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Pictured from left, Terry Knope, Bridget Lambert, Jody Lambert, Raylaine Knope and Taylor Knope

HAMMOND — The 22-year-old autistic woman held captive in an outdoor cage in Amite and forced into prostitution may have been living in her unimaginably squalid conditions for nine months before deputies rescued her last week, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards said Friday.

Investigators found the woman — whom Edwards described as having the functional capacity of a minor — malnourished, covered in insect bites and living in a shrub-covered, 6-by-8-foot cage outside a Rushing Lane home, with all her belongings, a small bowl of spoiled food, a mattress and a 5-gallon bucket in which to defecate.

Her captors — Edwards said they are “somewhat related” to the woman but declined to elaborate so as not to identify the victim — had forced the woman to perform sexual acts on several people and had planned to take her to a specific location for sexual acts with “a large group of people” in exchange for the captors receiving money, the sheriff said.

“The lesson here, as far as I can tell, is that there are some very sick individuals in this world, and there are some sick individuals within Tangipahoa Parish,” Edwards said. “Human trafficking doesn’t discriminate. It exists in Shreveport. It exists in New Orleans. It exists in Tangipahoa Parish. It exists in St. Tammany Parish. It exists everywhere there are people.”

Frequently kept locked in the cage and threatened with her life if she ever escaped, the woman appeared to have lost about 60 pounds during her captivity, Edwards said.

Arrested on counts of human trafficking and cruelty to the infirm are Terry Knope, 43; Raylaine Knope, 40; Taylor Knope, 18; Jody Lambert, 21; and Bridget Lambert, 19.

All five remained in the Tangipahoa Parish Prison on Friday in lieu of $150,000 bail each, sheriff’s spokeswoman Dawn Panepinto said.

The woman was taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment, then placed in the care and custody of Louisiana Department of Health’s Adult Protective Services.

Four minor children, ages 7 and younger, also were removed from the home and placed in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, Edwards said.

The sheriff said the children did not appear malnourished, but he could not say whether they had been sexually abused. Investigators have reason to believe the children witnessed some of the treatment of the 22-year-old woman, he said.

Edwards, visibly shaken throughout the news conference Friday, said he could not imagine the degree of trauma the woman must have suffered.

“To live in these conditions, anywhere in the world, is unacceptable,” he said. “In the United States, it’s unimaginable.”

Investigators believe the woman had been forcibly held in the outdoor hovel since at least October, following her mother’s death in August, Edwards said. They do not believe she was abused while her mother was alive.

The Sheriff’s Office received nonspecific information about the woman’s living conditions from a concerned citizen on June 26 and, through surveillance and interviews with witnesses, gathered enough evidence for the June 30 search warrant that led to her rescue.

Edwards said additional charges could be forthcoming, though he did not expect additional arrests, as his office works with the state Attorney General’s Office to uncover further evidence on a computer found in the home.

Detectives also are working with the Louisiana State Police’s Special Victims Unit.

Follow Heidi Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.