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Tony Dejak | AP
Ariel Castro sits in the courtroom Thursday.

Sentencing hearing in Cleveland captives case could take hours

CLEVELAND – A former school bus driver being sentenced Thursday for kidnapping three women and subjecting them to years of sexual and physical abuse left behind a letter that said “I’m a sexual predator,” an FBI agent testified.

Prosecutors detailed Ariel Castro’s assaults and law enforcement witnesses described the jerry-rigged prison he built in his ramshackle home. With the possibility of the death penalty for a forced miscarriage taken off the table, Castro stands to get life in prison plus 1,000 years.

FBI agent Andrew Burke said Castro turned his house into a prison by creating a makeshift alarm system and chaining them inside bolted bedrooms.

Bedroom windows were boarded shut from the inside with heavy closet doors and doorknobs had been removed and replaced with multiple locks, he said. The house was divided in ways to make it more secure and to hide the existence of rooms, he said.

Burke also testified that 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.

The letter written by Castro was found in his home and shown in court. It read “Confession and Details” at the top.

Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Detective Dave Jacobs said he talked with Castro a few days after the women escaped and that Castro said, “I knew what I did was wrong.”

Early in the hearing, Castro tried to apologize to the victims, but after speaking with the judge said he would do that later in the proceeding.

A police officer who helped rescue the women said one was reluctant to come out of her room even when she saw the officers. They were scared even after they were taken out of the house and quickly began sharing details about the horrors they went through, saying that they had been starved and beaten.

“They were just shouting out a lot of things,” said Cleveland police officer Barb Johnson. She described the women as thin, pale and scared.

Responding to questions from prosecutors, Cleveland police detective Andrew Harasimchuk said that the women all described a pattern of being physically, sexually and emotionally assaulted for years. He said all three women were abducted after Castro offered them a ride and that each was chained in his basement and sexually assaulted within a few hours of being kidnapped.

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said in a sentencing memorandum filed Wednesday that Castro, who fed his captives only one meal a day, “admits his disgusting and inhuman conduct” but “remains remorseless for his actions.”

The memorandum described a diary kept by one of the women.

“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,” it says.

The sentencing could take up to four hours, court officials said, with Castro, his attorneys, his victims and prosecution witnesses getting a chance to speak. The legal team representing the women’s interests declined to comment on whether they would testify or send statements to the court.

Prosecutors used a model of the house where Castro, now 53, imprisoned the women to present their case. They also showed photos taken from inside the disheveled home.

The women quickly escaped after Amanda Berry kicked out the door panel on May 6 and Castro was arrested within hours. The women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16 and 20 years old.

Some horrific details of the women’s ordeal had already emerged, including tales of being chained to poles in the basement or a bedroom heater or inside a van, with one woman forced to wear a motorcycle helmet while chained in the basement and, after she tried to escape, having a vacuum cord wrapped around her neck.

Castro repeatedly starved and beat one of the victims each time she was pregnant, forcing her to miscarry five times.

He forced the same woman on threat of death to safely deliver the child he fathered with another victim on Christmas Day 2006. The same day, prosecutors say, Castro raped the woman who helped deliver his daughter.

As part of his plea deal, Castro was to receive a sentence of life with no chance of parole for aggravated murder in the forced miscarriage. He would then receive 1,000 years for the kidnapping, rape, assault and other charges.

Berry, 27, made a surprise onstage appearance at a rap concert last weekend, and a second victim, Gina DeJesus, 23, has made a few televised comments. Knight, 32, appeared with Berry and DeJesus in a video in early July thanking the community for its support.

Knight, the first of three to disappear, also sent police a handwritten letter thanking them for their help collecting cards and gifts for the women. In the note, Knight told Second District Cmdr. Keith Sulzer, “Life is tough, but I’m tougher!”

Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus, Ohio.

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