By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - The Cleveland school bus driver who abducted, imprisoned and repeatedly raped three women was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison without parole, plus 1,000 years, after one of his victims confronted him and said he had put her through 11 years of hell.
Ariel Castro, 53, apologized to his victims, but was mostly defiant, verbally sparring with the judge during a court hearing as he sought to blame his actions on a sexual obsession and having been abused as a child.
"I am not a monster," he told the court in a rambling statement before sentencing.
The women, along with a 6-year-old girl Castro fathered, were rescued from his fortress-like house on May 6, after 9 to 11 years of captivity.
"If you asked my daughter, she would say, 'My dad is the best dad in the world'," Castro said.
"All the sex was consensual," he told the judge. "The girls were not virgins. They had multiple sex partners before me."
Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo described Castro as suffering from "extreme narcissism," and said his crimes were so severe that he should never emerge from prison. The former school bus driver had pleaded guilty to hundreds of charges, including murder under a fetal homicide law for beating and starving victim Michelle Knight to force her to miscarry.
When Russo brought up the murder charge in court, Castro said he was not a violent person and had pleaded guilty to murder only to spare the victims a long legal process.
"I am not a murderer," said Castro, as he stood with legs were shackled.
The full sentence was life without parole plus 1,000 years, ensuring that Castro would never leave prison.
Knight, 32, made a dramatic appearance in court before the sentencing and read a statement that Castro had persecuted her, starting with her abduction in 2002, until May 6, 2013, the day she was freed.
"Days turned into nights, nights turned into days. Years turned into eternity. I knew nobody cared about me. He told me that my family didn't care," Knight said, choking back tears.
"I spent 11 years of hell. Now your hell is just beginning," Knight said of Castro.
Judge Russo praised Knight for showing admirable "restraint" in her remarks, and she responded: "You're welcome."
Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Knight went missing from the west side of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004. Their presence was discovered after Berry's cries for help were heard coming from Castro's home.
Neighbors helped Berry break down a door and she then ran back inside to get her daughter, who had been born in the house on Christmas Day, with Knight's assistance.
The child had a "normal" life, Castro said, adding that she never saw the women in chains.
Castro showed emotion only when he spoke of the girl, who he described as his "miracle child."
"I heard I can file for parental rights," Castro told the judge. But Russo told him he would not be allowed any contact with the girl.
Earlier in the hearing, prosecutors presented graphic evidence of the crimes, including a dollhouse-size replica of the house where the women were imprisoned. Photos of the interior showed chains and boarded-up windows, doors with locks only on the outside and heavy curtains separating parts of the house.
A female police officer who arrived on the scene immediately after Berry was freed, said it was so dark she had to shine a light to climb the stairs. When Knight realized that the police were there to rescue her, she threw herself into the arms of one of the officers. DeJesus was so terrified she had to be coaxed out of a nearby room.
Prosecutors showed photos of Berry and DeJesus, looking gaunt and pale, soon after they were rescued.
Neither of those two women appeared in court, but their families presented statements on their behalf.
Berry's sister, Beth Serrano, said she could not put into words the impact the crimes had on her family, including the death of their mother before Berry was released. Berry's biggest concern, Serrano said, was protecting her 6-year-old daughter and deciding what to tell the girl and when.
"She (Berry) does not want to talk about these things. She has not talked about these things - even with me," Serrano said.
Sylvia Colon, spokeswoman for the DeJesus family, reached out to Castro's family, saying "Please know that we do not hold you accountable."
Gina DeJesus, who was the youngest of the three when abducted at just 14, is "thriving," the statement said.
"She will finish school, go to college, fall in love, and if she chooses, will get married and have children," the family statement said.
The DeJesus family, which like Castro is of Puerto Rican descent, ended its statement with a message for Castro in Spanish: "Que Dios se apiade de su alma," - May God have Mercy on your soul.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Gunna Dickson)