Prosecutors are considering the death penalty for the man accused of holding three women and a little girl captive for years.
Ariel Castro, 52, made his first court appearance on Thursday on four charges of kidnapping and three counts of rape. After the hearing Ohio prosecutor Timothy McGinty said aggravated murder charges were possible, stemming from miscarriages Castro is alleged to have caused one of the captive women. The murder charges could make Castro eligible for the death penalty, Mr. McGinty said.
Mr. Castro appeared in court dishevelled and looked at the floor during the brief hearing, biting the collar of his blue prison jumpsuit. He did not enter a plea and signed documents with his wrists in handcuffs.
The judge set bail at $2-million for each case, for a total of $8-million, which effectively ensures the unemployed former school bus driver will remain in custody.
Mr. Castro snatched his victims – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – from the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, and used them “in whatever self-gratifying, self-serving ways he saw fit,” prosecutor Brian Murphy told court.
Over a decade, they “withstood repeated beatings. They were bound, restrained and sexually assaulted,” Mr. Murphy said. Today, the “situation is turned” and Mr. Castro is in jail, he noted.
While many questions remain about how Mr. Castro maintained such tight control over the women, the horrors they suffered are beginning to come to light.
An initial police report says the women were initially chained in the basement of Mr. Castro’s house but were eventually allowed to live in locked separate rooms on the second floor, according to several media outlets. The women left the house only twice during the decade or so they spent in captivity, and only then to briefly go to an adjacent garage while wearing disguises, police said.
The police report says Ms. Knight became pregnant at least five times but Mr. Castro starved and beat her until she miscarried, according to several media reports.
After Ms. Berry became pregnant, Ms. Knight was forced to deliver her baby in a plastic children’s pool, warned by Mr. Castro that he would kill her if the child died. When the little girl stopped breathing, Ms. Knight put her mouth on the baby’s mouth and “breathed for her,” the report says, according to WKYC-TV. Investigators are conducting paternity testing to establish whether Mr. Castro fathered the girl, who is now six years old.
In an apparent note of admission written in 2004, Mr. Castro says: “I am a sexual predator. I need help,” the note is quoted as saying by Scott Taylor, a WOIO-TV reporter writing on Twitter.
In a reference to the captives, the note says: “They are here against their will because they made a mistake of getting in a car with a total stranger.”
Mr. Castro marked each woman’s “abduction day” by serving a special meal and a cake, The New York Times reported. Mr. Castro kidnapped the young women after offering them rides home, the police report says. The women, now in their 20s and 30s, vanished separately between 2002 and 2004. At the time, they were 14, 16 and 20 years old.
Their ordeal ended on Monday when Mr. Castro forgot to lock the “big inside door” as he left the house and Ms. Berry seized an opportunity to escape with her daughter, according to accounts of the police report. The storm door was still locked, however, and Ms. Berry thought that Mr. Castro was “testing her.” After hearing her screams, neighbours helped her and the little girl get out and called 911.
When police arrived, they found Ms. Knight and Ms. DeJesus on the second floor.
“As we neared the top of the steps, Officer Espada hollered out, ‘Cleveland Police,’ at which time … Knight ran and threw herself into (Officer) Espada’s arms,” the police report says, according to WKYC. “We then asked if there was anyone else upstairs with her, when (DeJesus) came out of the bedroom.”
In police audio tapes, women can be heard crying in the background. Then an officer tells the 911 dispatcher: “We found ’em. We found ‘em.”
None of the women gave any indication that Mr. Castro’s two brothers, who were also arrested on Monday, were involved, Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba told a news conference Wednesday. Prosecutors brought no charges against Pedro and Onil Castro, citing a lack of evidence. The brothers appeared in court Thursday morning on minor charges and were released later in the day.
“Ariel kept everyone at a distance,” he said.
A relative of Mr. Castro has said the family was shocked after hearing about the women at the home.
Mr. Castro took Ms. Berry’s daughter to a nearby playground and to visit at least one family member, saying she was either his girlfriend’s daughter or his granddaughter, according to media reports. The girl did not know Ms. Knight or Ms. DeJesus’s real names so she wouldn’t let them slip in public.
Ms. Berry, 27, her six-year-old and Ms. DeJesus, who is 23, were welcomed home Wednesday by jubilant crowds of loved ones and neighbours with balloons and banners. Family members hustled them inside, past hundreds of reporters and onlookers. Neither woman spoke publicly.
The third captive, Ms. Knight, 32, was reported in good condition at Metro Health Medical Center, which a day earlier had reported that all three victims had been released. There was no immediate explanation from the hospital.
Federal agents searched a vacant house near where the women had been held on Wednesday. Officials would only say their search was an attempt to get evidence in the case against Mr. Castro, but they refused to say what they found or what led them there.
Mr. Castro was accused of twice breaking the nose of his children’s mother, knocking out a tooth, dislocating each shoulder and threatening to kill her and her daughters, according to a 2005 domestic-violence filing in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.
The filing for a protective order by Grimilda Figueroa also said that Mr. Castro frequently abducted her daughters and kept them from her. Ms. Figueroa died in April, 2012, after a battle with cancer.
Figueroa’s father, Ismail Figueroa, said Wednesday that Mr. Castro would regularly lock his daughter inside a second-floor apartment in the house where they lived when they were first together.
Later, when they moved a few blocks to the house Mr. Castro purchased – the house from which, years later, the women would escape – he kept a close eye on her and refused to let people come inside to visit her or even let her pick up their children from school, said Angel Villanueva, who is married to Grimilda Figueroa’s sister.
Ms. Figueroa was “not allowed to go nowhere,” Mr. Villanueva said. No matter where she wanted to go, “it had to be with him.”
- With reports from AP and Reuters