Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro was sentenced to life in prison without parole on two counts of aggravated murder plus 1,000 years on Thursday after a sentencing hearing filled with sordid details of his crimes – and tremendous perseverance and hope as victim Michelle Knight faced down her captor in court.
“I cried every night, I was so alone,” Knight said. “Years turned into an eternity.”
“I spent 11 years in hell, where your hell is just beginning,” she said to Castro, with her back turned to him at the defense table. “You deserve to spend life in prison.”
“After 11 years, I am finally being heard, and it is liberating,” Knight said.
Handcuffed and in an orange prison jumpsuit, a bearded Castro appeared to smile as he entered the courtroom where he came face to face with the terror he inflicted on the three women. Castro, who imprisoned them for a decade in his Cleveland home, seemed to laugh as the court took a brief recess around noon.
After Knight spoke and others gave statements for her fellow captives Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, Castro delivered a long, rambling statement.
“These people are trying to paint me as a monster. I’m not a monster, I’m sick,” Castro said. He described himself as addicted to masturbation and pornography, and claimed that he was “a victim of sex acts” when he was a child.
Of his young daughter who was born in captivity, Castro said: “She’ll probably say, ‘My daddy is the best daddy in the world.’ Because that’s how I tried to raise her in those six years. So she wouldn’t be traumatized or anything like that.”
“I am not a violent person. I simply kept them there without them being able to leave,” Castro said.
“To this day I’m trying to answer my own questions. I don’t know why a man that had everything going on for himself – I had a job, I had a house, I had vehicles, I had my musical talent,” the confessed kidnapper and rapist said.
“We had a lot of harmony going on in that home,” he said.
The victims other than Knight were represented by relatives at the hearing.
DeJesus was represented by her cousin Sylvia Colon, who said the young woman lives “not as a victim, but as a survivor.”
Berry’s sister Beth Serrano said the family did not want to continue to talk about their ordeal, and even if she did, “it is impossible to put in words.” Berry is concerned that her daughter will hear versions of her story before she is ready.
“Amanda did not control anything for a long time,” Serrano said. “Please let her have control over this so she can protect her daughter.”
Prosecutors revealed photos from inside Castro’s Seymour Avenue home, including some that showed the bedroom, stocked with stuffed animals and other brightly colored children’s toys, where Berry and her daughter spent much of their time, FBI Special Agent Andrew Burke said. Others showed chains hanging from walls where two of the women endured their nightmarish captivity.
Witnesses including police officers and medical experts revealed the terrifying details – including that more than 90 pounds of chains, measuring nearly 100 feet, were recovered from the home.
The chains were not displayed in court.
Cleveland Police Department Patrolwoman Barb Johnson, one of the initial officers to arrive at Castro’s house after Berry kicked through the front door on May 6, was the first witness on Thursday. The officer described entering the darkened house with a flashlight attached to her firearm.
She and another responding officer heard the “pitter-patter” of steps as they entered the house and went to the second level. Then, a woman who turned out to be Knight emerged from the darkness.
Knight “launched herself” into the other officer’s arms, Johnson said.
Detective Andy Harasimchuk of the Cleveland Police Department’s sex crimes unit described how the victims were physically restrained for periods by Castro, and were chained and locked in rooms of the house.
The doctor who saw the three women after they were first removed from the house, Dr. Gerald Maloney, said the women were “very much emotionally fragile” when they first arrived at the hospital.
“All three of them looked fairly gaunt, all three of them related that they had been allowed minimal time outside the house at all,” Maloney said. “They related information regarding sexual assaults to us and also to the sexual assault nurse examiner.”
The interior of the house featured modifications that enabled Castro to keep the women in and inquiring eyes out, FBI Special Agent Andrew Burke said, including modified doors, extra partitions and the conversion of the dining room into a bedroom. A porch swing was positioned at the base of the stairs going to the house’s upper floors as an obstacle, he said.
“There were a number of modifications to the interior of the home to fortify certain areas,” Burke said. “There were divisions between spaces in the house that were again designed not only to make the house more secure for its occupants but also to hide, I think, the existence of additional rooms in the house.”
Other photos showed the cluttered basement with its white center pole where the women were restrained “in the early stages of captivity,” Burke said, as well as a laundry machine full of money. Investigators also found a note in which Castro wrote “I am a sexual predator,” according to the agent.
Castro’s victims said he played a version of “Russian roulette” with them, giving the women a revolver he kept in the house, said Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Jacobs, who interviewed the man in the days after the women were freed. Castro told him he didn’t specifically remember the incident, but said if the women said it happened, it probably had, according to Jacobs.
In opening remarks, Castro’s defense attorneys objected to the presentation of any photographs or other exhibits to demonstrate the extent of their client’s offenses. Attorney Craig Weintraub said that the highly unusual case has “facts that are incomprehensible” and that his client suffered from “significant, undiagnosed mental illness” that did not rise to the legal definition of insanity.
A sentencing memorandum filed by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty on Wednesday included accounts of how Castro abducted Berry, Knight, and DeJesus between August 2002 and April 2004.
Knight “was spotted by the Defendant in need of assistance in getting to an appointment regarding her son,” according to the sentencing memorandum. “The Defendant lured her into his vehicle with promises of a ride. The Defendant then took Ms. Knight to his home at 2207 Seymour Avenue and enticed her to go inside with promises of a puppy for her son.”
The women’s daily life was recorded in diary entries, which were reflected in the more than 900-count indictment against Castro.
“The entries speak of forced sexual conduct, of being locked in a dark room, of anticipating the next session of abuse, of the dreams of someday escaping and being reunited with family, of being chained to a wall, of being held like a prisoner of war, of missing the lived they once enjoyed, of emotional abuse, of his threats to kill, of being treated like an animal, of continuous abuse, and of desiring freedom,” according to the memorandum.
At one point, from Aug. 23, 2005 to the end of October 2005, Castro "forced the three victims into the garage behind his house," the memorandum states. "For three days, they were kept physically restrained in a vehicle in the garage, while the Defendant had a visitor at his house."
If any of the three women tried to escape, the memo said, Castro would assault her and force the other two to watch. He sexually abused the women on a regular basis, according to the memo, and when one of these assaults resulted in Knight becoming pregnant, Castro starved and beat her in a successful attempt to terminate the pregnancy. That formed the basis of the aggravated murder charge to which Castro pleaded guilty.
Berry gave birth to her child in captivity without any medical care.
The women suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from their prolonged torment, Dr. Frank Ochberg, a clinical psychologist who is an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, said on Thursday.
All three endured “repeated episodes that were terrifying, the kind of trauma that we meant when we define the post-traumatic stress disorder,” Ochberg said. “The kind of trauma that you don’t escape for years and sometimes for a lifetime.”
“You are being infantilized, then little by little you’re given what it takes to survive,” Ochberg said. “You deny that this is the person who did all of this to me, and you start to feel as you did as a little baby, with your mother.”
The women survived in part because of extraordinary, and simple, acts of human kindness between them, the doctor said, even if they will never be entirely free of the damage done them by Castro.
Knight, he said, is “an extraordinary human being. She served as doctor, nurse, pediatrician midwife …. She’s a very courageous and heroic individual.”
"Little by little, you are allowed 'the gifts of life,'" Ochberg wrote. "You are like an infant, totally dependent on your mother for survival. As you receive these gifts of life, without consciously realizing what is occurring, you feel some warmth — even love — toward that life giver."
Castro’s son Anthony Castro told the TODAY show on Monday that he did not think he would visit his father in prison.
“I think that if he really can’t control his impulses and he really doesn’t have any value for human life, the way this case has shown, then behind bars is where he belongs for the rest of his life,” the son said. “I have nothing to say to him.”
Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts including rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder. Prosecutors dropped 40 more counts that were considered redundant.
"A person can only die in prison once," the judge noted on Thursday after imposing Castro's sentence.
NBC News’ Kate Snow, Cate Cetta and Alison Kartevold contributed to this report.
- Ariel Castro pleads guilty in kidnappings, agrees to life sentence without parole
- Cleveland kidnapping victim Amanda Berry surprises concert crowd
- 'Life is tough, but I'm tougher!' Cleveland kidnapping victim writes as diaries detail Ariel Castro's cruelty