By Thomas J. Sheeran and John Seewer Associated Press
CLEVELAND — Standing before the man who enslaved and raped her for a decade, Michelle Knight described how the world had changed in the three months since they last saw each other: The captive, she said, was now free and the oppressor would be locked away forever to “die a little every day.”
Ariel Castro’s fate had been determined long before he was sentenced Thursday to life in prison plus 1,000 years. But Knight’s words in a crowded courtroom put a final seal on the kidnapping case that horrified the nation and subjected three young women to years of torment in Castro’s ramshackle house.
“You took 11 years of my life away and I have got it back,” Knight said. “I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning.”
A short time later, the 53-year-old former school bus driver apologized to his victims briefly in a rambling, defiant statement. He repeatedly blamed his sex addiction, his former wife and others while claiming most of the sex was consensual and that the women were never tortured.
“These people are trying to paint me as a monster,” he said. “I’m not a monster. I’m sick.”
The sentence was a foregone conclusion after Castro 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.
During her statement, Knight was just a few feet from Castro, seeing him for the first time since her rescue in May from the house that Castro turned into a prison with a makeshift alarm system and heavy wooden doors covering the windows.
“I will live on,” she said. “You will die a little every day.”
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 Cleveland neighborhood and yelled for help. Castro was arrested that evening.
The escape electrified Cleveland, where photos of the missing women still hung on utility posts. Elation turn to despair as details of their ordeal emerged.
Prosecutors on Thursday detailed Castro’s repeated sexual assaults, 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 same room, the window was boarded shut and door knobs had been removed and replaced with multiple locks.
Another room shared by Knight and Gina DeJesus had a portable toilet and a clock radio and several chains.
Prosecutors said the women were chained to a pole in the basement and a bedroom heater. One woman had a motorcycle helmet placed on her head while 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. Then he would require them to pay him if they wanted something special from the store.
A letter written by Castro was found in the home days after his arrest and shown in court. It was titled “Confession and Details.” He also wrote “I am a sexual predator.”
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said in a court filing that one of the women kept a diary.
“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, 32, was the first woman abducted after Castro lured her into his house with the promise of a puppy for her son. She said she cried every night and that 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 a happy life with him.
“We had a lot of harmony that went on in that home,” he said.
Castro called his daughter with Berry a “miracle child” and argued with the judge that he didn’t commit a violent crime.
He pointed out that the FBI was once close to him when agents talked with his daughter, who was walking home with 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.
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 a happy life with him.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone in America that would agree with you,” he said.
None of Castro’s relatives were 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. We are comforted in knowing that she will continue to flourish.”
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.