A mentally disabled woman and her daughter were held in an Ohio apartment crowded with people, dogs and snakes for more than a year, forced to perform manual labor and threatened with dogs and snakes to keep them compliant, authorities said Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors said the people accused of holding the pair in Ashland, about 60 miles south of Cleveland, collected the woman's government benefits and beat her in order to get painkillers for themselves. They kept her in a room with a free-ranging iguana and ordered her to feed the reptile fruits and vegetables her daughter was denied, according to court papers. Sometimes their captors' pit bulls got table food while they had to eat from cans, an arrest affidavit quotes witnesses.
"Suffice it to say, these victims were repeatedly exposed to subhuman living conditions, such as frequently being denied meals and access to bathroom visits," FBI Special Agent Eric Smith told reporters at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. "They were physically punished for toiletry accidents, and they were threatened not only with weapons but also with vicious animals, to include pit bulls and pythons."
Three people -- 26-year-old Jordie Callahan, 31-year-old Jessica Hunt and 33-year-old Daniel Brown -- are charged with forced labor. Callahan is facing an additional count of witness tampering, and another arrest could come soon, the U.S. attorney's office in Cleveland said.
"These individuals in this case preyed upon a human being's disability and her desire to protect her child, the most fundamental of human traits," said Steven Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. The suspects "used that to force her into servitude, to work like an animal, and indeed, as the complaint alleges, they treated her worse than they treated the animals that were in that house."
The woman was identified in court papers only as "S.E." Investigators stated Callahan and Hunt convinced her to move into the apartment they shared with Hunt's four sons and "numerous" animals, knowing she "suffered from a cognitive disability and received monthly public assistance payments."
That was in May 2011. Her plight came to the attention of authorities in October 2012, when she was arrested for trying to steal a candy bar from a store. Then she was arrested on a state child-welfare charge as part of the case, Ashland Police Chief David Marcelli told CNN.
"The officers that took that complaint detected that there was other issues aside from the shoplifting," Marcelli said. He said officers had had "numerous involvements" with the people involved, "and in the course of interviewing her, they discovered the rest of these facts slowly."
According to prosecutors, Callahan showed police a mobile-phone video of S.E. beating her child. S.E. told police that she had been told to do so by Callahan and Hunt and that Callahan threatened to show police the video if she "messed up" or went to authorities.
S.E. was released from jail in February after being sentenced to time served on the abuse charge, and her daughter is now in foster care, said Michael Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Once the full picture emerged, Ashland police called in the FBI, "and shortly after, the suspects were indicted," Marcelli said.
Callahan and Hunt kept tabs on the woman and child with a baby monitor, with Hunt taking the woman's government benefit cards, authorities said.
"Callahan and Hunt forced S.E. to clean the house, do laundry, walk to the store to do their shopping and care for their numerous pit bulls and reptiles," the prosecution statement said. Her child was kept in the apartment when she was sent to the store, they said.
Tuesday's announcement comes more than a month after the rescue of three women from a Cleveland home where police said a man had held them captive for about a decade.