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Philly police form task force to investigate theft scheme

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Philadelphia police soon arrested Weston at her daughter's apartment upstairs, along with the two other men.

"Without a doubt. This is just the beginning of this investigation," Lt. Ray Evers said Monday. "She's been out of jail for a period of time, and we think she's being doing this for quite some time."

Exactly how long, how much money the scheme brought in, precisely how the disabled were deceived, and how many people in all were victimized are still unclear, investigators said. The FBI has joined the investigation.

"Talk about preying on the weak and weary," Evers said.

A Florida girl missing since July 4 from West Palm Beach, where neighbors said the group had come from earlier this month, was also located by Philadelphia police. The mother of 15-year-old Benita Rodriguez told WPTV-TV her daughter had been friends with Thomas' son. Rodriguez was not in the basement with the adults and it wasn't clear how she connects to the case.

As of Monday, the defendants did not appear to have lawyers.
Neighbors said the defendants and their alleged captives had arrived in an SUV from West Palm Beach 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.

Since the arrests, police have slowly and patiently been trying to elicit information from the alleged captives. All four were treated at hospitals and placed with social service agencies.

Breeden had been reported missing by her family in Philadelphia in 2005, police said. Relatives of McLemire and Sanabria were contacted. Police were having trouble finding family members for Knowles.

According to an investigative report obtained by The Associated Press, Knowles was reported missing in Norfolk, Va., in December 2008 after a mental health case worker couldn't reach him and family members failed to hear from him.

The case worker 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.

Knowles' government benefits were stopped at one point after his mail was forwarded to Philadelphia, but Weston took the man to a Philadelphia social service agency in 2008 and showed identification, and the checks resumed, Norfolk police said.

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

"It's not illegal to be missing," Amos said. "A lot of people are missing by choice."

Scam artists can get control of a disabled person's checks by visiting the Social Security office with the victim, who then designates the other person to receive the payments, said Nora J. Baladerian, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and advocate for people with disabilities.

Only if there is a report of suspected abuse would social service agencies enter the picture, she said.

In Florida, Weston and Thomas appeared to live with several disabled adults, including a man and woman who had bruises on their faces, neighbors in a poor section of West Palm Beach said. The woman also had what looked like a large burn mark on her face, neighbor Ronald Bass said.

He said he often heard yelling, apparently from the disabled women, and that police frequently went to the house.

Another neighbor, Sadie Pollard, said she saw bruised lips and other facial injuries on the disabled people, but was told they had been fighting with each other.

Mark Riordan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said a search of its databases as well as vital statistics and school records, found no record of the alleged perpetrators, the victims, or the children who lived with them.

"This family has clearly led a nomadic lifestyle and had become quite adept living beneath the radar. Until now," he said.

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