Indictment balloons to 977 counts in Ohio kidnap case

Ariel Castro sits with his head down between his attorneys Jaye Schlachet (right) and Craig Weintraub (left) during his pre-trial hearing on charges including rape, kidnapping and murder in Cleveland, Ohio, in this photo taken on June 19, 2013. A gra
Ariel Castro sits with his head down between his attorneys Jaye Schlachet (right) and Craig Weintraub (left) during his pre-trial hearing on charges including rape, kidnapping and murder in Cleveland, Ohio, in this photo taken on June 19, 2013. A grand jury in Ohio issued a staggering 977-count indictment Friday on Castro, accused of holding three young women captive for a decade in his Cleveland home. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A grand jury in Ohio issued a staggering 977-count indictment on Friday on Ariel Castro, accused of holding three young women captive for a decade in his Cleveland home.

It covers the entire period from August 2002, when the first woman vanished, to May this year, when all three were found alive, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office said in a statement.

It supersedes an earlier 329-count indictment in June against the former school bus driver that covered only the first four and a half years of the women's captivity and included two counts of aggravated murder.

"Today's indictment moves us closer to resolution of this gruesome case," prosecutor Timothy McGinty said. "Our investigation continues, as does our preparation for trial."

Castro, 52, who has pleaded not guilty, is to be arraigned on Wednesday on the new indictment. Judge Michael Russo has previously scheduled a jury summons to go out on Aug 5.

Prosecutors indicated they are still considering whether to seek the death penalty against Castro in relation to the aggravated murder charges, which stem from the beating of a pregnant captive leading to her miscarriage.

The new indictment also includes 512 counts of kidnapping, 446 counts of rape, seven counts of gross sexual imposition, six counts of felonious assault, three counts of child endangerment and one count of possessing criminal tools.

It comes three days after Ms Michelle Knight, 32, Ms Amanda Berry, 27, and Ms Gina DeJesus, now 23, spoke publicly for the first time since their escape, thanking their supporters and asking for continued privacy to rebuild their lives.

Ms Knight, who reportedly suffered the most violent abuse inside a ramshackle house owned by Castro in a working class Cleveland neighbourhood, said she had been to "hell and back" but now could smile about the future.

"Thank you for all your prayers. I am looking forward to my brand new life," said Ms Knight, who was snatched off the street in August 2002 at the age of 20, in a video posted on YouTube.

The stunning case came to light after Ms Berry, 27, managed to escape with her young daughter on May 6 by calling out to a neighbor for help through a locked front door.

"I am getting stronger each day, and having my privacy has helped immensely," Ms Berry said. "I ask that everyone continues to respect our privacy and give us time to have a normal life."

The third woman, Ms DeJesus, now 23, seemed the most shy of the three, simply thanking people for their support. She appeared in the video alongside her parents.

Castro, who has been on suicide watch, last appeared in court on July 3 where Jjudge Russo declared him competent to stand trial and deemed "inappropriate" his request to see a child born during the women's captivity.