Steven Dettelbach, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, is standing before a not-quite-packed room of reporters. It is June 18. "We are yet again reminded that modern-day slavery exists all around us," he says. That phrase—"modern-day slavery"—has stuck around as the linchpin of a case that originated in October 2012.
The mid-June press conference was abruptly announced to local media outlets earlier that day. There was an air of congratulatory satisfaction in the tiny room within the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House Building. Information was parsed out, but the story remained veiled in mystery outside of the sensational tagline. And not much has changed as the summer unfolds and four people sit in prison.
Ashland is a vivid blast from decades past. Its outer commercial neighborhoods cozy up against I-71, allowing the main drag to spread westward like a vast welcome mat. The signs along Main Street look as though they were ripped out of 1964 and sent here via wormhole. The people are friendly; it's a pedestrian's town. But things aren't quite right.
People don't seem to talk much these days about the kidnapping. In fact, even employees at the Ashland Police Department met questions about the case with the curious reply of, "What kidnapping?"
Ashland residents Jordie Callahan and Jessica Hunt were charged in February with abduction, kidnapping, complicity in child endangerment and two counts of extortion. That followed several months of investigations after a mentally disabled woman named Shannon Eckley found herself in police custody for stealing a candy bar the previous fall.
According to prosecutors, Eckley and her young daughter had been forced to live at Callahan and Hunt's home and perform various chores and tasks for nearly two years—clean the house, do laundry, shop for groceries, and care for numerous pit bulls and reptiles. The details of the case—threatening the woman and her daughter with harm or death, threatening them with a large snake, forcing them to sleep in a padlocked room with a large iguana, and more—hover around Dettelbach's phrase "modern-day slavery."
Those Ashland County charges were dismissed with prejudice, however, as the Feds swooped in. Stricter penalties (like life in prison) can be applied if the defendants are convicted of the federal felony of forced labor in court later this year. (Were the federal court not to pursue the case in the future, the local charges could be refiled.)
But the federal charges come after eight months of ongoing investigations into the home where defendants Callahan and Hunt lived. Daniel Brown and Dezerah Silsby were also brought into the scope of federal law enforcement, due to alleged roles in making sure Eckley never escaped captivity.
Callahan, Hunt and Silsby were indicted last week on forced labor charges. Brown, who provided much of the information to investigators, was charged with one count of conspiracy.
The house in question is a bleak two-story affair located along Ashland's West Main Street, just a quick jaunt down the road from the center of town.
In May 2011, Callahan, Hunt, Brown and Silsby brought Eckley into the home. Federal investigators are using the word "recruited." Others claim the matter was more of an invite. The difference in opinions regarding that starting point is a major point of contention in the case—and one that won't soon have any clarity.
An FBI affidavit reports that Silsby admitted to using ice cream to lure Eckley and her daughter from their relative's house to captivity.
Nonetheless, investigating detectives say that the four defendants worked to "conspire, combine, confederate and agree with each other to" hold Eckley and her child against their will. Publicly speaking, that's the story going forward.
Inside, Eckley lived with Callahan and Hunt for two years. Prosecutors paint a vivid picture of exotic creatures dwelling alongside Eckley and her daughter in a padlocked room. There's a litany of mental and physical harm rolling through the affidavit.
"[They] violated the victim's most basic civil right—freedom—by exploiting her most basic instinct—the protection of her child," says Stephen Anthony, special agent in charge of the FBI's Cleveland office.
Becky Callahan, Jordie's mother, spoke with CNN's Piers Morgan as the news broke that the Feds had filed charges. She and her family declined to speak with Scene. But in her chat with Morgan, she described the rather familiar relationships everyone in the house shared—including with Eckley.
"There are so many lies going on," she said during the CNN interview. "She was giving them a couple hundred dollars a month for staying there. She was getting her own food. She wasn't being starved."
Those points counter the prosecution's contention that Callahan and Hunt were taking Eckley's public-assistance income on a regular basis. There are also reports that the couple was starving Eckley and her daughter, preferring at times to feed their pets in front of the woman. Much of the time, the case posits, Eckley was left with little more than a can or two of something from the kitchen. Bathroom access was severely limited, on top of all that.
"None of this happened," she said. Callahan added that Eckley had been out and about in Ashland over the past two years, including spending time at her own home. "She turned the whole story around, making them think Jordie and Jess had made her do all this."
Shannon Eckley was arrested Oct. 25, 2012. As the feds explain the day's events, she was caught stealing a candy bar. It was one of her routine trips to a local store. Callahan and Hunt would allow her to shop for groceries and the like, though there was always a tight deadline. On that day, Eckley was not planning to return to the West Main Street house and used the stolen candy bar as a way out.
She told officers that she was living with Callahan and Hunt, who were being "mean" to her.
Officers quickly looked into her story and soon arrived at the home where she had been living. Callahan showed officers a video of her beating her daughter —seemingly one of several that had been shot over the previous two years. At least one video has been made publicly available. The footage shows Eckley smacking her daughter as the child cries and begs her to stop.
Ashland police began developing the case against Eckley.
She was found indigent and soon charged with two counts of endangering children. Her young daughter had been living with her at the house for the previous two years.
In February, she was sentenced to 150 days in jail with 52 days credited for time served. Her sentence was also lightened due to the court finding that she had been "coerced" into beating her daughter. She was released from jail May 20.
Eckley served time for what she had done, and the video footage certainly helped fast-track her punishment. But still there's been no atonement nor public response from the four defendants facing forced labor charges from the federal government.
Authorities say that Eckley and her daughter spent the spring recovering. Scene was not able to reach the woman for this story. She is reportedly enrolled in federal protection. Her daughter is in the custody of the Department of Job and Family Services.
The arrests, of course, came little more than a month after Ariel Castro was arrested for holding three Cleveland women in captivity for a decade. The publicity of the stories frames Ohio in a dark light. It also serves as a reminder that things are never quite what they seem.
But with the one-two punch of sensational headlines came a reactive ambivalence.
"One of our nation's core values is freedom, yet this woman and her child were denied freedom for two years. The victims in this case endured violence, threats, sub-human living conditions and other horrific acts," Dettelbach says, standing before the gathering of reporters on June 18 at the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House Building.
Stories crawled across social media networks and good, old-fashioned newspaper headlines the next morning. More than a month later, there remains little pressure for answers. Heavy-handed allegations are made by both sides of the case, leaving almost no room for verified facts in the middle.
What's left is a bizarre contrast to the Ariel Castro case. There's very little confirmed truth in the statements made by any side in this case.
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