By The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Dozens of pieces of identification and power of attorney documents have been discovered after a Philadelphia landlord found four mentally disabled adults locked in the squalid basement of his building, a discovery that points toward a wide-ranging fraud scheme, police said Monday.
Investigators are still processing the documents and reaching out to authorities in multiple jurisdictions while they try to find the family of one of the victims rescued Saturday from what police called deplorable conditions, Lt. Ray Evers told The Associated Press.
Evers said Linda Ann Weston is suspected of running a long-standing fraud operation. Authorities say Weston and two other suspects may have been holding the four people found in the basement hostage and collecting their disability checks.
“Without a doubt, this is just the beginning of this investigation,” Evers said.
Police said the four mentally disabled adults were rescued from the basement of the northeast Philadelphia apartment building on Saturday after the landlord shined a flashlight behind a steel door that had been chained shut. One victim had been shackled to the boiler, police said.
The space was too small for an adult to stand up straight and reeked of waste from the buckets the victims used to relieve themselves, according to police.
Weston’s daughter had been renting the two-bedroom apartment without incident for about a year and lived there with her two teenagers, paying $750 a month with cash or a money order, landlord Turgut Gozleveli said. Like other tenants in the seven-unit building, she had a key to the basement.
During his daily stop at the building on Thursday, the landlord met her mother and the mother’s boyfriend, “Rev. Ed.”
On Saturday, he heard dogs barking when he was in the basement, where he keeps his maintenance tools, and found a chain across the door to the sub-basement.
He found three dogs and four people, one of them chained to the boiler.
“I asked them what they are doing here, and how they got in. There was no communication. I asked questions, and I don’t get any answers,” said Gozleveli, 71, who freed the chained man and called the police.
“He was just watching me when I cut the chain.”
Police suspect the four were victims of a scheme to steal their disability checks, and they are investigating whether they were part of a wider plot.
Detectives have been able to make contact with the families of three of the victims, but were still trying to reach the family of a fourth. Evers identified him as Herbert Knowles, 40. He may be from Virginia, Evers said.
“Out of the four, he has the most disabilities,” Evers said. “He was so happy to be in the hospital and eat food. The detective says he’s like a new person just hours after captivity.”
Evers said Weston may have met one of the victims through an online dating service.
“Talk about preying on the weak and weary,” Evers said. “You can’t get any lower than this person.”
Evers said two of the victims are from Philadelphia — one, a woman, had been listed as a missing person since 2005. The other is a man from North Carolina.
The four people found in the basement — a 29-year-old woman and the men, who are 31, 35, and 41 — have the mental capacity of 10-year-olds, police said.
Police said that they apparently had been brought to Philadelphia about 10 days before they were found. They had apparently been in West Palm Beach, Fla., and before that in Texas.
Charges of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, kidnapping, criminal trespass, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment and related offenses were filed Sunday against Weston, 51, and Gregory Thomas, 47, both of Philadelphia, as well as Eddie Wright, 50, officially listed as homeless but originally from Texas. Listed phone numbers for the defendants could not be found and it was unclear whether they had attorneys.
Weston was being held on $2.5 million bail after being arraigned Monday on charges including conspiracy, kidnapping, false imprisonment and aggravated assault.
Thomas and Wright were being held on $500,000 bail following their arraignments Sunday.