ASHLAND, Ohio (AP) — A woman told authorities she was held captive for more than a year by three people who forced her to do housework, raided her bank account and menaced her with snakes and pit bulls.
But an attorney for one of the suspects and the alleged captor’s mother said the mentally impaired woman was given a place to stay because she and her young daughter had no home and that the woman was free to move in an out whenever she wanted.
Authorities announced federal charges Tuesday against the three people the woman lived with in a blue-collar neighborhood in Ashland, about 65 miles southwest of Cleveland. Beginning in early 2011, they forced the mother to cooperate with them by threats and physical abuse, they said.
The woman and her daughter were freed in October after police investigated an abuse allegation one of the suspects made against her, authorities said, and they are doing well.
“The victim in this case is slowly recovering,” U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach said.
Jordie Callahan, 26, Jessica Hunt, 31, and Daniel J. “DJ” Brown, 33, were charged with forced labor. Callahan also was charged with tampering with a witness in the investigation.
The suspects had an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Cleveland and were ordered jailed until a bond hearing on Monday.
Police first got involved when the woman was charged with shoplifting a candy bar and asked to be jailed because the three suspects “had been mean to her,” said Ashland police Lt. Joel Icenhour.
It wasn’t clear whether she had staged the candy bar theft to get police help.
Police checking into her “mean” claim went to the apartment after one of the suspects said it was the woman who was abusive. Authorities said the allegation was a ruse complete with a video staged by the suspects. They said the suspects forced the woman to act as if she were mistreating her child.
The 29-year-old woman was forced to do housework under the threat of harm to her and her child by her captors’ pet python or pit bulls, authorities allege, and a menagerie of snakes was put in the terrified 5-year-old’s face until she cried.
On several occasions, according to an FBI affidavit, the suspects injured the woman and ordered her to go to an emergency room for pain medication they would then take for themselves.
Andrew Hyde, who represented Callahan on related state kidnapping charges dismissed Tuesday as the federal case was announced, called the charges ludicrous and said the woman at the center of the alleged forced-labor plot moved in and out as she pleased.
“There was never any forced labor, any forced co-habitation. She was never forced to do anything. She used this story to get out of trouble she was in” with regard to a child-abuse allegation, Hyde said.
Hyde said county social service workers placed the girl with her mother when the woman was living with the three suspects.
Callahan’s mother, Becky Callahan of Ashland, said in a phone interview that the allegations were “all lies.” She said that the alleged victim was friends with her son and Hunt, her son’s girlfriend, and that they tried to help the woman out by offering her a place to live because she didn’t have a home.