The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

US man accused of holding 3 women captive pleads not guilty to raping, kidnapping them

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CLEVELAND - A Cleveland man accused of holding three women captive for a decade was scolded repeatedly by a judge to raise his head and open his eyes in a brief court appearance where he pleaded not guilty Wednesday to nearly 1,000 counts of kidnap, rape and other crimes.

Ariel Castro, 53, has been jailed since his arrest on May 6 shortly after the women escaped to freedom.

For the most part, Castro responded to the judge's questions with one-word answers as he faced charges that included 512 counts of kidnapping and 446 counts of rape.

Judge Pamela Barker repeatedly told him to raise his head and keep his eyes open so "I make sure that you are listening to me and understanding what I'm saying, OK?"

"I'm trying," said Castro, who in past court appearances had kept his head down and his chin tucked on his chest.

The judge continued his bond at $8 million.

One of his attorneys, Craig Weintraub, declined later to discuss Castro's courtroom demeanour. "I'm not going to comment on that," he said.

Castro is accused of repeatedly restraining the women, sometimes chaining them to a pole in a basement, to a bedroom heater or inside a van. The charges say one of the women tried to escape and he assaulted her with a vacuum cord around her neck.

The charges returned Friday by a grand jury against Castro expanded on a 329-count indictment filed earlier that covered only part of the time frame of the alleged crimes. He previously pleaded not guilty to that indictment.

Besides kidnapping and rape, the new 977-count indictment also charges him with seven counts of gross sexual imposition, six counts of felonious assault, three counts of child endangerment and one count of possessing criminal tools.

He previously was charged with two counts of aggravated murder related to one act, charges alleging that he purposely caused the unlawful termination of the pregnancy of one of the women.

Castro is scheduled for trial on Aug. 5, a date that could be delayed if the defence requests more preparation time. His legal team has hinted Castro would plead guilty if the death penalty was off the table.

Weintraub said after the arraignment that he didn't expect a trial postponement.

"We have a trial date of Aug. 5, so either we're going to have a plea or we're going to trial Aug. 5," he said.

The prosecution has said it would be ready for that date.

Amanda Berry, Gina Dejesus and Michelle Knight disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16 and 20 years old. Each said they had accepted a ride from Castro, who remained friends with Dejesus' family and even attended vigils over the years marking her disappearance.

Berry has a 6-year-old daughter fathered by Castro, authorities said.

The Associated Press does not usually identify people who may be victims of sexual assault, but the names of the three women were widely circulated after they disappeared, and the women appeared on a video last week to thank the public for its support.

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