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.
Dorothy Dixon ate what she could forage from the refrigerator upstairs, where prosecutors say 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, authorities say, 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 Lt. 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 Dixson 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, her daughter, Woods and 16-year-old Benny Wilson have public defenders who did not immediately return messages for comment. An 18-year-old defendant, Michael Elliott, planned to get his own attorney, court records show.
All remain in jail on $1 million bond.
Messages left with a Chicago-area sister of Dixon went unreturned, but neighbors, Hayes and newspaper accounts offer a mosaic of the months leading to Dixon's demise inside the small, white, blue-shuttered house.
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.
"She was angry, vicious," added Brandt.
'Shocking' turn of events
Riley considered Dixon her slave, making her rub Riley's feet until Riley fell asleep and forcing her to run naked around the house when she got in trouble, the neighbors said.
"Being in their house was like being in a prison day room," Hudson said. "They just sat around the kitchen table and fought."
There was little question that Riley ruled the roost.
While doing fix-ups on the home last fall, landlord Steve Atkins saw Riley "barking orders" at the children and everyone else. Atkins joked to her whether he needed to call the Army and see if they wanted their drill sergeant back.
"She didn't laugh about it at all," Atkins said. "Obviously, I hit a nerve."
Atkins said Dixon generally kept to herself "but was always nice when she spoke to you." He saw no hints she'd been suffering or tortured.
"I would have never, ever suspected something like this," he said. "It's definitely shocking."
Police said Dixon was allowed out of the house but didn't say under what conditions. Hayes didn't know who the father of Dixon's fetus is.
Hayes said things apparently came to a head Jan. 30, when investigators believe that Woods, during a dispute, beat Dixon on the head with an object Hayes wouldn't identify. The next day Woods found her dead.
Hayes watched the autopsy and found her injuries disturbing. X-rays revealed roughly 30 BBs lodged in her. Deep-tissue burns covered about one-third of her body - her face, her chest, her arms and feet - and left her severely dehydrated. Her face and body showed signs of prolonged abuse. Many of her wounds were infected.
None of the injuries, Hayes said, proved singly fatal to Dixon. Her system already was taxed by her unborn baby.
"The autopsy sort of indicates her immune system just shut down," he said. "It was not capable of fending off any more."
In the rental home's basement, Atkins said, he found spots of blood in a shower and tiny smears on the concrete floor, washer and dryer.
"It's disgraceful the way this girl died, as kind and as sweet as this girl was," he said. "She didn't deserve to die the way she did. It's just terrible, senseless. It's just a total shame."