“It’s really hard and I miss her a lot,” said Nick Castillo, now 24, who is suing his father for wrongful death. “I’m having a tough time trying to figure out how to do stuff.”
“In my speech class, I did my first speech on adoption and how she adopted me,” said Victoria Castillo, now 13. “I really wanted her to be there.” Some of the family’s dozens of supporters in the courtroom wept.
“You have no idea what you have done to your children,” wrote Jonathan Castillo, now 12, in an emotional letter read by his foster mother. “You deny that you murdered mom, and that’s another lie. You know you did it. I know it. We all know it.”
Braulio Castillo maintains that his wife committed suicide and that he is innocent. But he did not speak Friday, or show any emotion as his children vilified him, or react when Loudoun Circuit Court Judge Steve Sincavage sentenced him to life in prison without parole plus 16 years for murder, burglary with intent to commit murder and violating the protective order his wife had obtained against him for repeated spousal abuse.
In addition to Michelle Castillo’s friends and family, seven jurors from the trial returned for the sentencing. “We’re certain that we arrived at the right verdict,” said Sheri Muilenberg of Leesburg. “We just wanted to be here to see it come to culmination. I felt like I got to know this woman. She made a big impact on all of us.”
Michelle and Braulio Castillo purchased and then ran a small Leesburg-based IT company called Strong Castle, which had been awarded $500 million worth of IRS contracts in 2012. Strong Castle attracted congressional scrutiny in 2013 when it was revealed that the company had received preference on government contracts because Braulio Castillo claimed he was a “service-disabled veteran.” He had injured his ankle playing football at a military prep school in 1984.
The Castillos were active in McLean Bible Church, Braulio Castillo coached his kids’ sports teams, and the family was well-liked in Ashburn. But in March 2013, Michelle Castillo filed for a protective order from her husband, providing a four-page list of abusive behavior by him such as trying to force her to have sex, locking her in rooms and cursing their children. The order was imposed, and Braulio Castillo was forced to move to another home a few blocks away in Ashburn. Soon a divorce case started.
Michelle Castillo was found dead, hanging by an electrical cord wrapped around a basement shower head, in the family home on March 20, 2014. She was 43, and the couple had been married 18 years. The two had been in the Loudoun courthouse the day before for a hearing on temporary child and spousal support, and Michelle Castillo’s lawyer said she was seeking $14,000 a month. But the hearing was postponed due to a crowded docket.
That night, Michelle Castillo went out for celebratory drinks with a group of runners because she had just qualified for the Boston Marathon. Braulio Castillo had four of their children over for dinner at his house a few blocks from their home, while Nicholas was away at college.
Braulio Castillo’s sister drove his children to a parking lot to drop them off for Michelle Castillo. Prosecutors allege that Braulio Castillo jogged over to his former house, where a nearby surveillance camera captured a grainy figure going inside at 8:10 p.m., and that he hid in the house until the children went to sleep. That person, or someone, emerged from the house at 12:30 a.m., the surveillance video showed. Castillo’s lawyers, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, said Castillo knew of the neighbor’s surveillance camera and could have avoided it, and that the grainy figure wasn’t him.
In the morning, the Castillo children could not find their mother. They called their father, and with a neighbor he went inside and took them to school. The neighbor called police while Braulio Castillo went home. His wife was found with bruises on her face and her hair hanging over her face, and the shower in her master bathroom had been running all night. The medical examiner ruled she had not been strangled by the cord around her neck, but had been suffocated, and Braulio Castillo’s DNA was found on her bed and sweatshirt, though he hadn’t been in the house for a year.
After Loudoun sheriff’s deputies watched the surveillance tape and learned of the Castillos’ divorce proceedings and the protective order based on Michelle Castillo’s claims of extensive abuse by her husband, they obtained a murder warrant for Castillo. They alleged that Castillo staged his wife’s death to look like a suicide.
Defense experts testified that her injuries could have been caused by hanging herself. At trial in June, Braulio Castillo took the stand and denied having any role in his wife’s death.
After hearing five weeks of evidence and testimony, the jury deliberated for more than nine hours before convicting Castillo on all three counts. The following day, they issued the sentence of life plus 16 years. Sincavage could impose or reduce the sentence, but not increase it. Greenspun asked the judge to reduce the sentence, to allow Castillo to be released from prison one day and reconcile with his children.
Earlier in the week, Greenspun asked Sincavage to set aside the verdict, claiming that lead homicide Detective Mark McCaffrey had falsified a key report in an unrelated death case. Greenspun argued that prosecutors failed to disclose the report to the defense, and he could have used it to impeach McCaffrey’s credibility as the central investigator of Castillo. Sincavage ruled that Greenspun could not have used the report, and denied the motion. Briefs on the motion revealed that Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman had refused to reappoint McCaffrey as a deputy on the eve of the trial because McCaffrey didn’t support Chapman for reelection.
Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittman carried a large photo of Michelle Castillo and the children and placed it on an easel in front of Sincavage. “Today we ask you never to forget Michelle Castillo,” Wittman told the judge. She reminded Sincavage: “This is a man, and it must never be forgotten, who left his wife hanging in the basement, in a horrific scene like something out of a horror movie. And he left her for his children to find.”
Sincavage noted that the jury not only heard all the details of the crime, but “the details of Braulio Castillo’s life and accomplishments. “It’s not about whether he has been and continues to be a good person,” the judge said. “It’s about his conduct.”
Nick Castillo said afterward: “It’s a bittersweet moment for me, to be completely honest. I’ve lost my mom, but I’ve also lost my dad. But I’m completely okay with the sentence. You do the crime, you don’t get a pass.”