By Chris Cotelesse
The mentally challenged woman who is the purported victim in a federal labor-trafficking case testified Monday that she and her 5-year-old daughter were forced to live in a cold, dark basement while the defendants spent her Social Security and government assistance money.
The woman, referred to as S.E. in court documents, struggled during her testimony against Jessica Hunt, 31, and Jordie Callahan, 26, both of Ashland, both charged in federal court with engaging in a labor- trafficking conspiracy and theft of government-issued funds.
The case is being heard before Judge Benita Y. Pearson in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, in Youngstown.
The purported victim said she complied with the couple’s demands out of fear of physical violence, and described an incident when Hunt purportedly hit her in the back with a wooden fence post after she took food from the kitchen to feed her hungry daughter.
The woman said she was allowed out of the basement only to perform housework and other tasks, and her daughter was rarely brought out of the confines. She told the court that she could hear her daughter crying but was not allowed to check on her.
“I’m allowed go to the store,” S.E. said. “I’m not allowed to stop by my mom’s or nothing … or I’d get beat up.”
Every night at 8, she was returned to the basement and kept there until Hunt or Callahan let her out each morning. There were no bathroom facilities in the basement, she said.
“Sometimes I’d hold it for a while,” S.E. said. “And it hurt my bladder.”
She had moved in with the couple at 509 W. Main St. in Ashland after being released from jail for shoplifting, a crime that co-defendant Dezerah Silsby, 21, testified Friday was planned by Hunt.
The purported victim said her former boyfriend, Daniel J. Brown, 33, a codefendant in the case, persuaded her to stay with Hunt and Callahan “to help pay bills and rent.”
At first, she and her daughter slept in the living room on a couch and a mattress, respectively, but were moved to the basement when Hunt began expecting visits from Child Protective Services regarding her four sons.
“We had to go to the basement so [Hunt’s] caseworker won’t find out that we live here,” S.E. testified.
She said Hunt and Callahan padlocked one door and nailed another shut so “that me and my daughter wouldn’t escape,” but S.E. took an opportunity to flee the night she was beaten with the fence post. She described how she kicked open the basement door and walked to her mother’s apartment a few miles away.
The next day, Hunt arrived to collect the woman and her child, but she hid and let her mother’s boyfriend answer the door.
It wasn’t until Brown came by the apartment that S.E. decided to return to Hunt and Callahan’s home. Silsby testified Friday that Brown’s promise to “be with” S.E. romantically persuaded her to return.
Because of S.E.’s mental disability, she struggled to answer the prosecution’s questions regarding time frames and her reasons for returning to 509 W. Main St., but Judge Pearson said she would allow a limited amount of “leading questions.”
“Direct examination is usually done by what we call open-ended questions,” Judge Pearson instructed the jury. “I’m allowing that to facilitate the examination, but remember you are the judges of the facts.”
She will continue her testimony today.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, University of Akron and professional media outlets WYSU-FM Radio, The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio, both of Akron.