US court hears grim kidnap testimony

2013-08-01 17:15
Ariel Castro in the courtroom during sentencing in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak, AP)

Ariel Castro in the courtroom during sentencing in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak, AP)

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Chicago - US police on Thursday described the harrowing scene in an Ohio home when they rescued three women who were kidnapped and repeatedly raped over the course of a decade.

The officers were testifying at the sentencing hearing of Ariel Castro, a 53-year-old Cleveland man who has pleaded guilty to kidnapping and abusing the young women.

Under the terms of Castro's plea bargain he is to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but first the court was to hear from investigators and witnesses.

At least one of the women was expected to provide a victim's impact statement later on Thursday.

Castro was also due to make a statement, and the hearing began with him apologising for his actions.

"I would like to apologise," the former school bus driver said as the hearing opened, adding that he would speak more later in the day.

Castro's lawyers urged the judge to stop graphic photos depicting the sexual abuse of the three women or for any unnecessary details of their private pain from being presented publicly.

"Mr Castro does accept full responsibility for his conduct," defence attorney Craig Weintraub told the court.

"What we wanted to avoid was offering up the details of salacious facts... That's why Mr Castro agreed to a sentence of life without parole."

The case came to light after Amanda Berry, 27, managed to escape with her six-year-old daughter by calling out to a neighbour for help through a locked front door on 6 May.

Chained by their ankles

For years, the women were kept chained by their ankles in locked rooms in Castro's house in a working class neighbourhood of Cleveland.

Snatched off the street in separate incidents at the ages of 20, 16, and 14, the women suffered violent beatings and repeated rapes.

They were fed just once a day and rarely given access to the bathroom, instead having to relieve themselves in plastic buckets that were "emptied infrequently", prosecutors said in a sentencing memo.

Michelle Knight, 32, was impregnated four times during her 11 years of captivity.

Castro terminated her pregnancies by starving her for days and then kicking and jumping on her stomach.

Berry was allowed to carry a pregnancy to term, giving birth in a plastic kiddie pool on Christmas Day, 2006.

Gina DeJesus, a friend of Castro's daughter, was just 14 when she was abducted.

Shock and joy

Cleveland police officer Barb Johnson testified about the shock and sheer joy the women expressed when they were finally freed.

Johnson used the flashlight on her gun to search the darkened house with a fellow officer shortly after Berry was able to escape.

They repeatedly called out "Cleveland police" and heard a "pitter-patter" of feet, which stopped.

Johnson shined the light on herself so the approaching woman could see they really were police officers, at which point Knight "literally launched herself" into another officer's arms.

"Legs, arms, just choking him," Johnson said.

"And she just kept repeating: 'You saved us, you saved us'."

DeJesus was initially too afraid to leave her room, Johnson added.

Diaries tell their story

Prosecutors said they relied on diaries kept by the women during their lengthy captivity for many of the 977 criminal charges lodged against Castro.

Berry initially addressed her entries to her mother, according to a report by a psychiatrist who evaluated the women. After learning of her mother's death, she wrote to soothe her mother's spirit in heaven.

The entries spoke of rape, vicious beatings, of being chained to a wall and locked in a dark room, of "being treated like an animal", of "anticipating the next session of abuse", and of "his threats to kill", prosecutors said.

The women also wrote of "dreams of some day escaping and being reunited with family", of "missing the lives they once enjoyed" and of their overwhelming desire for freedom.

Castro has agreed to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table.

DNA tests showed that Castro fathered Berry's child. He has asked Judge Michael Russo to allow him to see her, a request the judge deemed "inappropriate".

Police do not understand why none of the people who visited the unassuming house at 2207 Seymour - including Castro's family and girlfriend - realised what was going on there.

His victims have begged the media and public to respect their privacy and give them time to heal. In a statement last week they said they were "relieved" by the plea deal and "satisfied by this resolution to the case".

Read more on:    gina dejesus  |  amanda berry  |  michelle knight  |  us  |  child abuse

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