PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The case of four mentally disabled adults locked up in a basement crawl space in an alleged scheme by their captors to collect their U.S. benefit checks could be among the first of its kind prosecuted as a federal hate crime, an FBI official said Wednesday.
The law was recently expanded to include victims with disabilities, and the FBI is taking a broad look at the complex, multi-state case, said the bureau official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
A fourth person was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of kidnapping as part of the alleged scheme. Jean McIntosh, 32, is the daughter of alleged ringleader Linda Weston.
A landlord described McIntosh as a former Army nurse who lived in an apartment above the basement with her two teenage children.
McIntosh was arrested a day after Philadelphia police took 10 young people linked to the case into protective custody.
The six juveniles and four young adults found Tuesday, ages 2 to 19, are thought to be related to the suspects and perhaps some of the victims, police spokesman Lt. Raymond Evers said. Authorities are conducting DNA tests and obtaining birth certificates to try to determine the nature of the various relationships.
Police described the 19-year-old as Weston's niece and say she was found malnourished and showed signs of abuse.
McIntosh was arrested around 3:45 a.m. after detectives questioned her about the case. Weston had arrived at her apartment building from Florida this month with two men, the four disabled adults and others in tow, according to neighbors, the landlord and police.
McIntosh is expected to be arraigned later Wednesday on kidnapping, conspiracy and other charges, District Attorney Seth Williams said. It's not immediately clear if she has an attorney. According to her landlord, she had a key to the basement.
Weston's defense lawyer has not returned calls seeking comment.
The disabled adults were found in a locked boiler room by the landlord Saturday. Police believe Weston had been stealing their Social Security disability checks, perhaps as part of a much-larger fraud scheme.
They found dozens of other Social Security and identification cards, along with power of attorney documents, in a search of McIntosh's apartment, where Weston had been staying.
Weston was legally disqualified from cashing the victims' government disability checks because of her criminal past.
But she apparently did anyway, enabled in part by a lack of accountability and follow-through by government agencies and police in Philadelphia and West Palm Beach, Florida.
Weston remains jailed on $2.5 million bail, along with Gregory Thomas, 47, whom Weston described as her boyfriend, and Eddie "the Rev. Ed" Wright, 50. They face similar charges.
Weston had been convicted in the starvation death of a man nearly 30 years ago, though it's unclear how much prison time she served.
The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named for two victims of notorious hate-based killings and expands earlier federal hate-crimes law to include sexual orientation or disability, among other things.
The law has been used sparingly since its passage. The first to go to trial was the case of Frankie Mayberry, of Green Forest, Arkansas, who was convicted in May of attacking a car last year with five Hispanic men inside it.
AP reporters Zenie Chin Sampson in Richmond and Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.