Witnesses taking the stand yesterday in the trial of a northeastern Ohio couple accused of holding a mentally handicapped woman and her daughter hostage for two years described squalid living conditions where the two were forced to live in a locked basement room with pit bulls, pythons and piles of feces.
The labor-trafficking conspiracy trial before U.S. District Judge Benita Pearson in Youngstown entered its third day yesterday.
Jessica Hunt, 31, and Jordie Callahan, 26, both of Ashland, have been accused of imprisoning a mentally challenged woman and her 5-year-old daughter to gain access to their assistance money. The couple say they were helping the woman get back on her feet after escaping an abusive relationship, but Charles McPheeters, the maintenance man for the couple’s home, said the woman “always acted like she was scared.”
“She was always standoffish, always quiet,” he said. “She never said a word to me.”
McPheeters said he got the impression that someone was living in the property’s basement, which he described as poorly lighted and “in disarray.” He said there was a mattress in one corner amid dirty clothes, trash and human feces. Also, he said, there was a “urine smell.”
McPheeters said sewage would sometimes back up and flood the basement, but there were separate piles of human feces littering the floor. The couple also took measures to cordon off the basement from areas of the building shared with other apartments, he said. The maintenance man described windows that were nailed shut and a false wall that was secured with a padlock. He said a door that led from the basement to the outside had been kicked at from the inside, splintering the door and frame.
The woman and child appeared to be in good health, McPheeters said. However, Allen Redmon, a service technician with Armstrong cable, described the woman as looking “very dirty” during a service call to the home on Aug. 15, 2012.
He also said he discovered a small television monitor that showed images from a room where the mother and child lay on the floor.
“When I turned it on, the little girl was looking right at the camera,” he said. “The lady had no expression whatsoever.”
Prosecutors tried to show the jury yesterday that the couple used the woman to get Vicodin from an emergency room.
Christina Coffy of Samaritan Regional Health System testified that the alleged victim visited the emergency room nine times from August 2010 to May 2012. The woman’s injuries included finger, knee and hip pain; abrasions; bruises; and an open wound that hospital records say was delivered by a BB gun, Coffy testified.
According to emergency-room records, the woman went from weighing 143 pounds to 110 pounds during the nine visits.
Callahan and Hunt were originally charged in Ashland County court, however, the case was transferred to federal court because the couple could face stiffer penalties if convicted. Originally, they were charged with complicity, abduction, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of extortion. The federal indictment charges them with engaging in a labor-trafficking conspiracy.
Prosecutors’ pretrial documents said Callahan threatened to kill the woman if she didn’t do work around the house or engage in sex acts. The woman and her child were forced to live in the basement along with pit bulls and pythons, prosecutors allege.
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