NBCPhiladelphia.com - Deanna Durante
4 mentally disabled adults found in a basement were being held captive in a theft scam. They were kept in horrible conditions, one man was even found chained to a boiler.
A woman convicted in the starvation death of a man nearly 30 years ago is facing charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment for allegedly preying on four mentally disabled adults, locking them in a basement and wresting control of their Social Security disability checks.
Linda Ann Weston was charged Monday with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offenses, with bail set at $2.5 million after her landlord stumbled upon the four adults, all weak and malnourished, in a dank, foul-smelling boiler room on Saturday.
Also charged were Eddie “the Rev. Ed” Wright, 50, whom Weston described as her boyfriend, and Gregory Thomas, 47.
Detectives found dozens of ID cards, power-of-attorney forms and other documents in the apartment, suggesting the alleged theft scheme involved more than just the four captives.
Weston has a criminal record. In 1983, a 13-year-old Philadelphia boy testified that Weston, his older sister, had beaten another sister's boyfriend with a broomstick and imprisoned him in a closet in 1981 after the man said he would not support the sister's unborn child. The man died of starvation weeks later.
After initially being ruled incompetent to stand trial, Weston began serving time in state prison on a third-degree murder charge on June 7, 1985. She was paroled on Jan. 15, 1987, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
She's now behind bars in another heinous scheme that echoes the earlier case.
Police identified the victims as Derwin McLemire, 41, of Florida; Herbert Knowles, 40 of Virginia; and two Philadelphia residents, 29-year-old Tamara Breeden and 31-year-old Edwin Sanabria.
Police suspect Weston, 51, and the other suspects were keeping them in squalor while taking their Social Security checks. One victim said he met Weston through an online dating service.
“That was real dirty of (her). That was wrong,” McLemire told KWY-TV on Monday. “I escaped one time to one of the houses that we used to live in, of hers, and I didn't get away so they got me.”
He and two others told the station they had been on the move for about a year with their alleged captors, traveling from Texas to Florida to Philadelphia.
“They moved them around,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said Monday after examining the boiler room-turned-dungeon inside a small apartment house. “Whenever it looked like people knew what was going on, they moved.”
Landlord Turgut Gozleveli discovered the victims Saturday morning after he heard dogs barking in the area. The door to the basement room was chained shut, but Gozleveli managed to get inside, lifting a pile of blankets to find several sets of eyes staring back at him. One man was chained to the boiler.
The crawlspace reeked of urine and was too shallow for an adult to stand up. There were mattresses, blankets, buckets for using the bathroom, and a container of orange juice. The adults shared their space with three dogs.
Gozleveli called police, suspecting they were squatters, then watched as officers and ambulance workers helped them up the steps to the street in a working-class section of the city's Tacony neighborhood.
The victims had the mental capacity of 10-year-olds, along with some physical disabilities, authorities said. One could barely see.
Philadelphia police soon arrested Weston at her daughter's apartment upstairs, along with the two other men.
“Without a doubt. This is just the beginning of this investigation,” Lt. Ray Evers said Monday. “She's been out of jail for a period of time, and we think she's being doing this for quite some time.”
Exactly how long, how much money the scheme brought in, precisely how the disabled were deceived, and how many people in all were victimized are still unclear, investigators said. The FBI has joined the investigation.
“Talk about preying on the weak and weary,” Evers said.
A Florida girl missing since July 4 from West Palm Beach, where neighbors said the group had come from earlier this month, was also located by Philadelphia police. The mother of 15-year-old Benita Rodriguez told WPTV-TV her daughter had been friends with Thomas' son. Rodriguez was not in the basement with the adults and it wasn't clear how she connects to the case.
As of Monday, the defendants did not appear to have lawyers.
Neighbors said the defendants and their alleged captives had arrived in an SUV from West Palm Beach about two weeks ago, though it does not appear the victims spent the entire time in the basement.
Danyell “Nicky” Tisdale, a block captain in the neighborhood, said that about a week ago, a man and woman and four mentally disabled adults held a yard sale, selling piles of shoes, jackets and other clothing on the sidewalk.
Since the arrests, police have slowly and patiently been trying to elicit information from the alleged captives. All four were treated at hospitals and placed with social service agencies.
Breeden had been reported missing by her family in Philadelphia in 2005, police said. Relatives of McLemire and Sanabria were contacted. Police were having trouble finding family members for Knowles.
According to an investigative report obtained by The Associated Press, Knowles was reported missing in Norfolk, Va., in December 2008 after a mental health case worker couldn't reach him and family members failed to hear from him.
The case worker reported that Knowles' Social Security checks were going to a Philadelphia address. The report said Philadelphia police went by the address and were told no one there had ever heard of Knowles.
Knowles' government benefits were stopped at one point after his mail was forwarded to Philadelphia, but Weston took the man to a Philadelphia social service agency in 2008 and showed identification, and the checks resumed, Norfolk police said.
Norfolk police spokesman Chris Amos said police did not continue looking for Knowles because as an adult he was under no obligation to report to his case worker.
“It's not illegal to be missing,” Amos said. “A lot of people are missing by choice.”
Scam artists can get control of a disabled person's checks by visiting the Social Security office with the victim, who then designates the other person to receive the payments, said Nora J. Baladerian, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and advocate for people with disabilities.
Only if there is a report of suspected abuse would social service agencies enter the picture, she said.
The Social Security Administration gave NBC10 this statement on Tuesday afternoon:
We are very concerned about this situation. As this is an ongoing investigation, we can't provide you any details at this time. Despite our limited resources, we have recently strengthened our oversight of organizational payees, such as contracting with protection and advocacy groups to evaluate the performance of representative payees. You may also want to contact the SSA Inspector General's office.
In Florida, Weston and Thomas appeared to live with several disabled adults, including a man and woman who had bruises on their faces, neighbors in a poor section of West Palm Beach said. The woman also had what looked like a large burn mark on her face, neighbor Ronald Bass said.
He said he often heard yelling, apparently from the disabled women, and that police frequently went to the house.
Another neighbor, Sadie Pollard, said she saw bruised lips and other facial injuries on the disabled people, but was told they had been fighting with each other.
Mark Riordan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said a search of its databases as well as vital statistics and school records, found no record of the alleged perpetrators, the victims, or the children who lived with them.
“This family has clearly led a nomadic lifestyle and had become quite adept living beneath the radar. Until now,” he said.
Associated Press Writers Randy Pennell and JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia, Dena Potter in Richmond and Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach contributed to this report.