the house often. I cannot do so without all the horrors returning. And then I remember the courage of the lady I worked with. Be well darling, Johnnie

    • dadamo102 May 9, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Johnnie, we were all in those stories together – which is the only thing that made covering them with a sense of purpose possible. Thank you for years of support when those dark ghosts reared their ugly heads. Best to you, D.

  5. a February 23, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    Good article. I see the Syracuse police dept hasn’t changed much since my days in CNY. Had they BELIEVED the victims that came forward it would have have saved other women from living thur this Hell & continuing to for the rest of their lives. Those officerers should have been sued or at least disciplined which I’m sure didn’t happen. Pretty sad when police who are supposed to protect the public turn their backs.

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