PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A paroled killer targeted mentally disabled adults in a scheme to steal their Social Security benefits, confining them like “zoo animals,” forcing some into prostitution and causing the deaths of two victims through abuse and neglect, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
Linda Weston, 52, of Philadelphia, was indicted on charges including hate crimes, kidnapping, murder in aid of racketeering and forced human labor. It’s the first time the federal hate crimes statute has been used to protect the disabled, authorities said.
“Shocking does not begin to describe the criminal allegations in this case, where victims were tied up and confined like zoo animals and treated like property akin to slaves,” U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said.
The case came to light in October 2011 after a landlord discovered four malnourished victims locked in the basement of a Philadelphia apartment building, one of them chained to a boiler. Authorities soon began untangling a complicated web of relationships among victims and their alleged captors in an investigation that spanned several states.
Weston has been jailed since then and pleaded not guilty to related state charges. Her lawyer, George Yacoubian, said Wednesday that federal prosecutors had “over-reached for effect” with the new charges and that Weston maintains her innocence.
The 150-page grand jury indictment describes Weston as the ringleader of a “family” that included her daughter and three men who prosecutors say helped control and subjugate the victims.
Weston used “cunning, trickery, force and coercion” to get mentally disabled people to designate her as their caretaker, allowing her to illegally collect about $212,000 in Social Security payments over 10 years, Memeger said.
In all, authorities allege six disabled adults and four children were held captive in “subhuman” conditions in basements, attics and closets at various times between 2001 and 2011. The victims were often drugged, deprived of food and medical care, and forced to use buckets for bathrooms, officials said.
The victims’ diminished mental capacity, coupled with the fact that Weston continually moved the family to elude law enforcement, meant that “escape for these individuals seemed impossible,” Memeger said.