By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Ariel Castro committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet in his prison cell, an Ohio coroner said on Wednesday, just one month into a life sentence for the kidnapping, rape and beatings of three women he kept imprisoned for a decade.
The former school bus driver, who pleaded guilty to 937 counts in July, was found hanged in his cell at an Ohio prison late Tuesday.
An autopsy on Wednesday confirmed the cause of death was suicide by hanging, said Dr. Jan Gorniak, the Franklin County coroner.
"This man couldn't take, for even a month, a small portion of what he had dished out for more than a decade," said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who agreed to a deal that spared Castro the death penalty in exchange for life in prison.
Castro had been taken off suicide watch while still in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County Jail on June 5, a spokesman said, and his was the seventh suicide in Ohio prisons this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which called for a full investigation.
State prison and county jail officials denied Castro permission to receive independent mental health counseling, even though he had contemplated suicide in 2004 and was likely to suffer depression after being sentenced to life in prison, his defense lawyers said.
"We were never provided any explanation," defense attorney Craig Weintraub said. "We don't know what the rationale was to take him off suicide watch."
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said its mental health staff found that Castro did not need to be placed on suicide watch, which would have meant a guard checked on him every 15 minutes.
"Our credentialed mental health staff determined this," said spokeswoman Ricky Seyfang. "Suicide watch was not required for him."
But the department said in a statement it set up a committee of legal, health and other experts to review the death and publish findings within a month.
Castro, 53, was sentenced on August 1 to life plus 1,000 years in prison without the possibility of parole for abducting the three women and keeping them in the dungeon-like confines of his house, where they were starved, beaten and sexually assaulted.
The case captured international attention when it broke in May, as many people were elated by news the three women had been found alive, then stunned by the details of their ordeal.
Some $1.4 million in charitable donations poured in from 10,800 donors seeking to help the women resume their lives.
BOUND IN CHAINS
Castro was taken into custody in May, just after Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, were freed with assistance from neighbors who heard Berry's cries for help.
Also rescued was Berry's 6-year-old daughter, fathered by Castro and born during her mother's captivity. Police recovered from the home a suicide note and confession he wrote in 2004.
The house where the three were held, bound with chains and ropes for periods of time, has been torn down along with two neighboring abandoned homes, creating an extended vacant lot in the working-class neighborhood.
Castro was transferred to the Correctional Reception Center outside Columbus, the state capital, on August 5 and was to remain there while undergoing mental and physical evaluation before being transferred to a permanent lockup, prison officials said.
He was in protective custody with guards checking on him every half hour - rather than the 15 minutes for those on suicide watch - and isolated from other inmates at the Correctional Reception Center in Orient.
Ohio prisons are at 130 percent capacity, a prison watchdog group says, and the Castro hanging closely followed that of Ohio death row inmate Billy Slagle, 44, who was found hanged in his prison cell on August 4, three days before his scheduled execution. Results of an investigation had yet to be released.
Since 2000, suicide rates in Ohio prisons have remained mostly stable, generally ranging between four and eight deaths per year, according to the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. The exceptions were 2004 and 2007, which each had 11.
"The last page has been turned," said Julio Cesar Castro, uncle of the Castro brothers and owner of a general store in the neighborhood where the women were held.
The Castro family learned of his death from the media, attorney Weintraub said, and word spread quickly through the west Cleveland neighborhood.
"Rot in hell, Castro," a woman passenger yelled from a white sport utility vehicle driving by the site on Wednesday, part of a slow but steady line of cars moving past a group of television trucks.
"I guess he couldn't handle it. He took the coward's way out," said neighbor Walter Freeman, 57.
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou, Bernard Orr)