Five people are accused of imprisoning disabled adults in a Philadelphia basement to steal their Social Security checks, part of a pattern of terror that stretched over a decade and resulted in two deaths, a prosecutor said on Wednesday.
Each defendant in the so-called Philadelphia dungeon case faces life in prison, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said at a press conference to unveil the 196-count indictment.
The alleged ringleader, Linda Weston, 52, could also face the death penalty because she is charged with two counts of murder in aid of racketeering, Memeger said. At times she chained captives, or put drugs in their food to subdue them, while cashing their government payments.
The malnourished captives were discovered in October 2011 by a landlord during a routine check of the two-story apartment house in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood.
Authorities said two of those held had been imprisoned for roughly 11 years.
"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," Memeger said in a statement.
The indictment accuses the basement captors of racketeering to steal disability payments from adults with the comparative mental capacity of a 10-year-old child.
It said they met their victims in various ways - one was a niece of Weston; another she met at the home of her sister, while another victim was picked up on a street corner shortly after being released from a mental health facility.
The combined thefts from the scheme amounted to $212,000 over 10 years, Memeger said.
Weston's conduct, in what prosecutors called abusive control and confinement techniques, led to the death, in Virginia in 2008, of a victim identified in the indictment by the initials M.L.
The victim died of bacterial meningitis and starvation, the government said.
Another victim, D.S., was kept in a Philadelphia house in 2005, fed a substandard diet and was not allowed to use the bathroom. That person was eventually found dead in the basement of the house.
In addition to profiting from disability payments, the indictment said, Weston forced two female captives to have sex-for-pay with men, with the money going to Weston.
Four of the defendants, including Weston and her daughter, had been charged with state crimes stemming from the scheme. A fifth, Nicklaus Woodward, of West Palm Beach, Florida, was arrested in Florida on Wednesday, Memeger said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Faith Taylor, who appeared in court Wednesday afternoon for the initial appearance of the original four defendants, said she expects state charges to be dropped.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Lisa Von Ahn, G Crosse)