Three people - including a woman who served eight years in prison for starving to death a man held in the closet of her North Philadelphia apartment in 1981 - were charged Sunday with holding four mentally challenged adults chained in the cellar of a Tacony apartment house for weeks in an alleged scheme to steal their Social Security checks.
The alleged ringleader, Linda Ann Weston, 51, served eight years in the starvation death of Bernardo Ramos, 25, after he refused to support her sister's unborn child.
Also arrested was Weston's boyfriend, Thomas Gregory, 47, of North Philadelphia, and Eddie Wright, 49, a homeless man who neighbors said called himself a reverend.
All three were charged with criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, kidnapping, and related charges. But investigators said Sunday they expected more charges to be filed in a criminal scheme that stretched back at least a year and reached to Florida and Texas.
All three were awaiting a bail hearing Sunday night.
The alleged victims - three men and a woman ranging in age from 29 to 41 - were treated for malnutrition and put in the care of mental-health officials. Police said they were being interviewed with the help of mental-health experts.
"What went on was pure evil," said Lt. Ray Evers, a Philadelphia police spokesman.
Police said they were alerted to the basement by Turgut Gozleveli, landlord of the apartment house at 4724 Longshore Ave.
On Sunday, Gozleveli said he had checked the basement three times last week after a neighbor complained of suspicious people coming and going.
He said that on Thursday, he noticed some furniture in the dank cellar had been moved. On Friday, he found a dog dish. On Saturday, the ceiling lights wouldn't turn on because the bulbs were missing.
He followed the sound of a barking dog down three steps to an old coal room, where he unwrapped a rusted chain from around the door handle and shined his flashlight into the tiny dirt-floor space.
"There were two little dogs and blankets," Gozleveli said. "And from the blankets, people's faces just started coming up."
The malnourished adults - lying in their own filth in the 10-by-15-foot room - could not answer him, Gozleveli said. One man's left ankle was chained to a boiler pipe, he said. There were bathroom buckets, but no food except a container of orange juice.
The four, all severely mentally challenged, Gozleveli said, looked like "they did not know what world they were living [in]."
"It was terrible," he said. "Something I never expected to see in my life."
Police said that since arriving in Philadelphia about Oct. 3, the four had been chained in the cellar and fed once a day by Wright.
One of the men, believed to be from Texas, may have been held against his will for more than a year, police said.
Weston, who investigators said also had a home in Palm Beach, Fla., and her two alleged accomplices drove north to Philadelphia, possibly fleeing authorities in Florida, police said.
"This may just be the top layer of what they were doing," Evers said.
Police are working with the FBI to track the path of the three suspects and their alleged victims.
Neighbors said the group arrived in an SUV in which the four alleged captives were held in the back.
Weston's daughter and son live in the apartment house. Police said they were cooperating with the investigation and had not been charged.
Gozleveli said Weston's daughter has lived in the building, a converted movie house, with her young children for two years. He said she told him she was an Army nurse from Texas. He said the woman's brother lived in the apartment next door.
One neighbor, Danyell "Nicky" Tisdale, said Weston occasionally took the four out to the SUV and would make them ride in the back.
She said that last week, Weston held a flea market, selling clothes on the sidewalk on Sunday with the help of the four, whom she bossed around.
Tisdale said one of the four, dressed in a trench coat, asked, " 'Are we going to get paid for this?' "
Tisdale said she approached Weston to introduce herself but Weston brushed her off.
"She always had a mean look on her face," Tisdale said. "You'd try to speak to her but you'd be afraid because she looked so mean."
Another resident said she saw the man in the trench coat going into the cellar but did not know people were being held there.
Nothing seemed amiss, she said, although the apartment hallway became infested with flies about a week ago.
According to newspaper articles about the 1981 death of Ramos, Weston and her sister, Venus Weston, beat the man with a hammer, then tied him up in the closet. They fed him only three times over two months and beat him with broomsticks. When he died, they stuffed his body into a plastic bag and dumped it in an abandoned house.
Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 215-854-2759, email@example.com, or @MikeNewall on Twitter.
Inquirer staff writer Miriam Hill contributed to this article.