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Neighbor of accused kidnapper: 'We could have helped earlier'

May 7, 2013 at 9:23 AM ET

Juan Perez lived in his Cleveland home for 22 years, but he never had a clue that his neighbor may have been hiding three abducted women for a decade of that time.

“I thought that home was vacant,” Perez said Tuesday on TODAY. “I thought he probably had another property and that he would just come and check and see if everything’s OK. I didn’t even know anybody lived there, to tell you the truth.”

Authorities arrested the home’s owner and his two brothers after rescuing three women from the residence on Monday. The women disappeared between 2000 and 2004 in separate incidents. They were between the ages of 14 and 20 when they vanished.

Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age 11 and held captive for 18 years, urged the public to give some the victims some private time with their families.

“These individuals need the opportunity to heal and connect back into the world. This isn't who they are. It is only what happened to them,” she said in a statement. “The human spirit is incredibly resilient. More then ever this reaffirms we should never give up hope.”

Perez described his neighbor as a pleasant man who even lent a friendly hand when he did show up in the area.

“I’ve never seen anything that raised any suspicion. I’ve never seen anything that made me feel uncomfortable enough to call the police,” said Perez, who has lived in the neighborhood since he was 5. “I just saw someone who was very nice, charismatic, helped with the community on the street. And he even helped fix my tire once. I never thought nothing of it.”

But Perez said his sister did file a report with the police department several years ago after the two heard a scream nearby, although neither was sure from exactly where.

“There’s a difference between a playful, children-around scream with friends and this kind of scream. This kind of scream, I had my sister call the police and make a report,” he said.

While Perez expressed happiness for the three women victims, their family and friends, he also said he continued to grapple with the shock over their discovery and rescue.

“I felt, like, a tug in my heart. I was a little choked with emotion to know that they were two houses from me. Ten years, I never saw anything. Nobody really saw anything,” he said.

“It just made me feel, like, we could have helped earlier. So I really don’t know how to feel, to tell you the truth.”

John Walsh, the former host of “America’s Most Wanted,” credited Amanda Berry, the victim who made the key break for freedom, for providing "the most phenomenal ending" to the ordeal. He also highlighted the role of the passing neighbor who ultimately rescued Berry and let her call police with his phone.

Walsh, whose own son was abducted and killed by a stranger in 1981, said the Cleveland case should give hope to parents with children who remain missing.

Watch video: John Walsh: 'Never give up hope' for kidnap victims

"It’s kind of sad that Amanda Berry’s mother died, and many of the relatives said she died of a broken heart, but those two families never gave up looking for their daughters. And I say don’t give up hope," he said on TODAY. "The not knowing is the worst. It’s torture, but many, many times it’s up to the parents to keep the children’s names in the public eye and every now and then we get lucky.”

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