Four men found living in "deplorable conditions" in a Houston garage on Friday told police that they were being held captive after being lured by promises of food and cigarettes so that their captor could cash their public-assistance cheques, authorities said.
Three of the men were malnourished and taken to a hospital after being discovered by officers responding to a 911 call about the home, Houston police spokeswoman Jodi Silva said. Sgt. Steven Murdock described the living conditions as like a "dungeon."
Investigators were still trying to determine how long the men lived there, but they said it may have been weeks
Men 'kept against their will'
Silva said the men told investigators they were forced to live in the garage — which included just one chair, no bed and a possibly malfunctioning air conditioner — so their captor could cash their assistance cheques. She said the men were "given scraps to eat."
"They clearly stated to us they were being kept against their will," Silva said.
Silva said one person has been detained but no charges have been filed. He apparently did not live in the house, she said. Four women were also found living in the house, three of whom appeared to have mental disabilities, Silva said. She described the other woman as a caretaker. Unlike the garage, she described the living conditions inside the home as more normal.
A neighbour called authorities Friday morning expressing concern about men in the house in North Houston. Murdock, the police sergeant, said at least one of the men is a military veteran. He described them as malnourished and "almost invalids," saying they lived in "deplorable conditions."
Alberta Ewing, whose brother lives next door, said the men looked "very weak" and were hauled out on stretchers by paramedics. She said one of the men had approached her asking for help just weeks earlier during a Fourth of July gathering, but that she didn't take him seriously because he wasn't crying and she couldn't get him to explain further.
"He said, `Could you help me?"' Ewing recalled. "I said, `What's the problem?"
Neighbours said they occasionally saw the men sitting outside. Virginia Rogers, who lives five houses away, said she greeted them with a wave when she drove by.
"I'm shocked," Rogers said. "I'm baffled. I didn't have a clue."
The men were found in a working-class, residential neighbourhood of one-storey, brick homes. Harris County property records show the home was built in 1969 and is about 1,400 square feet.
Police were going in and out of the house's bright purple door and black gate Friday afternoon, removing evidence as neighbors stood outside watching.
A portion of the block was cordoned off with police tape.
CBC had earlier reported that eight people were held captive in the home, based on reports by the local CNN affiliate.
Comes 2 months after Cleveland case of captives
The Houston report comes two months after three women were released from a home in Cleveland after being held for a decade.
Earlier this month, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight took to YouTube to thank the public for the encouragement and financial support that have helped them restart their lives since they were released in May.
The women had gone missing separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16, and 20 years old, respectively.
Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old former bus driver, has pleaded not guilty to a 329-count indictment alleging he kidnapped the three off the streets and held them captive in his two-storey home. Castro is said to have fathered the six-year-old daughter with Berry.