In a basement of a small apartment in Tacony, four mentally disabled adults were found chained to a boiler and locked behind a steel door on Saturday. Philadelphia police described the location as a “dungeon,” a “cellar” and of having a rotten smell.
The captors—alleged ringleader Linda Ann Weston, 51, Gregory Thomas, 47, and Eddie Wright, 50—are believed to have had held the victims for years, traveling from Texas to West Palm Beach, Fla., and finally to Philadelphia, stopping at many cities along the way.
Weston had more than 50 Social Security numbers on her person the day of the arrest, leading police to believe she tortured the captives into giving her their Social Security payments.
She was charged in 1985 for locking a man in a closet and starving him to death.
“These are…things that people have possibly never seen before,” Mayor Michael Nutter said in a press conference Wednesday. “This is quite possibly one of the most visible signs of man’s inhumanity to man.”
“It’s an incredibly tangled web of horror.”
Community leaders are utterly horrified by the past week’s events.
“It’s appalling to think that this is how we are protecting people with disabilities,” said Audrey Coccia, co-executive director of Vision for EQuality. “There’s obviously not enough checks and balances and safeguards made available to them to make sure they’re safe and free from harm.”
A law, titled The Adult Protective Services Act of 2010, was established in Pennsylvania to protect elderly and disabled people from abuse and neglect. However, it has not been fully enforced because of the state’s lack of funding.
“It’s easy for someone to come in the state…and commit fraud or neglect or harm people with disabilities and [they] don’t have to worry because no one’s going to do anything to them,” Coccia said.
Danyell Tisdale, block captain of the 4700-block of Longshore Avenue where the original victims were held, said she personally witnessed their mistreatment in the weeks prior to the police’s discovery.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tisdale said. “I wasn’t thinking that they [Weston, Thomas and Wright] were keeping people locked in the basement with chains on their wrists and [living] with dogs.”
Two weeks ago, she received a phone call from a neighbor saying a “distinct” group of people were moving in at a late hour. She said she saw Weston, Thomas and Wright escorting the disabled adults out of a white van and into the apartment.
A week later, she was alerted by a family member that the same group of people were hosting a flea market on the block. Tisdale found that odd and went to investigate.
“The people were out there trying to sell clothes, but without tables,” Tisdale said. “I heard one of the mentally disabled people say, ‘Are we getting paid for this today?’ and she [Weston] said, ‘Shut up and get in.'” She said the man obliged and quickly returned to the apartment.
Tisdale said things calmed down on the block until the police were called on Saturday.
Tuesday evening, police discovered six juveniles and four adults “in and around Frankford” after receiving tips from West Palm Beach police of their connection to the case. One of the victims was 19-year-old Beatrice Weston, Weston’s niece, whom was declared missing in West Palm Beach in 2009. She, along with the other juveniles, are emaciated and severely injured.
“Of the visible scars, you could see them on her face, on her arms and on her legs,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said. “I’ve never seen anything like this on a living person before. It’s remarkable that she is alive and on top of that, she’s malnourished.”
Weston was granted legal custody of her niece after a lengthy fallout between her and Beatrice’s mother, Vicky Weston, Weston’s sister. Lt. Ray Evers, spokesperson for the Philadelphia police, said Vicky had suffered from medical issues.
Another adult found on Tuesday was 32-year-old Jean McIntosh, Weston’s daughter, who allegedly helped with the kidnapping and lived at the house in Tacony before Weston arrived. She was arrested and charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment. Weston, Thomas and Wright received similar charges.
Of the six juveniles found, two are alleged to be children of Tamara Breeden, 29, one of the original victims held captive in Tacony. Police believe she gave birth to the children while in captivity.
Ramsey said the father of Breeden’s children is one of the original male victims, but would not disclose his name. The condition of those children, a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, were the same as the others.
“The 2-year-old [child] looked like a 6-month-old [child],” Ramsey said. “They are not in the best of conditions.”
Wednesday morning, police received a tip McIntosh had two juvenile children, an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, housed within the city. They were recovered by police, treated at local hospitals and released to protective custody.
The original four victims–Breeden, Derwin McLemire, 41, Herbert Knowles, 40, and an unnamed male–and the six juveniles and four adults found on Tuesday were also treated and released to secure locations in the state.
“Our main focus from Saturday after three arrests were made was to make sure that we got the juveniles in the city of Philadelphia’s care,” Evers said.
Both Ramsey and Evers said that the investigation is ongoing and have joined forces with the FBI and West Palm Beach police to further its process. District Attorney Seth Williams is also working with the investigation.
“My grasp of the English language limits how I can describe the facts and the evidence of this case,” Williams said.
“People have asked me, ‘What do you want to happen to these people? Where should they be prosecuted?’ Honestly [he answered], wherever the prison’s going to be the worst. Federal prison might be too nice.”
Kirsten Stamn and Pamela Seaton are students reporting for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the publication of Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.