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.”
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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.
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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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org