CLEVELAND — An Ohio prosecutor vowed on Thursday to seek murder charges that could carry the death penalty against a former Cleveland school bus driver accused of kidnapping and raping three young women who endured a decade as captives in his house.
The murder charges against Ariel Castro would stem from forced miscarriages that police say were suffered by one of his victims. Castro was arrested on Monday shortly after the women were rescued.
Their imprisonment ended when neighbors, alerted by cries for help, broke through a locked door of Castro’s house and freed Amanda Berry, who disappeared the day before her 17th birthday in 2003 on her way home from work at a fast-food restaurant.
Liberated along with Berry, now 27, were her 6-year-old daughter, conceived and born during her confinement, and two fellow captives — Gina DeJesus, 23, who vanished at age 14 after school, and Michelle Knight, 32, who was 20 when she went missing in 2002.
All three told police they were abducted by Castro when they accepted offers of a ride from him in the same West Side Cleveland neighborhood where they were found years later.
Castro, 52, made his first court appearance on Thursday to face the three counts of rape and four counts of kidnapping he was initially charged with by the city attorney’s office, and was ordered to remain in custody on an $8 million bond.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who has jurisdiction over all felony cases for Cleveland, said he intends to expand the charges once the case is formally transferred to his office.
“I fully intend to seek charges for each and every act of sexual violence, rape, each day of kidnapping, every felonious assault, and each act of aggravated murder for terminating pregnancies that the offender perpetrated,” he said.
Under Ohio law, the crime of aggravated murder includes the unlawful termination of a pregnancy and is a capital offense.
The prosecutor’s office will launch the official process to determine if the death penalty is appropriate, McGinty said, adding: “Capital punishment must be reserved for those crimes that are truly the worst examples of human conduct.”
Knight suffered at least five miscarriages that she told police were intentionally caused by Castro starving her and beating her in the abdomen, according to an initial police report.
Authorities say all three women were at times bound in chains or rope and were subjected to intimidation, sexual assault, starvation and other abuses during their respective nine, 10 or 11 years of captivity.
The victims told investigators they recalled leaving the confines of the house just twice during their ordeal, ushered on both occasions into a separate garage on the property while disguised in wigs and hats.
During his initial hearing in municipal court, which lasted less than five minutes, Castro neither spoke nor entered a plea, and kept his face turned away from a courtroom gallery crowded with media and spectators.
Castro’s home “was a prison to these three women and the child,” Cuyahoga County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Brian Murphy told the judge. “Today the situation is turned on him. … Mr. Castro stands before you a captive, in captivity, a prisoner.”
The prosecutor’s office declined to comment late on Thursday on a CNN report, attributed to an unnamed law enforcement source, that Castro had confessed under questioning to some of the actions of which he has been accused.
Castro’s court-appointed lawyer, Kathleen DeMetz, said her client would be placed on a suicide watch in jail and was expected to be held in isolation.
In order to win release on bail, he would need $800,000 cash — 10 percent of the bond amount.
“The man doesn’t have any money,” Metz said. “He clearly doesn’t have that,” noting that Castro had been unemployed since being fired from his job driving school buses last November.
Berry told police that her escape on Monday had been her first chance to break free in the 10 years that she was held, seizing the opportunity during Castro’s momentary absence.
Her baby was born in a plastic inflatable children’s swimming pool on Christmas Day, 2006, authorities said. A paternity test will be conducted to determine the girl’s father.
McGinty, the county prosecutor, said assembling a multitude of charges against Castro could take time, considering the ordeals the victims experienced.
“They need a chance to heal before we can seek further in-depth evidence from them,” he said, describing them as having “found the internal strength and courage to outlast their tormentor and survive a decade of torture and depravity.”
Berry and DeJesus went home with family members on Wednesday, while Knight remained hospitalized in good condition.
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Kevin Gray; writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; editing by Grant McCool, Bernard Orr and Paul Simao.