By The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – A mentally challenged man chained to a basement boiler. A disabled woman with her teeth knocked out. A malnourished niece with burn marks and pellet gun wounds. A two-year-old child the weight of an infant.
These are the some of the victims emerging as police investigate a ring that allegedly took in the downtrodden and disabled for their Social Security checks, then held them captive in wretched conditions, without enough to eat or drink.
“The things that I have heard, the things that have been described, I’m not sure that horrific covers it,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said Wednesday.
The four adult victims found locked in a Philadelphia crawl space on Saturday have the mental capacity of 10-year-olds. One said he had met accused ringleader Linda Ann Weston, 51, through an online dating site. Weston and three others, including her daughter, are charged with kidnapping, assault and other charges, with her bail set at $2.5 million.
It’s unclear how Weston met the other disabled adults found Saturday, one of whom may have borne several children in recent years. They were treated at a hospital and then moved to a social services agency.
Eight children and four young adults linked to the defendants have since been taken into protective custody after they were found at various locations around the city.
They include the 19-year-old niece, Beatrice Weston, who was left locked in a closet in recent days, according to police. Police took the unusual step of asking reporters Wednesday not to try to locate or interview her.
“I have never seen a victim whose injuries were any more severe than what I saw last night,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. “This girl was beaten, was tortured. It makes you want to cry when you see her.”
She may be the same niece who, according to neighbors, lived with Weston, co-defendant Gregory Thomas and the couple’s four children in northeast Philadelphia from about 2003 to 2005. Neighbors called police, and the city’s child-protection agency, after hearing the adults scream and curse at the youngsters, whom they said could be found outside at 6 a.m. and late at night. They also thought they heard them being beaten.
Nothing seemed to have been done, the neighbors said. After about two years, the family was forced out for unpaid rent, the neighbors said. The next tenant kept getting Social Security statements mailed to the house for Weston, Thomas, victim Tamara Breedon and others. She called the post office and the Social Security Administration. But the statements – not the checks, which are often direct deposited – didn’t stop for years.
Police went to the same address at one point to check on a report of a missing person involving another victim, Herbert Knowles. The current resident said she didn’t know anyone by that name. There is no indication there was any follow-up by police.
The defendants – Thomas, 47; co-defendant Eddie “the Rev. Ed” Wright, 50; and Weston’s daughter, Jean McIntosh, 32 – are scheduled to have their first court hearing on Monday. Weston’s lawyer has not returned calls for comment. It’s not yet clear if the others have attorneys.
Weston, along with a sister, were convicted of murder in the early 1980s after locking the sister’s boyfriend in a closet for weeks until he died of starvation. McIntosh has a prior arrest for theft by deception, and securing a document by deception. Her teenage son and daughter were taken into protective custody on Wednesday, shortly after she became the fourth defendant arrested in the case.
Meanwhile, authorities in Virginia confirmed Wednesday that a Philadelphia woman had died in Weston’s rental home in Norfolk, Va., in 2008. Maxine Lee, 39, died of meningitis, but a wasting syndrome called “cachexia” contributed to the death, according to the death certificate.
Weston and two other charges cleared out of the house hours after calling to report the death.
“Nobody was there. … They had left everything,” landlord Mohammad Zarandi said. “The TV was still on.”
She had moved in just six weeks earlier with three women, telling Zarandi she was their caretaker. It’s unclear where the surviving trio went after that.
But this past year alone, Weston traveled with four disabled adults from Killeen, Texas, to West Palm Beach, Fla., to Philadelphia. Police believe they were staying one step ahead of the law, and perhaps of the many landlords, including Zarandi, who went to court seeking unpaid rent.
In West Palm Beach, neighbors would see Weston, Thomas and Wright out with several disabled adults, some of whom sported noticeable bruises. They were told the adults had fought with each other.
The group, including a bevy of children, stripped the house bare when they left a few weeks ago, that landlord said.
They arrived at McIntosh’s apartment in northeast Philadelphia on about Oct. 3.
Neighbors there saw them unload a number of adults from the SUV in the middle of the night. Later that week, another oddity: the group was holding an impromptu flea market on the sidewalk. Several disabled adults were being harshly ordered around by Weston, they said. A block captain called landlord Turgut Gozleveli when they left behind a pile of debris.
Gozleveli arrived and was introduced by his tenant, McIntosh, to Weston, along with Thomas and Wright.
Two days later, all four would be under arrest after barking dogs led Gozleveli to find the four disabled adults packed into a stench-filled boiler room. They were so weak, they needed help from police walking up the basement stairs.
Police soon found Social Security cards, Power of Attorney forms and other documents bearing the names of about 50 people. They have no idea at this point how broad the scheme may be, or how much money may be involved. But they do think they have rounded up all of the children and teens who were at risk.
“We are still trying to figure out the many components of what I would describe as the incredibly tangled web of horror,” Nutter said.