CLEVELAND — Free and safe, one of three women kidnapped and raped over a decade in a ramshackle home smiled lightly as her tormentor was led out of court in chains, a method he had used to control them.
Michelle Knight, the first of the victims kidnapped after accepting a ride from Ariel Castro, spoke in a soft but determined voice Thursday in front of a judge who followed a plea deal and gave Castro life in prison without parole plus 1,000 years.
“We said we’ll all get out alive someday, and we did,” Knight said.
“You took 11 years of my life away, and I have got it back,” she said in the hushed courtroom. “I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning.”
Knight, who spoke just a few feet from Castro in the courtroom, finished her statement and returned to her seat without looking at him. Earlier, he had tried to make eye contact, but deputies quickly stepped into his line of vision.
Knight, 32, belittled Castro’s routine of going to church and returning to abuse the women in the darkened Cleveland home, which was equipped with chains, locked doors and windows boarded up from the inside.
“What does God think of you hypocritically going to church each Sunday and then coming home to torture us?” she said. “The death penalty would be the easy way out. You don’t deserve that. We want you to spend the rest of your life in prison.”
Castro, a 53-year-old former school bus driver, pleaded guilty last week to 937 counts including aggravated murder, kidnapping, rape and assault. A deal struck with prosecutors spared him from a possible death sentence for beating and starving Knight until she miscarried.
Castro apologized to his victims briefly in a rambling, defiant statement before he was sentenced, quibbling with the judge on whether rape is a violent crime. As people in the gallery watched wide-eyed, Castro repeatedly blamed his sex addiction, his former wife and others while claiming most of the sex was consensual and the women he held were never tortured.
“These people are trying to paint me as a monster,” he said. “I’m not a monster. I’m sick.”
He pointed out that the FBI was once close to him when agents talked with his daughter, who was walking home with victim Gina DeJesus on the day she disappeared.
“The FBI let these girls down when they questioned my daughter,” he said. “They failed to question me.”
He also said he was never abusive until he met his former wife, who is now dead.
“I am not a violent person,” Castro said repeatedly.
Assistant prosecutor Anna Faraglia said Knight’s appearance in court showed her resilience.
“She will survive, but she has gone through a lot of physical and emotional pain,” Faraglia said.
All three women were willing to testify at trial about their ordeals if needed, she said.
The three women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16 and 20 years old. Each had accepted a ride from Castro. They escaped May 6, when Amanda Berry, now 27, broke part of a door to Castro’s house in a tough neighborhood and yelled to neighbors for help. Castro was arrested that evening.
The escape electrified Cleveland, where photos of the missing women still hung on utility posts. Elation turned to despair as details of their ordeal emerged.
At the sentencing, prosecutors detailed Castro’s repeated sexual assaults and how he chained the women and denied them food or fresh air. They displayed photos that gave a first glimpse inside the rooms where the women lived.
Stuffed animals lined the bed and crayon drawings were taped to the wall where Berry lived with her young daughter, who was fathered by Castro. One of the drawings on a shelf said, “Happy Birthday.”
But in the room, the window was boarded shut and door knobs had been removed and replaced with multiple locks. Saucer-size holes in inside doors were meant for circulation.
Another room, shared by Knight and DeJesus, had a portable toilet, a clock radio and several chains.
Prosecutors said the women were chained to a pole in the basement and to a bedroom heater. One woman had a motorcycle helmet placed on her head while chained in the basement; later, when she tried to escape, she had a vacuum cleaner cord wrapped around her neck.
FBI agent Andrew Burke said Castro would occasionally pay his victims after raping them. But he then would require them to pay him if they wanted something special from the store.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said in a court filing that the women kept diaries.
“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 being treated like an animal,” the filing said.
Knight was lured into Castro’s house with the promise of a puppy for her young son. She said she cried every night and her years in captivity “turned into eternity.”
“He tormented me constantly, especially on holidays,” Knight said. “Christmas was the most traumatic day because I didn’t get to spend it with my son.”
She sat quietly as Castro claimed the women lived happy lives with him.
“We had a lot of harmony that went on in that home,” Castro said.
Castro called his daughter with Berry a “miracle child” and argued with the judge that he didn’t commit a violent crime.
Once Castro finished, Judge Michael Russo thanked Knight for showing “remarkable restraint” during his statement. The judge then dismissed Castro’s claims that the women lived happy lives with him.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone in America that would agree with you,” he said.
None of Castro’s relatives was in the courtroom. Berry and DeJesus also stayed away. Instead, their family members read statements on their behalf.
“We stand before you and promise you that our beloved family member thrives,” said Sylvia Colon, DeJesus’ cousin. “She laughs, swims, dances and, more importantly, she loves and is loved.”
Outside court, assistant prosecutor Blaise Thomas responded to Castro’s claim of creating a harmonious family life for the women by recounting how Castro cried several days ago when he signed over the deed to his house as part of the plea deal. Castro was sorry to lose the house and mentioned “the many happy memories” he had there with the three women, Thomas said.
“That’s how he views the world,” she said. “That’s how distorted and twisted he is.”
The house, a drive-by attraction, has been fenced off and under police guard since the women escaped and will be demolished.
The women have begun emerging from the privacy they had sought after they escaped to freedom.
Berry made a surprise onstage appearance at a rap concert last weekend, and DeJesus made a few televised comments as a privacy fence was being erected around her house.
Seewer reported from Toledo. Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus contributed to this report.