(PHILADELPHIA) — A Philadelphia woman and four others face a first-of-its-kind hate crimes prosecution for allegedly imprisoning mentally handicapped adults in a basement while stealing their benefit checks.
The 196 count federal grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday claims that Linda Ann Weston, 52, and her alleged accomplices preyed on people with mental disabilities from 2001 to 2011. Four adults were found confined in her Philadelphia basement.
“Shocking does not begin to describe the criminal allegations in this case where the victims were tied-up and confined like zoo animals and treated like property akin to slaves,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Zane Memeger said in a statement.
The case will be the first to utilize a 2009 statute that enhanced punishments for criminals who target the mentally disabled. Weston is accused of targeting mentally disabled people in order to steal their Social Security disability payments.
Investigators in Philadelphia said in 2011 that Weston and her accomplices were carrying out a “widespread fraud scheme,” and that they trafficked the victims from Texas to Florida to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, they held their alleged victims in Weston’s daughter’s apartment building.
The victims are believed to have been in the 6 by 10 foot boiler room for about 10 days. They were found in October 2011 reeking of excrement from the bucket they were forced to use, police said.
According to the indictment, one of the victims, who have not been named, was Weston’s niece.
Weston allegedly targeted mentally disabled individuals who were estranged from their families and offered them a place to stay. In some instances Weston pretended to have a romantic interest in her victims as a means of luring them into her home, the indictment states.
Once she had convinced them to move in, Weston became their representative payee with Social Security and began to collect their disability benefits, according to the indictment. At times two women were forced to engage in prostitution, and when victims attempted to flee they were beaten, kicked and burned, court documents state.
When police searched personal belongings of Weston in 2011, documents belonging to 50 persons turned up, authorities said. The documents allegedly included drivers licenses, Social Security cards and even power of attorney forms filled out to allow Weston access to the victims’ money.
After discovering the documents, police launched an investigation, believing that she may have had victims in Florida, Virginia and Texas.
The indictment unsealed Wednesday names Weston, Eddie Wright, 52, of Killeen, Texas, Gregory Thomas Sr., 49, of Philadelphia, Weston’s daughter Jean Mcintosh, 33, of Philadelphia, and Nicklaus Woodard, 26, of West Palm Beach, Fla.
All five were charged with four counts of a hate crime, conspiracy, racketeering, and kidnapping. Weston Mcintosh and Thomas were charged with involuntary servitude. Only Weston was charged with two counts of murder.
Confinement and abuse caused the deaths of two other victims, the prosecutors allege and Weston worked to cover up their deaths.
All five of the defendants in the case face life sentences.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire
Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire