By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A former Cleveland school bus driver, Ariel Castro, on Friday pleaded guilty to hundreds of charges of kidnapping and raping three women he held captive and will serve life in prison, the culmination of one of the most sensational criminal cases in the United States in recent years.
At a court hearing, Ohio prosecutors in turn agreed that Castro would not be eligible for the death penalty. The agreement means Castro will not stand trial, sparing the women the trauma of testifying about their abuse by Castro over about a decade.
The women vanished without trace in the same neighborhood where Castro lived between 2002 and 2004 and were rescued on May 6, 11 years after the first of them disappeared.
Many Americans were alternately elated by their rescue, and stunned by the details which later emerged of his brutal treatment of the women. They had been bound for periods of time in chains or ropes and endured starvation, beatings and sexual assaults, according to court documents and a police report.
On May 6, neighbors heard cries for help from Amanda Berry, 27, and assisted her in breaking open a door to Castro's house, where they also found Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, upstairs. Knight leapt into the arms of a policeman when she saw him.
Also rescued was Berry's 6-year-old daughter, who was fathered by Castro while he held the women captive, DNA evidence later confirmed. A police report said that Berry had given birth to the girl in a plastic swimming pool on Christmas Day with Knight's help.
At Friday's hearing, Castro spoke for the first time in detail about his actions, saying he had been a victim himself as a child and had struggled with a sexual obsession.
"My addiction to pornography and my sexual problem has really taken a toll on my mind," Castro, 53, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, wearing glasses and with a heavy beard, told the judge in a clear voice.
"I was also a victim as a child and it just kept going."
None of Castro's family or the victims, attended the hearing. There was no immediate comment from the victims.
BOARDED UP WINDOWS
Neighbors of Castro said he occasionally was seen taking the little girl to a nearby playground, but the women never left the house except on one or two occasions to the yard.
The fortress-like home had boarded up windows, multiple locks, and a basement with chains and dog leashes. Castro's family were warned never to go past the kitchen of the house.
Police initially detained Castro's two brothers, Onil and Pedro, on suspicion of aiding in Ariel Castro's crimes. But they were quickly released and said they had no knowledge of his double life.
Castro was a bus driver for the Cleveland school district for years, driving children as young as preschool to various schools in the city, until he was fired in 2012 after a fourth disciplinary incident.
He had several other brushes with the law over the years but never serious enough that police arrested him.
Castro told Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo on Friday that he understood he would never emerge from prison under the plea agreement.
"I do understand that. I knew I was pretty much going to get the book thrown at me," Castro said.
Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts of the 977 charges against him, including kidnapping of the three women and the young girl, and serial rape of the women.
The full sentence is life without parole, plus 1,000 years. The formal sentencing proceeding is scheduled for August 1.
Castro also had been charged with murder under an Ohio fetal homicide law. Prosecutors accused him of beating and starving Knight while she was pregnant so she would have a miscarriage.
Prosecutors could have sought the death penalty for the murder charge but the plea agreement precludes that.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Grant McCool)