By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Witnesses told a court hearing on Monday for four people accused of holding captives in a Philadelphia basement that the victims were locked inside a dark underground room that smelled like "death."
Linda Ann Weston, 51, and three others, accused of keeping four mentally challenged adults in a subbasement furnace room, appeared in Philadelphia Municipal Court for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with trial.
Prosecutors believe the kidnapping and captivity were a scheme to steal the victims' Social Security benefits, with Weston as the alleged ringleader, and that the captives had been moved from state to state.
Taking the witness stand was police officer John Murphy, who responded to an October 15 call from the building's landlord saying that he had found people locked in the subbasement.
The landlord has said he stumbled onto the victims during a routine check of his building.
Prosecutor Cheryl Yankolonis asked the police officer to describe the scene and, in particular, how it smelled.
"Basically, death," Murphy said. "It smelled like human feces, animal feces, urine, body odor, all of that."
Weston, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, was expressionless during the hearing. The other three accused -- Weston's daughter Jean McIntosh, 32, Gregory Thomas, 47, and Eddie Wright, 50 -- also attended the pretrial hearing before Judge Patrick Dugan.
They face an array of charges including criminal conspiracy, kidnapping and assault.
The police officer said the people he found in the basement were "very malnourished." One of them was chained to an old furnace, and he and the landlord cut the chain with a hacksaw.
As the victims were led out from the basement, he said they walked slowly, "like they had not seen light in a while. They were squinting."
Authorities believe two of those held had been captive for roughly 11 years.
Police crime scene investigator John Paggart described the basement room as "cold, dark, damp."
He recounted injuries found on the victims, including bruises, scars and open wounds on their backs and heads. One victim had a large tear in his ear, he said.
As he spoke, sobbing could be heard from the rear of the courtroom.
(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Jerry Norton)
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