The odd and tragic case of Mark Castillo took another erratic turn Wednesday, when the 43-year-old father abruptly pleaded guilty to drowning his three young children in a city hotel bathtub, carefully timing their submersion with a stopwatch.
Castillo's unexpected guilty plea to the murders, which he calculated to punish his estranged wife, came after lawyers and court officials spent a week choosing a jury for his trial.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard found Castillo, who arrived in court in sweats and a T-shirt instead of his customary suit, mentally capable of entering the plea and sentenced him to three consecutive life terms without possibility of parole.
The judge recommended that Castillo serve the time at the Patuxent Institution, a correctional mental health center in Jessup.
"I was wrong," Castillo said during a brief statement to the court. He read a passage from Ecclesiastes 8:8 from a Bible the judge retrieved at his request: "No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death."
The plea came after a quick series of morning maneuvers, surprises and revelations, similar to those that have marked the past year and a half since the children were killed March 29, 2008. The Montgomery County man has repeatedly confessed, tried to fire his attorneys and to plead insanity, all of which he repeated Wednesday.
He declined to withdraw a January insanity plea, leading the judge to deem it still in effect, potentially doubling the trial time. Castillo also asked to dismiss his attorneys, which Heard talked him out of doing. He broke into sobs when the judge acknowledged some unidentified "abuse" he'd been subject to in lockup, before he ultimately asked to plead guilty. He was calm from that moment on.
That final decision spared his family and former wife, pediatrician Amy Castillo, weeks of having to relive the details of the murders. She was called to the courtroom from her hotel as the plea unfolded. In an impromptu statement before sentencing, Amy Castillo reminded the court of all she had lost when her ex-husband took the lives of their children.
Anthony, 6, was a mama's boy who never got to finish kindergarten, very smart and very loving, she said. Austin, 4, was a "wild kid, like his father" with a great sense of humor. Athena, 2, had just begun to talk.
"I never even got to hear what she had to say," Amy Castillo said, adding that she also lost a fourth person in the tragedy.
"I lost my husband," she said, once her best friend.
After 10 years of marriage, the Castillos wound up in a bitter divorce with Amy Castillo fighting unsuccessfully to persuade the courts to keep her children away from their father for their safety. Records show that he had twice been involuntarily committed for psychiatric care and had tried to take his own life, as he did again on March 29, 2008.
Before accepting his guilty plea, Heard asked Mark Castillo a series of questions meant to convince her that he knew what he was doing.
A medical evaluator had found him competent to stand trial earlier in the year, and Castillo said the finding was accurate when the judge asked about it. He gave his full name and the name of his high school in California. He said he accepted "full responsibility" for his actions.
"I understand I'll be in jail for the rest of my life," he said, not consulting his two public defenders, Joan Fraser and Natasha Moody, who the judge said fought aggressively on behalf of their client.
"He's an intelligent and articulate man," Heard said, finding Castillo competent and in possession of a "full understanding of the gravity of the offense and the seriousness of it and the sentence that will be imposed."
The horror of the drownings was detailed by Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, chief of the Felony Family Violence Division, who read into the court record a statement of facts.
Adhering to a Montgomery County visitation order, Amy Castillo released the children into their father's care that Saturday. He spent the day with them at the Maryland Science Center in the Inner Harbor, before checking into a reserved hotel room at the Marriott hotel on Eutaw Street, near Camden Yards. They ordered room service and ate, then Castillo distracted the boys with a video game and his laptop computer, while he took Athena into the bathroom.
"He undressed her, filled the tub with water, submerged her in the water, and held her down while she struggled," measuring 10 minutes by a stopwatch he hung on the towel bar, "to ensure that she would not recover," Drake read.
He tucked her into bed and repeated the process with Austin, who "kicked and struggled." And finally, with Anthony, who was bigger and stronger than his siblings, and suspicious. "The defendant indicated he had a sad, then scared look on his face," Drake said. Castillo held him underwater until he was still, then placed him beside the others and put the stopwatch in the baby's bag.
Castillo then tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the neck and later by overdosing on Aleve, an over-the-counter pain medication. When neither worked, he called the hotel front desk and told what he had done. He would later confess to detectives at the hospital where his wounds were treated and again at homicide headquarters.
"Let the record reflect that there is more than enough evidence to find you guilty of murder in the first degree" on three counts, Heard said, ticking off the guilty findings for each killing.
In the courtroom, Mark Castillo's fourth child, a 21-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, looked on. She had left the courtroom as Drake read the facts of the case, appearing upset, and declined to speak on her father's behalf after judgment was passed, as did his mother.
His sister addressed the room instead, her right hand shaking as she raised it to be sworn in.
"We love Mark Castillo so much; we love the kids with all our hearts," she began. "We're behind him 100 percent. He has the love and support of his family and always will."
As she finished, the Bible that Mark Castillo had asked for arrived, and he said his piece. His last words, as he was being led out in handcuffs and shackles, were to his daughter.
"I love you, Janine," he said.
On the sidewalk, outside the courthouse, Amy Castillo paused to pray with a passer-by, who said his fiancee was also struggling with the courts to protect her children.
She appears a slimmer woman than a year ago. She has been pulled to the gym by a longtime friend from Bible study, Linda Douglas, who was by her side during the pre-trial events. She goes to multiple counseling sessions each week and has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. She still has flashbacks and nightmares, but she's getting better, she said.
She's forgiven her ex-husband, as God has forgiven her, she said, and she still prays for his family, particularly his mother.
"I know the pain of being a mother," she told the court, "and having something happen to your children."