The lawyer for an Ohio suspect accused of keeping a mentally disabled woman and her daughter as slaves and threatening them with deadly snakes, says his client is innocent and the alleged victim was free to come and go as she pleased.
The alleged victim, a 29-year-old woman, claims she was kept against her will by three suspects in their home outside Cleveland, Ohio, beginning in late 2011, forced to do housework without pay and monitored around the clock to keep her from escaping.
According to an FBI criminal complaint, the three suspects are accused of pilfering her bank account and terrorizing the woman and her 5-year-old daughter with pitbulls and a collection of snakes, which included a venomous coral snake and a 130-pound python.
The woman and her child were initially forced to sleep on a "cement floor in the basement with no mattress," but were later moved to another room, which was kept locked so the girl could not leave, according to the FBI.
The pair were permitted only to eat canned food while forced to feed fresh fruits and vegetables to "the iguana that freely roamed in their bedroom." On another occasion, a hot meal was tauntingly denied to the little girl and fed instead to a dog, according to court documents filed by the FBI.
The suspects threatened the woman with a gun and smashed her hand with a rock and sent her to a hospital emergency room to obtain pain medication which the men kept for their own use, according to the FBI.
"These defendants violated the victim's most basic civil right, freedom, by exploiting her most basic instinct, the protection of her child," said Stephen D. Anthony, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Cleveland office in a statement. "The FBI continues to aggressively pursue and bring to justice those individuals who abuse and harm innocent members of our community."
Jordie Callahan, 26, Jessica Hunt, 31, and Daniel J. Brown, 33, were charged with forced labor, a federal crime. Callahan also was charged with tampering with a witness.
All three suspects appeared in court on Monday and were ordered held in a county jail until a bond hearing on Monday. They all have obtained legal counsel.
Police found the woman when she was arrested for shoplifting a candy bar and told police she preferred to go to jail than back to the home where the suspects were "were mean to her."
Edward Bryan, a federal defender representing Hunt, said his client, as well as the two men, would plead not guilty once they were formally arraigned.
"They do plan to plead not guilty," Bryan told ABC News.com. "There are some serious questions about the veracity of claims in the affidavit."
Bryan says the woman requested to live in the Ashland, Ohio, home. In order to retain custody of her daughter following a child abuse allegation, she had to have a permanent address, and officials from the county's child protective services visited the home and found the conditions there suitable, the lawyer said.
"This is a very serious and tragic situation. As an agency, our first and foremost priority is the safety of all children. Confidentiality and privacy laws prohibit our agency from disclosing any information," Cassandra Holzman, director of the county's Department of Job and Family Services.
"People want to believe a sensationalist story," said Bryan, "but this is much more mundane."
Lawyers for the other suspects did not comment to ABC News.com, but Andrew Hyde, the lawyer representing Callahan told the Associated Press, "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.
The case immediately drew parallels to the recent arrest of Ariel Castro, just one hour away in Cleveland. Castro is accused of keeping three kidnapped women sex slaves in his home for a decade.
"This is not like that at all," Bryan told ABC News.com. "This woman was not kidnapped off the street and held in a basement in shackles of chains. She was able to come and go as she pleased."