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Abducted Elderly Boarders Happy to Be Back Home

Kidnapping: Men describe ordeal. Police arrest alleged pirates, find one of two remaining victims.

September 20, 1996|JEFF BRAZIL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their sole income is $650 a month from the government. They live in a boarding home where they get three meals a day, a bed and not much else. But it was a way of life that 67-year-old David Walker and 70-year-old James Thurston were relieved to return to Thursday after being kidnapped by so-called boarding home pirates, shut up in a strange house and told they would never again venture outside on their own.

"They told me I was going to stay there from now on," said Walker, one of six elderly people abducted Tuesday from two boarding homes. "They took my identification. They took my medication, my Social Security card. I couldn't escape.

"We would have had to stay there if the police didn't come."

While Walker, Thurston and two other elderly boarding home residents found Wednesday regain some semblance of their usual lives, authorities will seek charges of robbery and kidnapping against a 40-year-old woman, her 20-year-old son and two other men arrested Thursday. Police said at least some of the suspects ran a boarding home of their own and seized the physically impaired boarders to gain control of their government assistance checks.

Police also found one of two remaining victims Thursday but released few details.

The widely publicized abductions have shed light on yet another danger to the homeless and other down-on-their luck people. According to authorities, competition for the government assistance checks of the elderly and incapacitated has grown so fierce that even those who have found homes are being poached off the streets and forced to surrender their tiny incomes and their freedom.

"There have been allegations of kidnapping before, but I've never seen something quite like this where they go in, beat up the operators and take the clients," said Douglas K. Harvey, supervising special investigator for the state Department of Social Services. The agency licenses board and care homes and is investigating the homes involved in this case.

While authorities searched Thursday for a final suspect and the last victim, Walker and Thurston held tight to their front-porch easy chairs at Cohen Room and Board at 1401 W. 22nd St., where they have lived for some time. For $500 a month, they said, owner Gloria Cohen provides them with a clean room, home-cooked meals and room to roam.

Then came Tuesday.

Walker, a onetime welder, and Thurston, a self-described lifelong wanderer, recalled some of the most frightening 30 hours of their difficult lives.

The two were sitting on the front porch of the Cohen home Tuesday when two cars, a Cadillac and a Lincoln Town Car, pulled up. Out bounded four men.

"I thought maybe they were nurses or something," Walker said. "But one of them, a big guy, jumped on the house manager. He whopped him. The other one told us to get in the car. I said, 'For what? What's happening?' He said, 'Just get in the car and don't cause me any trouble.' "

The residents said they were driven about four blocks and placed into another car. Moments later, they arrived at a two-story house less than a mile from the Cohen home.

The assailants told their victims they weren't going to kill them, but brandished a shotgun and warned them to cooperate.

"Was I scared?" Walker said. "Wouldn't you be scared if someone came and grabbed you off your porch and told you to get in a car?"

Upon their arrival at the strange house, Walker and Thurston said, a woman took their identification, Social Security cards, Medicare cards and Walker's stomach medication. The woman, according to Walker, placed a call to the Social Security office, identified herself as his niece and said his checks should come to her address.

"She lied; I don't even know this woman, never seen her before," said Walker, who has diabetes and suffers from the lingering effects of multiple stomach surgeries. "I asked her why she kept my stuff. She said because she wanted to.

"There wasn't nothing for me to do but be quiet."

After a meal of string beans, macaroni and chicken, the victims were taken to separate rooms to sleep--rooms they were told would be theirs from now on. They were told they would not be allowed to go outside, that the doors and windows would be locked at all times.

Walker stayed in a room with two strangers. The kidnappers, he said, "gave me a bed, but no sheet and only one blanket."

Thurston shared a room with five people he did not know, presumably some of the dozen boarders police removed from the home during a raid Wednesday.

"They didn't like you to look around," said Thurston, who has walked with a cane ever since he fell into a well at the age of 4. "We couldn't turn to the right. All we could do was go to the bathroom. And they didn't allow you downstairs at all alone."

That night, Thurston said, he set his mind to thinking of a way to escape, a way to get back to Cohen's home--"a place where they treat you like a person.".

"I didn't figure I'd be in that place forever," Thurston said of his abductors' home. "But I figured I was going to be there for the time being."

The next day--Wednesday--the abducted boarders were fed only one meal. They spent the majority of the day wondering what would become of them. Then, about 4 p.m., came a knock at the door--the police.

"I was so glad to get downstairs again, to get outside," Thurston said.

While authorities are investigating whether Cohen Room and Board has the proper licenses to serve its residents, Walker and Thurston said the people at the home are the closest thing they have to family. "I've got seven girls and one boy," Walker said. "My baby, she's twentysomething now.

"I've tried to find them . . . but I've done had to give up." He paused. "Haven't seen them in about 25 years now. That's a long time, isn't it?"

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