This article from the New York Times by Manny Fernandez:
Houston Garage Was Prison for Three Disabled Men
|The police in Houston outside a garage where three men were held |
against their will and forced to hand over their benefit checks.
The mostly bare room was a makeshift prison, the authorities said. Three men were held captive here, in a quiet but gritty neighborhood of north Houston about 10 miles from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, for more than a year. The men — ages 50, 74 and 80 — slept on the linoleum floor without blankets and ate scraps of food while being prohibited from leaving by force and coercion, officials said. There were no bathrooms, no beds and no furniture except for a chair and small table. A window air-conditioning unit may or may not have worked properly.
The authorities said the men, who were disabled, were kept in the garage as part of a scheme to take their government benefits checks by Walter Renard Jones, the 31-year-old grandson of the homeowner. Mr. Jones has been arrested and charged with felony elder abuse, including allegations that he struck one of the men with a cane.
“He lured them there with the promise of shelter and food and being taken care of,” said Jodi Silva, a spokeswoman for the Houston police. “Three of them were locked within the garage without any ability to move around for the most part.”
Investigators with the Houston Police Department were still piecing together what life was like inside the room for the men, but officials said the case was one of the most extreme instances of elder abuse and financial exploitation in Texas. The men were found on Friday morning by police officers who responded to a 911 call that people were being held against their will at the residence. They were treated at a hospital for malnourishment and released.
A fourth man who was at the house appeared to have lived at times in the converted garage and at other times in the house, and was given more freedom than the other men. That man, 65, did not require medical attention, and played a role in alerting the authorities, officials said.
Neighbors said they had no idea the men were being held, and it appeared that neighbors and relatives often came in and out of the house but never went inside the renovated garage. Edward Baker, 57, who lives next door, said Mr. Jones used to come over to his house to visit. “He was a nice person,” Mr. Baker said. “He used to come over here and play dominoes with me. I was shocked.”
A judge set Mr. Jones’s bond at $400,000, and he remained in custody on Tuesday. His court-appointed lawyer, Jerome Godinich Jr., did not respond to a request for comment.
The 80-year-old victim sought homeless aid in August 2010, when he stayed at an emergency shelter, said Marilyn L. Brown, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, the lead coordinator of the homeless services system in Houston and Harris and Fort Bend Counties. “He hasn’t interacted with any homeless services provider that participates in the master database for three years,” she said. “For three years, he has disappeared. We can hope that he went somewhere else for a while, but we also have to consider the possibility that he’s been in the home for that long. It’s disgraceful.”
The state agency that looks into reports of abuse and exploitation of disabled or elderly adults, Adult Protective Services, is helping the three men find housing in assisted living facilities and conducting its own investigation, said a spokesman, Patrick Crimmins.
Ms. Silva of the Houston police said investigators were still determining what role, if any, the homeowner played in the scheme. When police officers arrived at the house on Friday, the homeowner, Essie Mae Scranton, gave them permission to enter the residence. In addition to the men in the garage, three disabled women were living at the house. The residence was not a facility licensed by the state Department of Aging and Disability Services.
It remained unclear how much money the scheme had brought in, the authorities said. The Social Security Administration’s inspector general’s office was assisting with the investigation. A spokeswoman said the case was the first incident they were aware of involving Social Security beneficiaries being held captive in Texas.
In January, a 52-year-old woman and four others were charged in a federal indictment with subjecting disabled victims in Philadelphia to “subhuman conditions,” beating them, depriving them of food and keeping them in locked basements and closets in order to steal their Social Security disability payments. Federal prosecutors said some of the victims endured the abuse for years.