A former Cleveland school bus driver who held three women captive for years pleaded guilty on Friday to hundreds of charges of kidnapping and rape, allowing him to avoid the death penalty and instead serve life in prison without parole.
At a court hearing, Ohio prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against Ariel Castro. Under the agreement, he will not stand trial, sparing the women the trauma of testifying about their abuse by Castro over about a decade.
The women vanished without a trace between 2002 and 2004 in the same neighborhood where Castro lived, and were rescued on May 6, 11 years after the first of them disappeared.
Many Americans were alternately elated by their rescue and stunned by the details of his brutal treatment of the women, in one of the most sensational recent US criminal cases. The women were bound in chains or ropes for periods of time and endured starvation, beatings and sexual assaults, court documents and a police report show.
On May 6, neighbors heard cries for help from Amanda Berry, 27, and helped her break open a door to Castro’s house, where they also found Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, upstairs. Knight leaped into the arms of a policeman when she saw him.
Also rescued was Berry’s six-year-old daughter, who was fathered by Castro while he held the women captive, DNA evidence later confirmed. A police report said Berry had given birth to the girl in a plastic swimming pool on Christmas Day with Knight’s help.
At Friday’s hearing, Castro, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, wearing glasses and with a heavy beard, spoke for the first time in detail about his actions. He said he had been a victim himself as a child and had struggled with a sexual obsession.
“My addiction to pornography and my sexual problem has really taken a toll on my mind,” Castro, 53, told the judge in a clear voice. “I was also a victim as a child and it just kept going.”
Castro did not say he was sorry or express regret for his actions at the hearing. None of Castro’s family or the victims were at the hearing.
“He is a fraud and a coward,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty told reporters after the hearing. “Do not be fooled. He is a manipulator and has no remorse.”
His victims said after the hearing that they were relieved Castro will be behind bars for the rest of his life and added that they wanted to maintain their privacy.
Castro’s neighbors said he occasionally was seen taking the little girl to a nearby playground, but the women never left the house except to enter the yard occasionally.
The fortress-like home had boarded up windows, multiple locks and a basement with chains and dog leashes. Castro’s family members were warned never to go past the kitchen of the house.
Castro was a bus driver for the Cleveland school district for years, driving children as young as preschool age to various schools in the city, until he was fired last year after a fourth disciplinary incident.
Castro told Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo on Friday that he understood he would never emerge from prison under the plea agreement.
“I do understand that. I knew I was pretty much going to get the book thrown at me,” Castro said.
Castro pleaded guilty to 937 of the 977 counts against him, including kidnapping of the three women and the young girl, and serial rape of the women.
The full sentence is life without parole, plus 1,000 years. The formal sentencing proceeding is scheduled for Thursday. McGinty said the victims will participate in the sentencing hearing, although it was not clear if they would attend in person.