In 2015 I began reporting a series of stories about one of the saddest situations I'd come across in my then 26-year career as a journalist. This is the first story which was published on May 19 of that year in the Athens Banner-Herald:
Report: Men confined in basement of Athens 'slave house'
By Joe Johnson
A man's complaint that Emma Lois Heard was "running a slave house" in west Athens evidently prompted authorities last week to search the home on Landor Drive and rescue four men who allegedly were being held against their will.
Athens-Clarke County police described the conditions in the unlicensed personal care home as "unlivable" and among the worst they'd ever seen. The men were said to be confined to a basement described as a tall crawl space. They allegedly had no access to a bathroom and used a five-gallon can in which to relieve themselves. Police said they found a few bottles of water in the house but no food.
The men were allowed into the back yard, which was surrounded by an 8-foot fence and padlocked from the outside, police said.
The men range in age from 52-71 and police said were in good physical health but with "mental issues." They were subsequently placed in the care of Adult Protective Services.
Heard was charged with felony elder abuse, four counts of false imprisonment and operating an unlicensed personal care home. Police said additional charges were "forthcoming."
A request by the Athens Banner-Herald for police reports found complaints about possible happenings at the Landor Drive residence went back more than a year. According to one police report, someone called police in June 2014 to report having heard from a woman who said people were "being held hostage and being forced to take pain pills."
Police at the time attempted to conduct a welfare check at the residence, but no one was home and no one could be heard inside the house. The woman who allegedly told of people being held hostage could not be contacted, according to the report.
Five months later, in November 2014, a woman reported to police someone impersonated her when picking up prescription medication at a local pharmacy. She named Heard as the suspect. She further told police she formerly lived with Heard, who allegedly "used to abuse her in various ways with (sic) giving her and other girls crack and prostituting them out."
That woman had the same first name as one of the people who earlier was reported as being held "hostage" at the Landor Drive residence, according to the police report.
The investigation into possible illegal activities at the residence appeared to kick into high gear with the May 5 police report noting how a man who lived there for about four weeks described it as a "slave house."
The report was taken from the 65-year-old man who told police he was having difficulty retrieving some belongings from the house.
"He told me that (Heard) has three guys...in the basement," an officer noted in the report. "He said she keeps them drugged up and locked in the basement. (Heard) has them make her to be their payee for their social security checks...has seen her hit the men and chain them to a wall...said she makes them defecate in five gallon buckets."
A man who said that he lived at the house on Landor Drive reportedly said Heard's arrest was from a misunderstanding and she took in men who she had known for a long time. He said that Heard took $400 a month from each man for rent, food and utilities.
Heard's arrest stemmed from a joint investigation by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, state and local Adult Protective Services, Athens-Clarke County Code Enforcement, Georgia Department of Community Health, and the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Aging Services' Long-term Care Ombudsman Program.
Authorities said Heard may have run an illegal personal care home for years and there could be more victims who have yet to be identified.
This follow-up story was published by the ABH on Aug. 15, 2015
Details emerge in Athens 'slave house' investigation, warrant contains allegations of sexual abuse
By Joe Johnson
Authorities are looking into allegations an Athens woman who ran an unlicensed personal care home for people with special needs may have also sexually abused residents at the home. Among allegations contained in a recently filed search warrant, 55-year-old Emma Lois Heard took a woman suffering from schizophrenia to Atlanta to have sex with men. She also allegedly filmed sexual acts performed by the woman and men living in the home at 200 Landor Drive in west Athens.
The allegations were made by the daughter of the woman with schizophrenia, who told police "Heard is sometimes paid in illegal drugs for sexual acts by the residents," according to the warrant filed last month in Clarke County Superior Court.
Authorities raided the house on Landor Drive in May, at which time they said they found four men who were allegedly being held there against their will. They were all described as special needs persons and clients of Advantage Behavioral Health Systems. Police said they learned from an official with Advantage that none of those men had been to an appointment in four years with the Athens-based mental healthcare provider.
According to police, Heard lured residents to her house after meeting them on the Internet. She charged residents $300-400 to stay at the house, police said, and had residents sign over their Social Security checks and give their EBT cards.
Police said Heard operated the illegal personal care home for years and they believe there were other victims not yet identified
Several local and state agencies participated in the May raid of the house on Landor Drive, after the Athens-Clarke County Police Department had over the course of two years fielded several complaints concerning conditions at the house. Following the raid, Heard was charged with four counts of false imprisonment, one count of elder abuse, and one felony count of operating an unlicensed personal care home. Officials said more charges will likely be sought when the case is brought before a grand jury.
How the case was adjudicated in June 2017:
Athens woman who ran 'slave house' receives 40-year sentence
By Joe Johnson
A 56-year-old Athens woman recently received a 40-year sentence for running an illegal personal care home where she kept disabled adult victims in the basement under what authorities described as deplorable conditions.
Emma Lois Heard was to begin trial this week, but Thursday she entered into an agreement with prosecutors in which she pleaded guilty to a 19-count indictment charging her with multiple counts of exploitation and intimidation of a disabled adult, operating an unlicensed personal care home and false imprisonment.
The plea bargain was struck two days after Heard was re-arrested on a prosecutor’s motion to have the woman’s $20,000 bond revoked on allegations she made contact with one of her victims on multiple occasions in an attempt to influence his testimony.
Clarke County Superior Court Judge H. Patrick Haggard on Thursday sentenced Heard to 40 years, with the first 12 years to be served in confinement.
A co-defendant, 73-year-old Ronald McKinney, on Friday pleaded guilty to exploitation and false imprisonment counts pertaining to two of the victims and he was handed a 20-year sentence, six months of which must be served in confinement, followed by attending the Day Reporting Center.