Dungeon of horrors

Au­thor­it­ies probe the dis­cov­ery of four hu­mans liv­ing in filthy con­di­tions in a Ta­cony apart­ment.

The Ta­cony home where four men­tally ill in­di­vidu­als were held cap­tive.

A land­lord’s dis­cov­ery of four men­tally chal­lenged and mal­nour­ished adults who were locked in the base­ment of a Ta­cony apart­ment build­ing brought an end to the vic­tims’ hor­rif­ic or­deal.

But it also signaled the start of what is likely to be­come a lengthy multi-state in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to il­leg­al hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Phil­adelphia po­lice on Sat­urday ar­res­ted three people, in­clud­ing two North Phil­adelphia res­id­ents and one with no known ad­dress, for kid­nap­ping, false im­pris­on­ment, con­spir­acy and re­lated of­fenses. Ad­di­tion­al charges are pos­sible.

One of the de­fend­ants, Linda Ann We­st­on, 51, is a con­victed mur­der­er who served eight years in pris­on for the star­va­tion death in 1981 of her sis­ter’s es­tranged boy­friend, Bern­ardo Ramos, 25, who was im­prisoned in a closet, starved and beaten for months be­fore his dead body was dumped in an aban­doned house.

In the new case, au­thor­it­ies be­lieve that We­st­on and Gregory Thomas, 47, both of the 2500 block of N. 29th St., and Ed­die Wright, 50, ad­dress un­known, chained the four vic­tims in sub-hu­man con­di­tions in a base­ment boil­er room of a build­ing on the 4700 block of Long­shore Ave. for at least 12 days with the ex­pect­a­tion of col­lect­ing the vic­tims’ gov­ern­ment be­ne­fit checks.

The vic­tims in­cluded three men and a wo­man, ages 29 to 41. Po­lice be­lieve that one vic­tim, a 40-year-old iden­ti­fied as Her­bert Knowles, is from Vir­gin­ia, while the oth­ers, whose iden­tit­ies have not been re­leased of­fi­cially, are also from out-of-state.

Po­lice said that the vic­tims have men­tal ca­pa­cit­ies of young chil­dren.

“It’s in­hu­mane, there’s no ques­tion about that,” Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Charles Ram­sey said after vis­it­ing the crime scene on Monday.

“This case is go­ing to be go­ing on for a while. We don’t know how far it’s go­ing to ex­tend.”

• • •

Ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial po­lice de­part­ment state­ment, the “own­er/land­lord” of the prop­erty found the vic­tims locked in a sub-base­ment area of the apart­ment build­ing on Sat­urday morn­ing. He re­portedly went there after someone com­plained of a dog bark­ing.

When he ar­rived, he found a lock and chain on the boil­er room door, broke it open and peered in­to the darkened space with a flash­light, ac­cord­ing to the Phil­adelphia Daily News. He first saw two little dogs, then some blankets and oth­er bed­ding and, fi­nally, two people’s faces. When they didn’t re­spond to his calls, he left the base­ment pre­sum­ing they were squat­ters and called 911.

Of­ficers from the 15th Po­lice Dis­trict ar­rived at the scene at about 10:30 a.m., said Capt. Frank Bach­may­er. They found four people in the make­shift dun­geon and quickly re­cog­nized them as crime vic­tims.

“It’s like two base­ments,” Bach­may­er said. “There’s one base­ment, then you go down some steps and there’s an­oth­er boil­er room. It’s like 15-by-15. There were pads (on the floor) and of­ficers found four people who were men­tally chal­lenged.”

The vic­tims “ap­peared to be mal­nour­ished,” ac­cord­ing to a po­lice de­part­ment state­ment, and were taken by para­med­ics to Aria Health Frank­ford in stable con­di­tion. North­east De­tect­ives ques­tioned them.

All three sus­pects were ar­res­ted late that night.

“It was def­in­itely an up­set­ting feel­ing when you saw the boil­er area where the people were stay­ing,” Bach­may­er said. “It was small, dirty, dark and there was a lot of dust.”

The vic­tims had bed­sores, ac­cord­ing to the patrol com­mand­er. The land­lord re­portedly told the Daily News that the room reeked of ur­ine and fe­ces and that the vic­tims were us­ing a buck­et to re­lieve them­selves.

On Monday even­ing, Phil­adelphia po­lice al­lowed se­lec­ted mem­bers of the news me­dia in­to the base­ment for film­ing. The soiled buck­et re­mained in the space, as did the make­shift bed­dings and oth­er debris.

City tax re­cords list the own­er of the prop­erty as “Sasha Re­alty LP” of 9322 Mel­rose St. in East Tor­res­dale. A tele­phone mes­sage left with the com­pany was not re­turned.

• • •

Neigh­bors said they were shocked and dis­turbed by the cir­cum­stances.

“We are feel­ing up­set and dis­respec­ted be­cause we are a close-knit com­munity around here,” said Danyell Tis­dale, the Long­shore Av­en­ue block cap­tain. “We look out for each oth­er.”

“We’re glad they were not killed,” said Ed Duffy, a neigh­bor­ing busi­ness-own­er. “That’s the most im­port­ant part.”

Phil­adelphia po­lice spokes­man Lt. Ray Evers de­scribed the case as “pure evil.”

Po­lice have said that they be­lieve the de­fend­ants drove the four vic­tims to Phil­adelphia from West Palm Beach, Fla., on Oct. 3. Ram­sey con­firmed on Monday that We­st­on has “re­l­at­ives” who live in the apart­ment build­ing.

A neigh­bor on Monday told the North­east Times that We­st­on’s daugh­ter lives in one apart­ment, while We­st­on’s son lives in an­oth­er. There are sev­en units in the build­ing, the neigh­bor said.

We­st­on’s re­l­at­ives have not been charged crim­in­ally. Neigh­bors said they were un­aware that the vic­tims were be­ing held against their will, al­though neigh­bors had seen the vic­tims out­side the base­ment.

“It’s an eer­ie feel­ing to live some­where and not know something like that is go­ing on,” said one build­ing res­id­ent who asked to be iden­ti­fied only as Nancy. 

Nancy ex­plained that the up­per base­ment is typ­ic­ally locked and res­id­ents need a key to ac­cess it. The sub-base­ment is sep­ar­ated from the up­per base­ment by a sec­ond­ary door.

Noise doesn’t travel well from the base­ment to the res­id­en­tial floors, she said.

“Es­pe­cially not if you’re in your apart­ment and you got your mu­sic on,” she said.

• • •

In­vest­ig­at­ors have char­ac­ter­ized We­st­on as the mas­ter­mind of the scheme and Thomas as her boy­friend. Wright had been seen at­tend­ing to the vic­tims, ac­cord­ing to in­vest­ig­at­ors and neigh­bors.

All three de­fend­ants re­main in pris­on each in lieu of $500,000 bail. Each would have to post 10 per­cent of the bail amount to gain re­lease pending an ar­raign­ment status hear­ing sched­uled for Monday.

Po­lice of­fi­cials have said that fed­er­al charges may be brought against them be­cause they al­legedly trans­por­ted the vic­tims across state lines. 

“Ed­die, every morn­ing I would see him and he would nod to me. My girl­friend saw him take some cups down­stairs one time, but she didn’t pay him no mind,” said Nancy, the apart­ment build­ing res­id­ent.

On Oct. 9, We­st­on ar­rived at the build­ing and ap­peared to be run­ning a “flea mar­ket” on the side­walk out­side. She put the vic­tims to work that day, ac­cord­ing to Nancy.

“They were fold­ing clothes out­side,” she said.

Po­lice are try­ing to fig­ure out how the de­fend­ants ini­tially con­tac­ted the vic­tims. One of the male vic­tims may be ori­gin­ally from Texas and may have been in cap­tiv­ity for more than a year, the Phil­adelphia In­quirer re­por­ted, cit­ing a po­lice source.

The Daily News re­por­ted that Wright also is from Texas ori­gin­ally, cit­ing a po­lice source, and that the four vic­tims had lived to­geth­er in Texas be­fore they were taken to Flor­ida.

Ram­sey on Monday said that po­lice and fed­er­al agents are in­vest­ig­at­ing the where­abouts of as many as 50 oth­er people whose per­son­al in­form­a­tion has been linked to the de­fend­ants.

“It in­volved more than just Phil­adelphia and Pennsylvania. It in­volves Flor­ida and Texas and pos­sibly bey­ond,” the po­lice com­mis­sion­er said. “They moved them around whenev­er it looked like someone was catch­ing on. They wer­en’t here long.”

No oth­er ar­rests have been made.

“As the case con­tin­ues to de­vel­op, there may be more,” Ram­sey said. ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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