By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - 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 U.S. criminal cases. The women were bound in chains or ropes for periods of time and endured starvation, beatings and sexual assaults, according to court documents and a police report.
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 leapt into the arms of a policeman when she saw him.
Also rescued was Berry's 6-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 during the hearing. None of Castro's family or the victims attended 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."
McGinty said the house where the women were confined would be torn down using money seized from Castro by authorities.
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.
"Amanda, Gina, and Michelle are relieved by today's plea," they said in a statement released by the law firm Jones Day. "They are satisfied by this resolution to the case."
BOARDED UP WINDOWS
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 on one or two occasions.
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.
Police initially detained Castro's two brothers, Onil and Pedro, on suspicion of aiding in Ariel Castro's crimes. But they were quickly released and said they had no knowledge of his double life.
Castro was a bus driver for the Cleveland school district for years, driving children as young as preschool to various schools in the city, until he was fired in 2012 after a fourth disciplinary incident.
He had several other brushes with the law over the years but never serious enough for police to arrest him.
Castro told Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo on Friday 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 August 1. McGinty said the victims will participate in the sentencing hearing, although it was not clear if they would attend in person.
They have not spoken publicly in person about their ordeal. After their release they reunited with family and friends and have communicated through lawyers and a video.
Castro also had been charged with murder under an Ohio fetal homicide law. Prosecutors accused him of beating and starving Knight while she was pregnant so she would have a miscarriage.
Prosecutors could have sought the death penalty for the murder charge, but the plea agreement precluded that.
(Editing by Greg McCune, Grant McCool, Jeffrey Benkoe and Ken Wills)