3 charged after 4 disabled adults found locked in basement

TACONY - October 17, 2011

She has been charged with holding four mentally challenged adults chained in the squalid cellar of a Tacony apartment house.

RELATED: Action News inside the Tacony dungeon

They say Weston could have been holding the four adults for a decade or more.

Authorities say it was all part of an ongoing scheme to steal their social security checks.

Officials say they've recovered as many as 50 forms of identification and power of attorney documents that point to a wide-ranging fraud scheme

"These are just four people that we know of, but we also got information pertaining to almost 50 other people that she had social security numbers for, other types of personal information, all those people have to be tracked down to find out whether or not they too were victimized," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said.

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Charges of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, kidnapping, criminal trespass, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment and related offenses were filed Sunday against 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 each being held on $2.5 million bail following their arraignments Sunday. Online court records do not indicate if Weston has been arraigned.

Weston served eight years in prison for starving to death a man held in her closet back in 1981.

The FBI has joined the probe of Weston and the two apparent cohorts since all signs point to this crime crossing many state lines.

The odyssey of the seven involved began in Killeen, Texas, where one of the victims is apparently from, then moved to West Palm Beach, Florida where Weston owns a ramshackle house.

The Palm Beach Post reported Weston and Wright lived about two months at that home, 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.

Neighbors said the four victims were held in the home for some time could tell they were being abused.

From there the investigation moved to Norfolk, Virginia where one of the victims Herbert Knowles is from. Seeing his photo earlier today, Knowles family contacted authorities.

The investigation moved on to Northeast Philadelphia earlier this month where police made the grim discovery Saturday.

Officers were investigating a report of squatters in a building when they found the three men and one 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.

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."

The three people found in the basement – ranging from ages 29 to 40 - 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 appeared to have no physical problems other than malnourishment.

All four captives were then placed in a privately owned facility for the mentally challenged. The owner says they are "confused and need help, but a medical team is caring for them."

Advocates for the intellectually challenged say these schemes are all too easy to pull off.

"You can go to any social security office with one of these people and sign up to be their representative and then in one to two months you're going to start to get the check in your name," Emilio Cacheco of Vision for Equality said.

It wasn't clear how the suspects knew the victims

As for the suspects, Thomas and Weston were arrested Saturday night at the home of Thomas' cousin Rob Taylor on the 2500 block of North 29th Street.

Action News spoke with Taylor who said his family had warned Thomas about Weston for the last decade, but she managed to control him with money and affection.

"He called me from Texas and I said, you know, your father died, and he said he wanted to come home but she wouldn't give him any money," said Taylor.

The Tacony building's landlord, Turgut Gozleveli, told Action News over the weekend that 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."

Rob Hoey lives in the building and never heard a thing.

"I work with people like that for years and I have a soft spot for people who are mentally challenged, so that's the thing that hurts the most," Hoey said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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