PHILADELPHIA -- The landlord of the apartment building thought a circuit breaker had tripped when he went to the basement Saturday and found all the lights were out. Then he realized all six bulbs had been removed, and he heard dogs barking inside a boiler room, its door chained shut.
He removed the chain, stepped into the dank, foul-smelling room and lifted a pile of blankets. Several sets of human eyes stared back.
Turgut Gozleveli had stumbled upon four mentally disabled adults, all weak and malnourished, one chained to the boiler.
He may have also stumbled upon a vast scheme -- stretching from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Va.; West Palm Beach, Fla., and Texas -- to steal the Social Security disability checks of defenseless and vulnerable people, authorities said.
Police arrested three adults staying in an apartment upstairs, including the person accused of being the ringleader, Linda Ann Weston, who had been convicted of murder in a 1981 starvation death.
Detectives also found dozens of ID cards, power-of-attorney forms and other documents in the apartment, suggesting the theft scheme involved more than just the four captives.
"Without a doubt. This is just the beginning of this investigation," Lt. Ray Evers said yesterday. "We think she's been doing this for quite some time."
How long, how much money the scheme brought in, how the disabled were deceived and how many people in all were victimized are still unclear, investigators said. The FBI has joined the investigation.
Weston, 51, was charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offenses, with bail set at $2.5 million. Also arrested and jailed were the man she described as her boyfriend, Eddie "the Reverend Ed" Wright, 50, and Gregory Thomas, 47.
The victims had the mental capacity of 10-year-olds, along with some physical disabilities, authorities said. One could barely see. Three of them -- Tamara Breeden, 29, Derwin McLemire, 41, and Herbert Knowles, 40, -- told KYW-TV they were mistreated by Weston, Wright and Thomas. Knowles, 40, was shackled to the boiler.
Neighbors said the defendants and the basement captives had arrived in an SUV from West Palm Beach, Fla., about two weeks ago, though it does not appear the victims spent the entire time in the basement.