Murder charges sought against Ohio man in ending captives' pregnancies

Murder charges sought against Ohio man in ending captives' pregnancies
Exclusive photos of FBI digging in Ariel Castro's backyard. Photo provided to CNN via Verdi Adams.
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POSTED: Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 3:46pm

UPDATED: Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 3:47pm

A northern Ohio prosecutor said Thursday his office will seek charges against kidnapping suspect Ariel Castro "for each and every act of sexual violence, each day of kidnapping, all his attempted murders and each act of aggravated murder" because the suspect allegedly violently terminated the pregnancies of his captives.

Authorities "will evaluate whether we will seek charges eligible for the death penalty," Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Prosecutor Timothy McGinty added.

Earlier in the day, a prosecutor from McGinty's office told a judge that Castro, 52, maintained his home as a prison for three young women, holding them in seclusion and sexually assaulting them for his own pleasure.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Brian Murphy told the judge "the charges against Mr. Castro are based on premeditated, deliberate and depraved decisions to snatch three young ladies from Cleveland's West Side streets to be used in whatever self-gratifying, self-serving way he saw fit."

"Today, the situation has turned, your honor," Murphy said. "Mr. Castro stands before you as a captive. ... The women are free to resume their lives that were interrupted."

Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Lauren Moore ordered Castro held on $8 million bond -- $2 million for each of the four victims -- the three women and the child born to one of them during her captivity before they were freed Monday evening. He faces four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape.

Under state law, any restraint on "the liberty of the other person" can be considered kidnapping, which would allow prosecutors to bring the charge in the case of Amanda Berry's child.

Castro -- who is on unemployment benefits, according to his attorney -- would have to put up $800,000 in cash plus some sort of property of comparable value to the bonding company as collateral, said Charles Eddie Miller, president of the Ohio Bail Agents Association. Ohio allows bail on any charge but capital murder.

Castro, handcuffed and wearing a blue jail jumpsuit, looked down through the entire hearing. He did not speak.

Before his hearing, his brothers appeared briefly before the judge Thursday on unrelated misdemeanor charges. Cleveland police later tweeted the two men had been released.

Authorities initially arrested Pedro and Onil Castro in connection with the case, but later concluded they were not aware of what was going on inside the house.

Ariel Castro is accused of kidnapping the women -- Berry, Michelle Knight and Georgina "Gina" DeJesus -- from the same Cleveland neighborhood between 2002 and 2004.

They were freed Monday after Berry staged a daring escape while Castro was away from the house. She drew the attention of people nearby who helped her break through a door and summon police.

On Thursday, a high-ranking law enforcement source told CNN that during searches investigators had found writing believed to have been from Castro in 2004. The material references abuse by a relative in the past, the source said.

Public Defender Kathleen DeMetz said it was her understanding that Castro was on suicide watch at the Cleveland city jail before being transferred to the Cuyahoga County detention center. It was unclear if he was still on suicide watch.

According to an initial incident report obtained by CNN, Knight said she became pregnant at least five times during her captivity in Castro's 1,400-square-foot home.

In conversations with police immediately after she was freed, she said that when Castro learned she was pregnant, he would "make her abort the baby," according to the document.

Knight "stated that he starved her for at least 2 weeks, then he repeatedly punched her in the stomach until she miscarried," the initial police report states.

But Castro ordered Knight to deliver Berry's child when she became pregnant, according to a police source familiar with the investigation.

The baby was delivered in a plastic tub or pool in order to contain the afterbirth and amniotic fluid, the source said.

But soon after Berry's baby was born, panic ensued. The child stopped breathing, and everyone started screaming, the source said, citing accounts by the young women.

Knight said Castro threatened to kill her if the baby did not survive, the initial police report states.

"What's most incredible here is that this girl who knows nothing about childbirth was able to deliver a baby that is now a healthy 6-year-old," the source said.

A decade-long nightmare

According to charge documents, Castro, on separate occasions, lured Berry, Knight and DeJesus into a vehicle, brought them back to his house and held them there.

While it's not known if he had any previous connection with Berry and Knight, DeJesus was a very good friend of Castro's daughter, Arlene.

Arlene Castro said Thursday, on ABC's "Good Morning America," that she last spoke with her father late last month, adding the two had never been close. Whatever their relationship, she insisted, "I had no idea" what was happening.

"I'm really disappointed, embarrassed, mainly devastated," Arlene Castro said. "... I would like to say that I'm absolutely so, so sorry."

The three abducted women went outside Castro's home only twice during their ordeal -- and just "briefly" at that, Cleveland Public Safety Director Martin Flask said.

According to the initial incident report, the women said that Castro first chained them in the basement, but later freed them from the chains and allowed them to live upstairs on the second floor.

Most of the time the three would be in different rooms, though they interacted occasionally and came to "rely on each other for survival," said a law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation.

One thing they could count on was that their alleged captor would never let them out.

Castro would often test the young women by pretending to leave, the law enforcement source said. Then he'd suddenly return; if there were indications any of the women had moved, they'd be disciplined.

Years went by.

In that time, the women saw their parents on television at vigils held for them, according to the law enforcement source. They got emotional, knowing their loved ones were looking for them.

And in time, Knight and DeJesus "succumbed" to "their reality," the law enforcement source said.

But "something must have clicked" for Berry on Monday evening, when the 27-year-old got to a door and screamed for help, Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said.

Angel Cordero and Charles Ramsey said they responded to her cries, kicking in the door to help her escape. According to Cordero, Berry's 6-year-old daughter ran out of the house, too, wearing only a diaper and a sullied shirt. Police are conducting a DNA test to determine the child's paternity.

"Help me, I am Amanda Berry," the victim begged a 911 operator. "I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years. And I'm here, I'm free now."

He 'kept everybody at a distance'

Berry and DeJesus are back with their families. Knight remained hospitalized in good condition Thursday, said MetroHealth Medical Center spokeswoman Tina Shaerban-Arundel.

"I knew my daughter was out there alive," said Felix DeJesus, Gina's father, moments after she arrived at a family home Wednesday. "I knew she needed me, and I never gave up."

Amanda Berry's grandmother, Fern Gentry, said on CNN's "Starting Point" Thursday that hearing that Berry was alive 10 years after her disappearance was the "most important thing that ever happened in my life."

Gentry, who spoke to Berry by phone from her Tennessee home Tuesday, said she was thankful for the people who helped in her rescue.

"If she hadn't got out, I don't think she would have lived very much longer," Gentry said.

So how did this all happen in an urban neighborhood? Did Castro -- a former school bus driver described by a band mate as an upbeat and outgoing musician -- keep such a secret not only from his neighbors, but also his family, as police allege?

"Ariel kept everybody at a distance," said Tomba, the deputy police chief, referring to his friends and even his own brothers.

Castro has been talking to investigators since Tuesday, as have the three young women, whom police say he kidnapped and raped.

Law enforcement personnel have been sifting through Castro's Seymour Avenue home -- which Tomba said was in "disarray" -- and removed more than 200 items that they hope will let them piece together what happened.

Additionally, FBI agents searched a boarded-up home two doors down after obtaining information over the past few days tying that building to the case, the deputy police chief said.

Did anyone drop the ball?

As they investigate, authorities are facing scrutiny over whether the nightmare could have been prevented or stopped much earlier.

Some neighbors said they had contacted police about suspicious activity on Castro's property, such as reports of screaming and naked women in his backyard. But authorities say they never got any such calls.

In fact, police say they had been to Castro's house only twice -- once after he called about a fight on his street, and once to investigate an incident in which he was accused of leaving a child alone on a bus. No one answered at the home in the latter case, and investigators later interviewed him elsewhere, police said.

According to court documents from 2005, Castro's former common-law wife accused him of repeatedly abusing her, including breaking her nose twice, breaking two ribs, dislocating her shoulder twice and knocking out a tooth. A judge granted a protection order but lifted it three months later.

Tomba said he doesn't think authorities dropped the ball.

"I'm just very, very confident (that) law enforcement officers ... checked every single lead, and if there was one bit of evidence, (they would have) followed it up very, very aggressively," he said.

"In hindsight, we may find out that maybe we did, but that's going to be in hindsight."

-- CNN's Pamela Brown reported from Cleveland, and CNN's Holly Yan and Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Matt Smith, Rose Arce, Chandler Friedman, Poppy Harlow, Brian Todd, Tory Dunnan, Martin Savidge, Justin Lear and Laura Ly contributed to this report.

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