Hate crimes are being alleged against the group that kept four adults locked in a Philadelphia boiler room like ‘zoo animals.’ The detainees, who were all mentally or physically disabled, were underfed, beaten, and kept in an unlit 13-by-7 room in a quest to steal their social security payments. This marks the first time American hate crime legislation has been used against individuals accused of violence towards disabled persons.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act criminalizes violence motivated by the victim’s “actual or perceived disability, race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.” Hate crimes often prove difficult to prosecute as proving that the crime was motivated by hate can be challenging. Here, it is possible that the victims’ disabilities will not prove to have been the motivating factor for the crimes, but rather an aid in achieving a different goal – the acquisition of the victims’ social security payments.
The group of five perpetrators – headed by 52-year-old Linda Ann Weston – are faced with a 196-count indictment. Their charges include sex trafficking, fraud, and forced human labour. According to the indictment, two persons had previously died as a result of Weston’s “abusive control and confinement techniques.” One of the dead includes a former roommate of Weston’s, Maxine Lee.
The facts of the case are astonishing – one of the victims was kept chained to the boiler, and all were forced to use the same bucket for defecation and bathing and were regularly physically abused. One of the victims, Edwin Sanabria, describes taking blows and even knife cuts meant for his long-time girlfriend and fellow captive, Tamara Breeden.
Three of the accused are facing additional charges including aggravated assault, simple assault, kidnapping and reckless endangerment in connection to a separate incident involving the abuse of Weston’s niece.