A Florida girl reported missing in July has turned up safe in Philadelphia, and authorities said she was not a victim of a ring accused of holding mentally disabled adults captive in a basement.
Benita Rodriguez, 15, was reported missing from her West Palm Beach, Fla., home on July 4. According to NBC Philadelphia affiliate WCAU-TV, she had last been seen with Gregory Thomas Jr., whose father was among those arrested over the weekend in connection with the basement captive case.
Roriguez was found safe on Monday night.
Gregory Thomas has been charged in the dungeon case, along with Eddie "the Rev. Ed" Wright, and his apparent girlfriend Linda Ann Weston.
The three are accused of kidnapping and false imprisonment for allegedly preying on four mentally disabled adults, locking them in a basement in northeast and wresting control of their Social Security disability checks. A .
The trio used to live in West Palm Peach, . Benita Rodriguez's mother Juana told WPBF that her daughter had run away with them in July.
"Blessed news, very blessed news that she’s alive," Juana Rodriguez said. "I can breathe now, she is doing good."
Benita Rodriguez is in police custody and arrangements are being made to bring her home, WPBF reported.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday that Rodriguez is not believed to be a victim in the case but is considered a runaway.
Weston, who was convicted in the starvation death of a man nearly 20 years ago, is being held on $2.5 million bail after her landlord stumbled upon the four adults, all weak and malnourished, in a dank, foul smelling boiler room on Saturday.
Police suspect Weston, now 51, Eddie "the Rev. Ed" Wright, 50, and Gregory Thomas, 47, were keeping the four captives in squalor while wresting control of their Social Security checks. One victim said he met Weston through an online dating service.
"That was real dirty of (her). That was wrong," one of the victims, Derwin McLemire, told KWY-TV on Monday. "I escaped one time to one of the house that we used to live in, of hers, and I didn't get away so they got me."
He and two others told the station they had been on the move for about a year with their alleged captors, traveling from Texas to Florida to Philadelphia.
Philadelphia police identified the other victims Tuesday as 40-year-old Herbert Knowles of Virginia and 29-year-old Tamara Breeden and 31-year-old Edwin Sanabria, both of Philadelphia. McLemire, 41, is from Florida.
The landlord found the victims Saturday morning after he heard dogs barking in the area. He found the door to the foul-smelling room chained shut. Inside, Turgut Gozleveli lifted a pile of blankets to find several sets of human eyes staring back at him. One man was chained to the boiler.
Philadelphia police soon arrested Weston at her daughter's apartment upstairs, along with the two men.
The victims, a woman and three men, were found in a crawlspace that reeked of urine and was too shallow for an adult to stand up. There were mattresses and blankets, but the only food found was a container of orange juice. The adults shared their space with three dogs.
The victims, ages 29 to 41, had the mental capacity of 10-year-olds, along with some physical disabilities, authorities said. One could barely see.
Neighbors said the defendants and their alleged captives had arrived in an SUV from West Palm Beach, Fla., about two weeks ago, though it does not appear the victims spent the entire time in the basement.
Danyell "Nicky" Tisdale, a block captain in the neighborhood, said that about a week ago, a man and woman and four mentally disabled adults held a yard sale, selling piles of shoes, jackets and other clothing on the sidewalk.
Missed opportunities A lack of accountability and follow-through by police and government agencies may have allowed the ring to operate.
"They moved them around," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said Monday after examining the boiler room-turned-dungeon inside a small apartment house. "Whenever it looked like people knew what was going on, they moved."
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.
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 Dec. 5, 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.
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.
"It's not illegal to be missing," Amos said. "A lot of people are missing by choice."
Douglas Thomassen, the Norfolk police officer who filed the missing-persons report, told the AP on Tuesday that police lacked evidence that any crime had been committed at the Philadelphia address to which the Social Security checks were rerouted.
"I don't know what Philadelphia police could have done," said Thomassen, who's now retired. "You can't barge in."
Ella Davis, Knowles' grandmother, told WTKR-TV he likely was an easy target because of his mental disability.
"He was a trusting person. You know if you told him something, he would believe it. I tried to get him to not have that kind of confidence in people," Davis said. "He thought everyone was his friend and act like his friends. That's the way he was."
Police in West Palm Beach, 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.
The Social Security Protection Act of 2004 generally bars people who have been imprisoned for more than a year from becoming representative payees, those who cash someone else's check. Yet a 2010 report by Social Security's watchdog found that staff members do not perform background checks to determine if payees have criminal records.
The report from the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General said that people who apply to become payees are supposed to answer a question on whether they've ever been convicted of an offense and imprisoned for more than a year. But the report noted that the agency recognizes that self-reporting of such information "is not always reliable."
The inspector general said that in the cases it reviewed, about 6 percent of non-relative payees had been imprisoned for longer than a year and "may pose a risk to the beneficiaries they serve."
Maureen Westcott, public policy advocate for adult issues with the Arc of Pennsylvania, an organization that benefits people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, said of the Social Security IG report that background checks might be a good idea, but the issue ought to be studied first.
"Always what we say when they go to do these policy changes (is) you really need to have advocates at the table," she told the AP. "It would be a good thing to suggest they investigate the use of background checks."
In Philadelphia, neighbors said Weston lived with Thomas, one of the other suspects, in the northeast section of the city several years ago, with four kids of their own and a girl one neighbor described as a teenage niece.
The woman who now lives in the house, Anna Rotondo, said Tuesday that Social Security statements in the names of various people were delivered to her house for years after she began living there in 2005. Rotondo said she notified the post office and the Social Security office but nothing was ever done.
Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle declined to provide details of the agency's investigation into Weston but said Social Security recently strengthened oversight of payees.
"We are very concerned about this situation," Hinkle said via email.
Next-door neighbor Kathy Ritterson said the children in Weston's home were often verbally abused. Ritterson said she called police "because we heard the mom beating them," while other neighbors called social services agencies. Ritterson said she never saw any sign of mentally handicapped adults.
"I can't believe they would let her have handicapped people when she already murdered someone," Ritterson said.