The case of four mentally disabled adults locked up in a basement crawl space in an alleged scheme by their captors to collect their Social Security 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, multistate 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 Ann Weston. A landlord described McIntosh as a former Army nurse who lived in an apartment above the basement with her two children.
McIntosh was arrested a day after Philadelphia police took 12 young people linked to the case into protective custody.
The eight 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.
Police said the niece who lived with Weston had marks suggesting she was burned with a hot spoon and had pellet gun wounds.
Meanwhile, police in Virginia confirmed they investigated the 2008 death of a woman living with Weston, who cleared out of the Norfolk home hours after calling police about the death.
A Virginia death certificate said Maxine Lee, 39, died of meningitis but also suffered from a wasting disease.
McIntosh was arrested around 3:45 a.m. after detectives questioned her about the case. Weston had arrived at her daughter's apartment building from Florida this month with two men, the four disabled adults and others in tow, according to neighbors, the landlord and police. She was charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other charges.
Authorities in at least two states missed opportunities to help the disabled adults, who 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.
Weston was legally disqualified from cashing the victims' government disability checks because of her criminal past, which included a conviction in a starvation death 30 years ago.
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, Fla.
Weston remains jailed on $2.5 million bail, along with Gregory Thomas, 47, whom Weston described as her boyfriend, and Eddie Wright, 50. They face similar charges.