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Cleveland's Charles Ramsey becomes an Internet folk hero

FBI agents search the home where three Cleveland women were found alive after vanishing in Cleveland, Ohio, May 7, 2013. REUTERS/John Gress
FBI agents search the home where three Cleveland women were found alive after vanishing in Cleveland, Ohio, May 7, 2013. REUTERS/John Gress

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland dishwasher who became an overnight sensation for his street-wise poise under the media spotlight after helping save three women from an alleged decade-long kidnapping ordeal, has won a shout-out from McDonald's and legions of fans on social media.

Ramsey responded to cries from Amanda Berry and helped get her away from a neighbor's house on Monday. He also got on the phone with emergency responders, actions that police say led to the rescue of two other women and a child from the home and could earn Ramsey reward money.

Ramsey, 43, has had brushes with the law in the past.

In 1993, he was convicted of receiving stolen property and received a one-year prison sentence, said JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Corrections. In 2003, he was convicted of domestic violence, for which he served a nine-month sentence, she said.

A court document from the 2003 case posted on the news website The Smoking Gun said Ramsey was arrested in Cleveland after assaulting his wife and that he had prior domestic violence convictions.

The woman, who is listed on Facebook as Rochelle Paschal and also by the last name Dukes, told The Smoking Gun she was now on an "okay basis" with Ramsey but that the abuse led her to file for divorce from him in 2003 while he was in prison.

Paschal did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment, and she could not be reached by telephone.

On her Facebook page on Wednesday, Paschal wrote that people "do change and you shouldn't hold the past against someone." "The (main) thing is Charles Ramsey did a good deed and those girls are safe is that not the most important thing?" she wrote.

A voice-mail system for Ramsey was full on Wednesday and he could not be reached for comment. Mitchell Yelsky, who was Ramsey's attorney in the 2003 case, said he remembered him as a "great guy to work for."

"And now he's Cleveland's hero and he's the hero of these three women and the child, so whatever he did in the past he's redeemed for his heroic actions on Monday," Yelsky said. He did not elaborate on details of the case.

'TROUBLE SLEEPING'

Ramsey's interview on Monday evening with local television reporters propelled him into the spotlight and was given the auto-tune treatment - when speech is digitally given a melody - with a backing music track, in a parody video that has been seen over 400,000 times on YouTube.

In the same interview, Ramsey mentioned he was eating a McDonald's burger when he heard Berry's screams, which led the restaurant chain to say in a tweet on Tuesday, "Way to go Charles Ramsey - we'll be in touch."

In interviews with ABC and CNN, Ramsey said he was not a hero. He told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday he was "having trouble sleeping" at the thought of having been a neighbor to Ariel Castro, who is accused of holding the three women and a child captive inside his house.

"See, up until yesterday, the only thing that kept me from losing sleep was the lack of money," Ramsey said.

Ramsey was the first person cast into the spotlight, but another neighbor of Ariel Castro, Angel Cordero, said in television interviews that he was the first one, not Ramsey, to arrive at the door in response to Berry's screams.

"I pulled the door but it was locked with a chain, so I tried to open the door but I couldn't, so I had to give it a few kicks," he told CNN in Spanish.

Hodge's restaurant, where Ramsey works as a dishwasher, produced a printed T-shirt featuring his face and the words "Cleveland's Hero," with the proceeds dedicated to the three kidnapped women.

The interest in the shirt, sold over the restaurant's website, caused the site to crash on Wednesday, said the owner, Scott Kuhn. Kuhn said Ramsey had worked there for 10 months, adding he was a "character and he can get you to laugh, and I love that."

Ramsey's father, Charles Ramsey, 75, said in a phone interview that his son in coming to the aid of Berry had acted out the values of helping others that he instilled in him.

"I'm very proud and I'm also not surprised," the elder Ramsey said.

In the 1990s, Ramsey served in the Army for four years, his father said. Ramsey's family declined to comment on his past arrests.

Robert Thompson, who lectures on pop culture at Syracuse University, said Ramsey's sudden fame, while it might distract from the suffering of the three women, was unavoidable in the digital age.

McDonald's received some criticism for its public support for Ramsey.

"The idea of kind of going after a breaking news, I don't know, product endorsement while the news is still breaking, yeah I think there are a lot of people who would consider that kind of crass," Thompson said.

Asked about such criticism, McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement that "out of respect for the victims involved, as well as Mr. Ramsey, both McDonald's and the local franchisees will personally be reaching out to Mr. Ramsey directly as we said we would in our tweet."

Officials were still discussing how to distribute the reward money for the missing women, Cleveland deputy police chief Ed Tomba told reporters on Wednesday.

"Mr. Ramsey deserves something, a lot of credit and he is a true key to this case," Tomba said.

(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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