Seven years after rescue, 'Tacony dungeon' victims confront tormentor sentenced to 40 years

They sat calmly in the court’s third row, watching themselves on video detailing their years of torture and deprivation in squalid conditions.

One tearfully testified how, seven years after her rescue, she still requires twice-weekly therapy. Another, more resilient, described herself as a survivor —  a “strong black woman” determined to finally leave behind the Tacony dungeon of their shared nightmares.

And all the while, Jean McIntosh, one of five people responsible for their brutalization, stared at the monitors, transfixed — her eyes wet with tears, clutching a tissue to her open mouth — and forced to confront her own cruelty, reflected back at her in the recorded faces of her victims.

“I can’t take it back now,” she told them when it came time for her to speak. “But I truly wish with my whole heart that I could. I participated in hurting you all. I am truly, truly sorry.”

McIntosh, 38, of Philadelphia, was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison Tuesday for her role in a decade-long plot to kidnap mentally disabled adults, enslave them and steal their government benefit checks.

The crimes she committed  along with her mother, Linda Weston, who is serving a life sentence, shocked the city in 2011, when authorities rescued four of the captives after discovering them emaciated, covered in filth, and chained in the basement of McIntosh’s Tacony home.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe cut McIntosh a break at her sentencing hearing Tuesday; federal guidelines recommended a mandatory minimum life sentence. But the judge said she did so while holding her nose.

Prosecutors urged Rufe to grant McIntosh credit for her “crucial cooperation” with investigators under a deal struck in 2014, when she pleaded guilty to offenses including racketeering, kidnapping, fraud, and hate crimes.

“We made a deal with one devil to get another,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Faithe Moore Taylor said, referencing McIntosh’s willingness to cooperate against her mother. “We can’t pretend that that’s not a choice we made. But … she held up her end of the deal. She helped us to understand just how awful these victims had it.”

Camera icon Courtesy: Philadelphia Police Department
The sub-basement of Jean McIntosh’s Tacony home, where Philadelphia police in October 2011 rescued four captives emaciated, covered in filth, and begging to be left there out of fear that they would be punished. Inset: Ringleader Linda Ann Weston.

And the details they learned were chilling. Together, McIntosh, Weston, and the three other members of what prosecutors dubbed the “Weston family” stole more than $200,000 in Social Security benefits from their captives by pressuring them to sign documents naming Weston their designated payee.

To keep the costs of care low, they locked their wards naked in basements, attics, cupboards, and closets while feeding them with depressant-spiked beans, ramen, and at times even their own and other people’s waste.

The group shuttled the captives from Philadelphia to Texas, Virginia, and Florida and back again to avoid detection, leaving in their wake the bodies of those who did not survive malnourishment and constant beatings.

And all the while, they continued to add victims by snatching them off of street corners, proposing romantic relationships, and even forcing their captives to have children together so Weston could file new government benefit claims.

For the four victims in court Tuesday, the hearing was an opportunity to finally confront one of their tormentors on a more level field. In video interviews recorded last week and played in court Tuesday, each detailed the horrors they endured.

Said Beatrice Weston, 26, robbed of her childhood by McIntosh, her cousin, and Weston, her aunt, who burned her with heated spoons and turned her into a child prostitute: “I walk around with scars. … Every day I just think about [them] beating me.”

Drwin McLemire, 45, spent nearly a year chained by his left ankle to a basement boiler. “I thought I was going to die,” he said Tuesday. “Every day, I was doing a lot of praying.”

Herbert Knowles, 47, was starved and forced to drink his own urine. In court, he had anything but forgiveness on his mind. “I want them to stay in jail a long time,” he said. “I don’t like them.”

But even the horrific treatment those three survived paled in comparison to that endured by Tamara Breeden, 36, one of McIntosh and Weston’s earliest victims.

During her 10 years in their custody, she said Tuesday, she was routinely beaten with bats, sticks and chains, shot with a BB gun, and held in a trailer where Weston brought “older mans” to have sex with her.

At one point, she was forced to have children with another captive only to have one of her babies ripped from her arms in the hospital, where Weston and McIntosh told her the boy had died.

By the time she returned home, Breeden said, McIntosh was holding the baby claiming that she was his mother. The children did not learn who their true parents were until after Weston and McIntosh were arrested in 2011.

Nearly a decade later, she is rebuilding a relationship with her kids.

“I take them to the park sometimes,” she said.

Rufe congratulated her and the others on their resilience.

“If there is any justice you can obtain,” she said, “it’s to be as strong as you can and defy the odds of the life you received. … That’s the way to obtain justice outside of the courtroom.”