Every day for 11 years, Michelle Knight dreamed about the moment she would be free to find love.
It was one of the ways that she made it through every day that she was at the mercy of deranged Ariel Castro, who kidnapped her in August 2002.
Michelle and two other women, who were also held prisoner by Castro – Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus – escaped their hellhole in Cleveland, Ohio, in May 2013 and tried to forge normal lives in the outside world.
Now Michelle – who has changed her name to Lily Rose Lee – has revealed the incredible news that her dreams have come true and she is now married.
‘On my darkest days when I was being kept prisoner, I would think about my wedding. I would dream that I would meet a kind, loving man who would look after me,’ Lily, now 37, exclusively tells New Idea.
‘I made myself believe that there was a man outside of those walls for me, someone special... I even designed my own wedding dress. When I married my husband Miguel, I wore the dress and it was honestly the best day of my life.’
Lily was just 20 years old when she was taken by Castro. She was on her way to an appointment when Castro – a friend’s father – stopped her and told her he knew the building where she needed to be. He also asked her if she would like one of his puppies for her son.
‘I got in his car willingly because I knew him,’ explains Lily. ‘I was good friends with his daughter at school, so I trusted him.
‘We got to his house and he locked his gates, which wasn’t unusual because he lived in a bad neighbourhood. I saw his dog, then went into the house to see his puppies. Then the next thing he slammed the door shut.
‘An overwhelming fear came over me and I instinctively knew I was in trouble.’
Lily was taken to an upstairs bedroom where Castro chained her up with extension cords and sexually assaulted her. He then strapped a sock in her mouth with duct tape and left.
For almost 4000 days Lily was held captive – at first in the upstairs bedroom and later in the basement with Amanda and Gina, who he had also lured in.
Almost all of the time Lily was shackled, and every day he would sexually assault her. He got her pregnant five times and each time he would starve and beat Lily until she miscarried.
She was banned from taking showers and forced to use a bucket as a toilet. Every window was nailed shut, doors locked, and with no way of ever getting out, she found a way to survive.
‘There were times when I felt like killing myself,’ says Lily. ‘But then I told myself that one day
I was going to get out and make my son proud – he honestly kept me going.
‘When the other two girls arrived, we provided a lot of emotional support for each other. We cried together and sometimes we laughed, just to make our lives that bit normal.
‘Castro gave me a drawing pad and a pencil, and I started to draw every day. I would draw everything I missed, like the ocean, trees, the sunrise and the sunset.
‘Drawing really helped me. It was my release, my escape, my little bit of sunshine in that bleak, horrific situation. I could take myself away for hours and dream about a life outside the basement.
‘I drew a picture of my wedding dress and vowed that one day I would wear it.’
On May 6, 2013, Amanda realised that Castro hadn’t locked the door to the basement. She fled and ran for help.
The three women were freed and the same day –
Castro was arrested. He later pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder.
He was sentenced to life in prison plus 1000 years, but just one week into his sentence he killed himself.
For Lily, adjusting to the outside world was difficult. She changed her name from Michelle to Lily – her favourite flower – as part of her rebirth.
Amanda, Lily and Gina agreed to go their separate ways so that they could all heal separately with no reminders of their imprisonment. That agreement still stands today.
When she left, Lily’s first thought was for her son – who had been adopted out during the years she was held prisoner – and she made the most incredible decision.
‘I decided that as Joey was living with a wonderful family into which he had been adopted, I couldn’t get in touch with him,’ recalls Lily. ‘In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
‘I had got so well-known after I was released and he didn’t even know me. Yes, I was desperate to see him, but once
I found out he was OK, I was at peace.’
A few months later, Lily says she was ready to start to live again after feeling severely ill for weeks.
She met an older man called Jim in a local Cleveland karaoke bar, who eventually was like a father figure to her and became the person she credits with showing her that not all men are evil.
‘I needed someone like that in my life to help me come to terms with everything,’ she says.
In the summer of 2014, Lily and Miguel Rodriguez, a 39-year-old courier, met through friends on Facebook. It wasn’t until they had known each other for six months that she revealed who she was.
‘I wanted to tell him I was one of the House of Horrors girls for the longest time,’ says Lily. ‘But I couldn’t do it. I wanted him to get to know me first without any preconceived ideas of who I am.
‘I waited until I felt as if our relationship was going somewhere. It had taken me a long time to get intimate with Miguel, mainly because of Castro. But we took our time and in the end it was worth the wait because it was different – I had nothing to fear because the difference was love.
‘He was surprised when I told him, but he said that he was glad I did that because he would rather have fallen in love and got to know me then than the terrified, abused woman who came out of that house.
‘I think he thought we had more chance because I was already healing. I was so happy with his response – he was incredibly kind and understanding and supportive. I think I fell in love with him even more that day!’
Miguel proposed to Lily at Christmas in 2015 and they were married in a beautiful ceremony in May 2016 – on the third anniversary of her release.
‘It was the wedding I had always dreamt about,’ says Lily. ‘I had my drawings made into my dress and it came out stunning. I had roses, lilies and carnations for the flowers, and everything was just perfect.
‘To be able to walk down the aisle to marry someone who loves me was just amazing. Castro had told me many times that no man would ever want me, and it was the most amazing feeling in the world to prove him wrong.’
Sadly, it’s unlikely Lily will have another child after what she endured, but she has four dogs.
She also gives talks in the community and is setting up a charity called Lily’s Ray Of Hope Foundation dedicated to supporting women who are victims of abuse, human trafficking and violence.
‘I live for every single day,’ says Lily. ‘I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life. It’s true the nightmares never fully go away, neither do the flashbacks, but I can control them with my husband by my side.
‘I will probably never be fully healed, but that’s OK. I can live with that. I just want to help others along the way, be a friend to another victim, and show them that there is life after something truly horrific.
‘You can find happiness again.’
Lily's new book is called Life After Darkness: Finding Healing And Happiness After The Cleveland Kidnappings