In a first-of-its-kind hate crimes case, federal prosecutors are accusing five people of holding individuals with disabilities captive in subhuman conditions in order to steal their Social Security benefits.
A 193-count indictment unsealed Wednesday describes a decade-long scheme by which alleged ringleader Linda Weston convinced people with developmental disabilities and other special needs to make her the designated recipient of their Social Security payments. In exchange, Weston promised them a good place to live.
Instead, prosecutors say Weston, her daughter and three others kept their victims in locked closets, basements and attics while subjecting them to beatings and denying them food and medical attention. Some in Weston’s care were allegedly forced into prostitution and two died.
Between the fall of 2001 and October 2011, when police rescued the captives from a Philadelphia basement, prosecutors say the group moved between Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Florida in an effort to evade law enforcement. There were 10 victims held at various times, according to the indictment.
Charges against Weston and her co-defendants include racketeering, murder in aid of racketeering, hate crimes, sex trafficking, forced labor, theft and fraud, among others. Each of those accused faces life in prison and Weston may be responsible for $212,000 in restitution, prosecutors said.
The case marks the first time that federal hate crimes protections for those with disabilities, which were enacted in 2009, will be used.
“Linda Weston and others, in fact, decided to prey on these victims specifically because of their disabilities and they did so through violence, fear and intimidation for the purpose of stealing Social Security payments that were meant for the victims’ long-term care,” said Zane David Memeger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “‘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.”
Officials from the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General said they investigate many allegations of representative payees misusing benefits, but had never seen a case involving such “cruelty and inhumanity.”