PHILADELPHIA - Three people charged with chaining four mentally disabled adults in the squalid basement of a northeast Philadelphia apartment building may have been holding their victims hostage and collecting their disability benefits, police said.
Officers were investigating a report of squatters in a building Saturday when they found three men and a woman in a 15-by-15-foot room behind a steel door that was chained shut. At least one victim was chained to a boiler, police said.
"It's very unsettling," Philadelphia police Capt. Frank Bachmayer told CBS News station KYW-TV. "It's not even a basement; it's a subbasement. It's a closet, 15-by-15, with a heater. Very disturbing."
(Scroll down to watch a KYW-TV report)
The subbasement room they were in called to mind a Cold War-era bomb shelter and contained a makeshift bed, mattress and sheets, Officer Tanya Little, a police spokeswoman, said Sunday. It was too small for an adult to stand up straight and also reeked of waste from the buckets they used to relieve themselves, police said. The only food in the basement was a container of orange juice.
"It was horrible," Little said. "The space was very tiny and confined."
Police are investigating the possibility that the suspects were trying to make money through access to the victims' Social Security or disability checks, Little said.
Charges of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, kidnapping, criminal trespass, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment and related offenses were filed Sunday against Linda Ann Weston, 51, and Gregory Thomas, 47, both of Philadelphia, as well as Eddie Wright, 50, officially listed as homeless but originally from Texas. Listed numbers for the defendants could not be found Sunday and it was unclear whether they had attorneys.
Thomas and Wright are being held on $500,000 bail following their arraignments Sunday. Online court records do not indicate if Weston has been arraigned.
It wasn't clear how the suspects knew the victims.
Federal charges could also be added, Lt. Raymond Evers told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"We're going to find every crime possible in the crime code to put on these individuals," Evers said.
The Inquirer reported that Weston served eight years in prison for starving to death 25-year-old Bernardo Ramos after he refused to support her sister's unborn child. She held him in the closet of her North Philadelphia apartment in 1981.
The three 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. They were taken to a hospital for treatment and listed in stable condition. Little said the victims, whose names were not released, appeared to have no physical problems other than malnourishment.
Little said that getting information from the victims had been difficult due to their disability, but 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, she said.
"It's heartbreaking that people can do such horrifying things to other people," she said.
The Palm Beach Post reported Weston and Wright lived about two months at a home in West Palm Beach, stripping it of wire and plumbing and smearing feces on the walls. The owner of the home said Weston lived with several mentally disabled young adults and Wright lived in a nearby duplex with at least one mentally disabled adult.
The Philadelphia building's landlord, Turgut Gozleveli, told The Inquirer he checked out the basement three times last week after a neighbor complained of suspicious people coming and going.
Eventually, he said, he followed the sound of a barking dog down three steps to an old coal room, where he unwrapped a rusted chain linked around the door handle.
He said he shined his flashlight into the tiny dirt-floored space. He saw two small dogs and blankets, he told the newspaper and then people's faces.
"It was terrible," he said. "Something I never expected to see in my life."