US police probed a growing kidnapping horror after finding 10 children in the care of a woman accused of locking up four mentally-disabled people in a dank cellar.
“This is a very complicated case,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said late on Tuesday.
“This is a very sad story. It makes no sense. When you look at the kids, the psychological trauma is pretty apparent. It’s some of the worst things I’ve ever experienced.”
Ramsey told CNN Wednesday that 10 children aged from two to 19 had now also been taken into care, including the niece of the prime suspect Linda Weston, who was reported missing in 2009.
A fourth suspect was meanwhile detained in the case after four mentally disabled adults were freed at the weekend having been held against their will in the filthy, dark, fetid cellar of a Philadelphia apartment house.
Authorities said they have now also arrested Jean McIntosh, Weston’s 32-year-old daughter, who is believed to have aided the incarceration of the three men and one woman to cash in their social security checks.
McIntosh was charged with several counts, including kidnapping, conspiracy and aggravated assault.
She was to be arraigned on Wednesday.
The six children and four teens were taken into care in front of the Philadelphia house.
Police are still working to identify all of them, some of whom may have been kidnapped.
“They are still interviewing the children to determine whose they are and where they came from,” said Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
Two of them may have been born to the woman held in the basement.
“We don’t know for sure. We’ll have to do DNA testing in order to find out. Apparently they were taken from her at a very, very young age,” Ramsey told CNN.
The children all bore signs of physical abuse and were extremely malnourished. Police spokeswoman Jillian Russell said they were being examined in local hospitals.
Authorities said the four adult victims aged 29 to 40, but with a mental age of around 10, were undernourished with bed sores, and at least one of the men was chained to a water heater, police said.
They were discovered by a landlord at the apartment house on Saturday, locked behind a steel door along with two small dogs in a basement space with a dirt floor, some makeshift beds and no bathroom.
Police said Weston had the identity papers of as many as 50 people when she was arrested on Sunday, suggesting she might have defrauded dozens of people in several states, moving around with victims whenever she came under suspicion.
Also under arrest was Weston’s boyfriend Gregory Thomas, 47, and Eddie Wright, 49.
The adult victims have been revealing details of their grim ordeal. One of them, Darwin McLemire, 41, had been kept in a closet for almost a year in a West Palm Beach house in Florida, according to a police affidavit.
McLemire told police he met Weston in Florida last October and moved in a few weeks later. Weston took his papers, shut him in the closet, and sometimes beat him, he said.
Weston previously served eight years in prison for killing a 25-year-old man who starved to death in her Philadelphia apartment in 1981.
Mark Riordan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Family said the department had no record of the children in any of its databases or school records.
“The neighbors are coming forward saying they heard screams,” Riordan said. “It does appear law enforcement was called to that house, but nothing was phoned in to the department.”
Ramsey told CNN that Philadelphia had now set up a special task force to investigate the case, which may have spread through five US states – Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and Texas, and possibly also North Carolina.