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This anonymous bubble we live in guards vile secrets of our neighbours

In the harrowing days following her daughter's disappearance, Louwana Miller existed on a steady diet of cigarettes and blind hope at her home in Cleveland.

She kept Amanda's bedroom just the way it had been on the day she vanished, her bed unmade, her teddy bear resting against her pillow, her laundry neatly folded on her bedside bureau.

Louwana tortured herself by replaying in her mind Amanda's cheery last words – "I've got a ride. I'll call you back" – as though this most banal of sentences might offer a clue, any clue, as to where her beloved Mandy could be.

But as the days stretched into months, and the months into years, hope faded into despair and the wait began to take its toll.

In March 2006, nearly three years after Amanda Berry disappeared, Louwana Miller died of heart failure; her death the result of a broken heart, said her sister, who told reporters that the stress and heartache of Mandy's void had finally become too much to bear.

What would Louwana Miller say today if she knew, as we do now, that while she chain smoked her way into oblivion, her little girl was living just a couple of kilometres down the road, a prisoner in a basement with two other young women, all victims of an alleged sexual predator who worked a nine-to-five job as a school bus driver?

We have been here before. In August 2009, America marvelled at the horror and incredulity of the Jaycee Dugard case, an 11-year-old girl kidnapped in broad daylight in California by a convicted sex offender and then kept in captivity for 18 years with her two children conceived through rape and born in a filthy backyard slum.

At the time, neighbours of Jaycee's captor, Phillip Garrido, said that they thought his toy-strewn backyard was "creepy" and "strange" but that they had no idea anyone was living there.

"We never heard screaming, we never heard anyone crying for help," said one neighbour who noted that in retrospect it was odd that Garrido had erected a property fence in the middle of the night at the exact time that Jaycee had disappeared.

How can a convicted child sex offender have toys in his backyard and no one – not even his visiting parole officer – take note? How is it possible to hide three women and a child in a tiny basement in a suburban home in downtown Cleveland and not arouse any suspicion?

Are we that inured to the stresses of our day-to-day lives that we can't take into account the eccentricities of our neighbours? How much responsibility do the neighbours of suspect Ariel Castro have in this case?

To live in an American city these days is to exist in an anonymous bubble. Faces are a blur, eye contact is a rarity, and conversations are kept to a minimum.

We bury our heads in our smart phones and block out noise with tiny white ear buds. In the growing metropolitan areas, people slide effortlessly through the cracks.

I live on a friendly, tree-lined street in north-west Washington but three years since moving in I have yet to clap eyes on the occupants of a red-bricked house a mere five doors down the road.

Each house on our street has a basement below street level. What secrets do they hold, I wonder? Are there any Jaycees or Amandas in our neck of the woods?

In 2004, Cleveland police were called to 2207 Seymour Avenue – the house where Amanda, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were held captive – but no one clapped eyes on the girls.

Neighbours now recall seeing the suspect, Ariel Castro, out with a small child, a child he airily passed off as "the daughter of my girlfriend", but no one had ever seen Castro's girlfriend and nobody thought to ask why.

In 2004, Cleveland police received a complaint that Castro had left a child alone on his school bus. Police came to his house but nobody answered and so the investigation ground to a halt.

Did authorities unwittingly foil another kidnapping attempt? Was that incident not enough to ring alarm bells? Had the police returned again when Castro was home would they have found Amanda in the basement?

In November 2004, Amanda Berry's disappearance was featured on the popular 'America's Most Wanted' television show and a few months later her mother, Louwana, agreed to discuss her daughter's case on the 'Montel Williams' talk show.

On air, in front of a spellbound audience, a psychic told Louwana that her daughter was dead. "I still don't want to believe it," a distraught Louwana said. "I want to have hope but . . . what else is there?"

According to a friend of Louwana's, the psychic's phoney prophecy was the final straw for a heartbroken mother clutching for hope.

"From that point, Ms Miller was never the same," he said. "I think she had given up."

Irish Independent