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Disabled adults found chained in basement

A lack of accountability and follow-through by police and government agencies may have contributed to the plight of four mentally disabled adults authorities say were locked in a basement while a convicted murderer stole their government pension cheques.

Police in Philadelphia and Florida missed opportunities to help one or more of the victims while the woman charged with orchestrating the scheme was legally disqualified from cashing the victims' government disability checks because of her criminal past.

Linda Ann Weston, 51, was charged yesterday with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offences after her landlord stumbled on the four adults, all weak and malnourished, in a dank, foul-smelling boiler room on Saturday. Her bail was set at $2.5 million.

Also charged were Gregory Thomas, 47, whom Weston described as her boyfriend, and Eddie "the Rev Ed" Wright, 50.

The three remained jailed today and couldn't be reached for comment. A lawyer for Weston didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Detectives found dozens of identification cards, power-of-attorney forms and other documents. Philadelphia police formed a task force to investigate the case as authorities try to find as many as 50 more possible fraud victims, Officer Jillian Russell said.

Landlord Turgut Gozleveli discovered the victims Saturday morning after he heard dogs barking in the area. The door to the basement room was chained shut, but Gozleveli got inside and lifted a pile of blankets to find several sets of eyes staring back at him. One man was chained to the boiler.

Police identified the victims as Derwin McLemire, 41, of North Carolina; Herbert Knowles, 40 of Virginia; and Tamara Breeden, 29, and Edwin Sanabria, 31, both of Philadelphia.

Last night, police said they had taken six juveniles and four young adults believed to be related to the suspects and perhaps victims into protective custody after being alerted by Florida authorities to search for them. Police spokesman Lt. Raymond Evers said the 2- to 16-year-old children and 18- to 19-year-old young adults were being medically evaluated. He said police were investigating the possibility that Breeden might be the mother of two of the youngest children, but tests were needed to confirm the relationships involved.

Police also found a missing 19-year-old niece of Weston in a different northeast Philadelphia location yesterday, and she was found malnourished and with evidence of past and recent abuse on her body, Evers said. She was being evaluated at a trauma hospital, he said.

Knowles was reported missing in Norfolk in December 2008. According to an investigatory report by Norfolk police, Knowles' mental health case worker reported him missing when she couldn't reach him and family members failed to hear from him.

The case worker, who did not return a call from The Associated Press, reported that Knowles' Social Security checks were going to a Philadelphia address. The report said Philadelphia police went by the address and were told no one there had ever heard of Knowles.

A Philadelphia police report shows that officers knocked on the door on 5 December, 2008, and the woman who answered said that no one by the name of Herbert Knowles lived there, said Russell, the department spokeswoman. The report showed no sign of a follow-up or any indication that the responding officers had any reason to disbelieve the woman who answered the door, Russell said.

Knowles was found last weekend in the basement of a different house, chained to the boiler.

Norfolk police spokesman Chris Amos said authorities did not continue looking for Knowles because, as an adult, he was under no obligation to report to the case worker.

Douglas Thomassen, the Norfolk police officer who filed the missing-persons report, told the AP yesterday that police lacked evidence that any crime had been committed at the Philadelphia address to which the federal Social Security checks were rerouted.

Ella Davis, Knowles' grandmother, told WTKR-TV he likely was an easy target because of his mental disability.

Police in West Palm Beach, Florida, where Weston lived earlier this year with the four mentally disabled adults, also missed a chance to crack the case.

Chase Scott, a spokesman for the West Palm Beach police, said officers were dispatched to the house several times for complaints about trash and code violations.

Investigators said they're trying to piece together details of Weston's scheme, including how long it went on, how much money it brought in and how many people in all were victimized. The FBI has joined the investigation.