A mentally disabled woman charged with shoplifting a candy bar asked to be jailed because three people "had been mean to her" — then went on to tell authorities about her time spent in unfathomably cruel servitude, along with her young daughter, at the hands of three people, authorities said Tuesday.
On several occasions, according to an FBI affidavit, the suspects injured her and ordered her to go to an emergency room for pain medication they would then take for themselves.
The 29-year-old woman was forced to do housework under the threat of harm to her and her child by her captors' pet python or pit bulls, authorities allege, and a menagerie of snakes was put in the terrified 5-year-old's face until she cried.
Authorities announced federal charges Tuesday against three people they say invited the woman and her child to live with them in their blue-collar Ashland neighborhood of older two-story houses. Beginning in early 2011, they forced the mother to cooperate with them by threats and physical abuse, authorities said.
The woman and her daughter were freed in October after police investigated an abuse allegation one of the suspects made against her, authorities said, and they are doing well.
"The victim in this case is slowly recovering," U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach said.
Jordie Callahan, 26, Jessica Hunt, 31, and Daniel J. "DJ" Brown, 33, were charged with forced labor. Callahan also was charged with tampering with a witness in the investigation.
The suspects had an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Cleveland and were ordered jailed until a bond hearing on Monday.
Callahan's mother, Becky Callahan of Ashland, said in a phone interview that the allegations were "all lies." She said that the alleged victim was friends with her son and Hunt, her son's girlfriend, and that they tried to help the woman out by offering her a place to live because she didn't have a home.
Andrew Hyde, who represented Callahan on related state kidnapping charges dismissed Tuesday as the federal case was announced, called the charges ludicrous and said the woman at the center of the alleged forced-labor plot moved in and out as she pleased.
"There was never any forced labor, any forced co-habitation. She was never forced to do anything. She used this story to get out of trouble she was in" with regard to a child-abuse allegation, Hyde said.
Hyde said county social service workers placed the girl with her mother when the woman was living with the three suspects.
A federal court lawyer for Callahan declined comment. A second defense attorney, Ed Bryan, said Hunt will plead not guilty and said there are credibility issues with the mother.
There was no immediate response to phone and email messages left for the attorney representing Brown.
According to an FBI affidavit, the mother and child were denied food at times or given leftovers; on one occasion when they hadn't eaten all day, the mother was given a plate of food and ordered to feed a pet dog.
The trio looted the woman's bank account and public assistance and on several occasions injured her and ordered her to go to the emergency room for pain medication, according to the affidavit.
The woman told investigators the trio learned of her plan to try to escape and punished her by shaving her hair into a Mohawk and using a marker to write "slut," ''tramp" and "whore" on her face and chest. She was forced to clean up the hair without a broom or dust pan, according to the affidavit.
The woman was forced to do house work and shop for her captors and clean up after pets, authorities said.
The trio kept the mother and daughter under surveillance with a baby monitor, according to the affidavit, and at one point, the woman was lured back with ice cream.
"They treated her with such cruelty that it is hard to comprehend," Dettelbach said. "They tried to take away her human dignity."
Police first got involved when the woman was charged with shoplifting a candy bar and asked to be jailed because the three suspects "had been mean to her," said Ashland police Lt. Joel Icenhour.
It wasn't clear whether she had staged the candy bar theft to get police help.
Police checking into her "mean" claim went to the apartment after one of the suspects said it was the woman who was abusive. Authorities said the allegation was a ruse complete with a video staged by the suspects. They said the suspects forced the woman to act as if she were mistreating her child.
Defense attorney Hyde said police told the woman they would help if she felt she had been framed with an incriminating video. According to Hyde, she bought that argument and made up the enslavement allegation.
"I think the feds just failed to fully investigate this before they jumped to some conclusions," Hyde said.
A woman in the Ashland neighborhood said Tuesday she was surprised by the allegations, saying that Callahan sometimes helped her husband with yard work and other chores and that she never saw signs someone was being held captive in the house.
Tara Williams, 51, said she occasionally saw Callahan walking down an alley with a large yellow-and-white snake draped around his neck but never saw him threaten anyone with it. She said three pit bulls also lived in the apartment, along with a pot-bellied pig that once got loose.
The white, two-story house of three apartments, including the defendants' apartment, is set back from the road with a "no trespassing" sign near the front.
Williams said she occasionally saw the presumed victim walking by quickly and sometimes underdressed for cold weather. The woman never spoke or looked at others, Williams said. Williams never saw a child, she said.
Like many in Ashland and around Ohio, Williams said she couldn't help but think of the parallels to the case in Cleveland a little more than a month ago, in which three women were freed from a house where a man allegedly imprisoned them for a decade, raping them during that time and fathering a child with one of them.
Ariel Castro has pleaded not guilty to more than 300 counts against him, which include kidnapping, rape and felonious assault.
Sheeran reported for this story from Cleveland.