The federal government for the first time has used its hate crime laws to bring charges against five people who allegedly imprisoned mentally disabled people in subhuman conditions as part of a scheme to steal their Social Security benefits.
In the indictment announced Wednesday, the government accused Linda Ann Weston and four others of 196 counts including hate crimes, racketeering, forced labor and murder in aid of racketeering from 2001 to 2011.
The group is accused of holding at least four mentally disabled people in virtual bondage, depriving them of food and medical attention as they were moved among Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Florida. Two people died as a result of the imprisonment aimed at funneling $212,000 in federal funds to Weston, prosecutors allege.
“The allegations in this indictment describe a scheme to physically abuse and subjugate persons with disabilities for purposes of dehumanizing them, stealing their money and unlawfully obtaining their labor,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said. “The laws against violently assaulting individuals because of their disabilities and those that prohibit human trafficking were designed to combat conduct aimed at vulnerable members of society, such as the alleged victims in this case.”
State authorities have called the case one of the most inhumane in Philadelphia's history. Philadelphia police say they rescued several of the victims from a sub-basement of an apartment building in the city’s Tacony neighborhood on Oct. 11, 2011.
The defendants already face state charges including kidnapping, assault and false imprisonment.
Though many of the details in the federal case match those disclosed in the state case, the use of the federal anti-hate-crime legislation in the area is a first.
The law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, criminalizes certain acts of physical violence causing bodily injury motivated by any person's actual or perceived disability, race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, federal officials said.
" '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," said U.S. Atty. Zane David Memeger. "Hopefully today’s announcement of a 196-count indictment will help begin the process of restoring the victims’ faith in humanity,” he said at a news conference.
The indictment charges Weston, her daughter Jean McIntosh, Weston’s lover, Gregory Thomas Sr., Eddie Wright and Nicklaus Woodard with the hate crimes. Weston is accused of being the ringleader. McIntosh was the chief aide and assisted the other three in confining, controlling, disciplining, housing and transporting the victims, according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges that Weston caused the deaths of two of the victims, including a woman who died of bacterial meningitis and starvation in 2008 in Virginia. Another death, from causes including being fed a substandard diet, occurred in 2005 in Philadelphia, the indictment says.
If convicted, the defendants could face a maximum sentence of life in prison. The indictment also seeks the return of the $212,000 by Weston.