An 81-year-old Marine Corps veteran was held hostage in a squalid New York motel room for four years for his benefit payments.
The Korean War veteran suffers from dementia and had his pension and Social Security checks stolen by a man who held him hostage for four years at a motel in Highland Falls using intimidation and brute force, officials said on Thursday.
In video filmed by witness Natasha Blanc, a man police have identified as Perry Coniglio, 43, can be seen berating and forcing Navy veteran David McClellan back into a room at the U.S. Academy Motel, near West Point. Police arrested Coniglio on Tuesday, charging him with grand larceny, unlawful imprisonment and other offenses.
Coniglio is being held at Orange County jail on $15,000 bail and is expected to appear in court on July 25, ABC 7 reports. He automatically had a not guilty plea entered for him, police say. Calls to the Legal Aid Society of Orange County were not returned Thursday or immediately Friday.
“I’m really grateful that [police] took action because otherwise, no one would have,” Blanc tells PEOPLE. “He would have died here.”
Police say Coniglio posed as McClellan’s caretaker, used physical force to keep McClellan captive in the motel and took the three checks McClellan received each month.
“It certainly rose to the level of criminal possession of a weapon and menacing, which is a good indication that something worse was going on behind closed doors,” Detective Joseph Cornetta of the Highland Falls, New York police department, speaking about the video, tells PEOPLE.
Blanc says she heard signs of abuse for years, including screaming and indications of physical abuse. She began videotaping the pair at the suggestion of authorities, who had already launched an investigation after receiving an anonymous tip about alleged financial abuse.
Blanc says she saw McClellan waiting outside his motel room for over four hours for Coniglio to come home and feed him, even during the winter, often partially clothed and barefoot.
She says McClellan was on a feeding schedule and when it was approximately time to eat, he would stand up and hold his bowl out. Police confirm to PEOPLE that Coniglio allegedly fed him just one bowl of cereal a day.
Blanc says neighbors and hotel staff would occasionally feed McClellan because they knew he wouldn’t go back inside his room until he had been fed. She says she sometimes bought him pizza herself.
“He called me an angel,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, jeez,’ you know? Because you feel so bad, especially like, I’ve never been hungry in my life.”
McClellan Believed He Had Been in Hotel for Just Four Days
Police confirm to PEOPLE that because of McClellan’s dementia, he was under the impression he had been living in the hotel for only four days, not four years.
“It hits us all,” says Cornetta. “We all have fathers and grandfathers. Can you imagine your father being treated like that? It’s cruel.”
Police say McClellan moved to the hotel approximately four years ago after his house was condemned because he was living alone and, because of his dementia, not taking proper care of the home.
Authorities say that for years, Coniglio allegedly posed as the man’s caretaker and trained him to waive his rights in different situations.
“He promoted the victim to verbally identify him as, ‘This is my whatever and it’s okay to deal with him,'” Cornetta says. “Coniglio posed himself off to everybody for years upon years as his caregiver or guardian, even basically did all the talking.”
According to Blanc and authorities, McClellan was taken to the hospital in February after he was found walking around naked. That day, Coniglio picked him up from the hospital, authorities confirm.
McClellan is now in the care of adult services, police say.
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