In an emotional conclusion to a horrifying case, Michelle Knight – one of three women abducted, imprisoned and abused in Ariel Castro’s Ohio home for more than a decade – faced her captor in court yesterday.
Castro, a former schoolbus driver, snatched Ms Knight from the streets of Cleveland’s west side in 2002, luring her with the promise of a puppy for her toddler son. Describing her ordeal, the 32-year-old said, “I spent 11 years in hell.” She told Castro: “Your hell is just beginning.”
Castro, who is 53, last week agreed to plead guilty to 937 charges, including aggravated murder, rape and kidnapping, thereby avoiding the death penalty. Under the terms of his plea deal, he will be sentenced to life in prison, plus 1,000 years, with no opportunity of parole. At the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Tim McGinty told the Cleveland court: “This man deserves as many years and as much punishment as this court can give him.”
Castro declared repeatedly that he was not a violent person, blaming his actions on a lifelong addiction to pornography. “I have an addiction, just like an alcoholic has an addiction,” he insisted. Shackled, unshaven and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, he said: “These people are trying to paint me as a monster and I’m not a monster. I’m sick.”
Contrary to the testimony of his victims – Ms Knight, 27-year-old Amanda Berry, and 23-year-old Gina DeJesus – Castro claimed that most of the sexual contact he had with the woman was consensual, and that they often asked him for sex. He also maintained that he had never beaten or tortured his victims, saying: “There was harmony in that home.” The six-year-old daughter he fathered with Ms Berry would, he suggested, consider him “the best dad in the world”. His voice cracking, Castro also apologised to his victims. “I am truly sorry for what happened,” he said.
Before the sentencing, it emerged that the three women had kept diaries documenting their ordeal. According to a sentencing memorandum, “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.” Ms Berry’s diary was addressed to her mother; when she learned that her mother had died during her captivity, she instead “wrote to her mother in heaven”.
Detective Andy Harasimchuk, the officer in charge of the case, said Castro abducted the three young women between 2002 and 2004, initially chaining them in his basement, where he would rape them, make them don a motorcycle helmet and then leave them overnight. All three were raped repeatedly during their captivity. Castro fed them one meal a day, and forced them to use plastic buckets as toilets, which he rarely emptied. During the hearing, a scale model and a selection of interior photographs of Castro’s house were shown. The house will shortly be demolished.
On 6 May this year, Ms Berry broke down part of the front door of Castro’s house and cried for help, attracting the attention of several neighbours. Barbara Johnson, the Cleveland police officer who reached the scene first, found Ms Knight and Ms DeJesus upstairs after hearing footsteps. Ms Knight “literally launched herself” into a fellow officer’s arms, Johnson told the court. “She just kept repeating, ‘You saved us! You saved us!’”
Dr Frank Ochberg, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, who assessed the women, told the court the effect of Castro’s crimes on his victims would last indefinitely. “The damage that was done does not go away,” he said. “They have life sentences.” In the memorandum Dr Ochberg reserved particular admiration for Ms Knight, whom he said had suffered “the longest and most severely”. She reportedly became pregnant five times by Castro, who would beat and starve her until she miscarried. Yet when Ms Berry gave birth, said Dr Ochberg, “It was Michelle who served as doctor, nurse, midwife and paediatrician.” He went on: “At other times, [Knight] interceded when Castro sought to abuse Gina, interposing herself and absorbing physical and sexual trauma.”
Ms Knight told the court that DeJesus had been her “teammate”. “She nursed me back to health when I was dying from [Castro’s] abuse,” she said. “We said we would someday make it out alive, and we did.” Ms Knight said she had been “overwhelmed by the amount of thoughts, love and prayers expressed by strangers. It is comforting. Life is tough, but I’m tougher!”
A victim speaks: Michelle Knight faces her tormentor
My name is Michelle Knight and I would like to tell you what the experience was like for me.
I missed my son every day. I wondered if I was ever going to see him again. He was only two-and-half years old when I was taken. I look inside my heart and I see my son. I cried every night. I was so alone. I worried about what would happen to me and the other girls every day.
Days never got shorter. Days turned into nights, nights turned into days. Years turned into eternity. I knew nobody cared about me. He told me that my family didn’t care. Christmas was more traumatic because I never got to spend it with my son. Nobody should ever have to go through what I went through. Not even my worst enemy.
Gina was my team mate. She never let me fall and I never let her fall. She nursed me back to health when I was dying from his abuse. My friendship with her is the only thing that was good out of this situation. We said we would someday make it out alive, and we did. Ariel Castro, I remember all the times you came talking about all the things people did wrong. And acted like you weren’t doing the same thing. You said: ‘At least I didn’t kill you.’ You took 11 years of my life away and now I have got it back. I spent 11 years in hell, now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all that has happened, but you will face hell for eternity.
From this moment on I will not let you define me, or affect who I am.
I will live on. You will die a little every day as you think about the 11 years in that trap space you inflicted on us.
What does God think about you going hypocritically to church, coming home to torture us? The death penalty will be so much easier. You don’t deserve that – you deserve life in prison.
I can forgive you, but I will never forget. With the guidance of God I will prevail and help others who have suffered.
Writing this statement gave me the strength to be a stronger woman and know that there is more good than evil.
I know that there is a lot of people going through hard times, but we need to reach out a hand and hold them and let them know they are being heard.
After 11 years I am finally being heard, and it’s liberating. Thank you all. I love you. God bless you.
Diaries of captivity
Diaries kept by the three young women held captive for a decade in Ariel Castro’s Ohio home helped prosecutors to describe their suffering, as detailed in a memo released ahead of their kidnapper’s sentencing hearing.
Entries in the diaries of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus described how the women were viciously beaten, repeatedly raped, and “treated like an animal”, according to prosecutors, who said they relied on the diaries for many of the 977 criminal charges lodged against Castro.
The women, who endured being chained to a wall and locked in dark rooms, had written of their fear “anticipating the next session of abuse”.
“Although he [Castro] admits his disgusting and inhuman conduct, the defendant remains remorseless for his actions,” Cuyahoga county prosecutor Timothy McGinty wrote in the sentencing memo.
Ms Knight was impregnated four times during the 11 years she was held captive. At least one of her pregnancies was terminated by Castro, who starved her for days before kicking her stomach.
In the diaries, the women also wrote of their “dreams of some day escaping and being reunited with family” and of “missing the lives they once enjoyed,” prosecutors said.