ALTON, Ill. - Banished to the basement, the 29-year-old mother with a childlike mind and another baby on the way had little more than a thin rug and a mattress to call her own on the chilly concrete floor, police say.
Dorothy Dixon ate what she could forage from the refrigerator upstairs, where housemates used her for target practice with BBs, burned her with a glue gun, and doused her with scalding liquid that peeled away her skin.
They torched what few clothes she had, so she walked around naked. They often pummeled her with an aluminum bat or metal handle.
Dixon - six months pregnant - died after weeks of abuse. Police have charged two adults, three teenagers, and a 12-year-old boy with murder in the case that has repulsed many in this Mississippi River town.
"This is heartbreaking," police Lieutenant David Hayes said. "It was almost as though they were making fun of the abuse they were administering. This woman was almost like living in a prison."
Investigators put much of the blame on Michelle Riley, 35, who they said befriended Dixon but pocketed monthly Social Security checks she got because of her developmental delays.
Dixon saw little, if any, of the money, Hayes said. For months she weathered the torment to keep a roof over her head and that of her year-old son, who weighed just 15 pounds when taken into state custody after his mom's death.
"I've never seen an almost conspiratorial effort by a group of people to continuously torture someone until she finally died, then not really show any remorse," Hayes said. "It was just a slow, torturous, tragic way to die. I highly doubt Dorothy Dixon even knew she was dying."
Riley, 43-year-old Judy Woods, and three teenagers, including Riley's 15-year-old daughter, LeShelle McBride, are charged with first-degree murder, aggravated and heinous battery, intentional homicide of an unborn child, and unlawful restraint. Riley's 12-year-old son is charged as a juvenile.
Riley and Dixon, police said, had lived in Quincy, a Mississippi River town about 100 miles north of St. Louis, Mo. Quincy is where Riley worked as a coordinator for a regional center that helps the developmentally disabled with housing and other services. Dixon was a client.
For years, an impoverished Riley struggled raising her children. Her use of methamphetamine and cocaine brought drug convictions in 2002 and 2004. But with treatment and housing help from the Quincy YWCA, Riley put her life in order - so much that in February of last year, the Quincy Herald-Whig did a story on her comeback.
Last summer, Dixon and Riley moved into the $800-a-month, three-bedroom rental in Alton about 15 miles north of St. Louis. From the start, neighbors Chad Hudson and Terri Brandt considered Riley trouble.
"Michelle was evil, vindictive. Manipulative," said Hudson, convinced the teenagers were Riley's powerless minions.