NBCPhiladelphia.com - Katy Zachry
Basement 'Ringleader' Linda Weston is facing even more charges for allegedly keeping four mentally disabled adults captive in her basement.
The woman accused of imprisoning disabled adults in a squalid Philadelphia basement is facing more charges in what authorities say was a violent scheme of abuse and oppression to fraudulently gain access to government benefits.
Linda Ann Weston entered a Philadelphia courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit for a preliminary hearing on charges filed after four mentally disabled adults were discovered behind a chained door in October. Prosecutors began Monday's hearing by adding more charges dating back to 2002.
Weston is charged with kidnapping and other offenses. Also charged are her daughter and two men police say preyed on young and infirm.
A mentally disabled man said he had nowhere else to go in 2001 when he and his high school sweetheart moved in with a paroled killer -- who had starved a man to death in her closet.
A decade later, Edwin Sanabria, 31, and Tamara Breeden, 29, were found emaciated and sporting dozens of scars between them, according to photographs shown in court on Monday. Breeden bears most of them, with scars, welts and bruises marking most of her body, especially her scalp, along with her cauliflower ears.
Spectators gasped Monday when grim hospital photographs of the couple and two other victims were shown in court at the preliminary hearing of Weston, the convicted killer who's accused of kidnapping disabled adults in a widespread fraud and abuse scheme.
Sanabria, the first victim to testify, said Weston took him to a Social Security office soon after he moved in and took over his financial affairs. He said he never again saw his $674 monthly Social Security checks or food stamp card.
Police said they found dozens of identification cards, Social Security cards, power of attorney papers and other forms when they arrested Weston, who also had taken in a disabled niece who received government benefits.
Sanabria, along with Breeden and others, moved with Weston and other people among Philadelphia and Killeen, Texas, West Palm Beach, Fla., and Norfolk, Va., over the past decade. They often were one step ahead of stiffed landlords or the law, according to investigators in Philadelphia, who arrested Weston and three other people on Oct. 15, the day a landlord said he stumbled upon Sanabria, Breeden and two other people in a basement boiler room.
One of the disabled men was chained to a boiler, behind a door with a chain on the outside. Sanabria testified that they had been kept there for 10 days, using a bucket for a bathroom and being fed just once or twice a day. Weston's daughter had an apartment upstairs.
Sanabria spent several exhausting hours on the witness stand Monday, describing the years he spent with Weston and a crew that, by his account, became family. Under questioning from Weston's lawyer, he conceded that he was never forced to move with them or give her control of his finances.
“Everybody moved as if you were a family, right?” Weston attorney George S. Yacoubian Jr. asked.
“Right,” Sanabria replied.
“At any point during the last 10 years when you were living with Linda, did you ever scream for help?” the lawyer asked.
“No,” he replied.
But he said he was not allowed to go outside without permission and was typically kept in a locked basement, attic or closet.
Weston's boyfriend, Gregory Thomas, adult daughter, Jean McIntosh, and Eddie “the Reverend Ed” Wright also are charged in the case.
Sanabria testified that Weston, Thomas and, less often, Wright beat some of the victims with bare hands or weapons that included bats, chains and extension cords.
Wright did so at Weston's command, Sanabria said. And he acknowledged that he, too, frequently beat Breeden and fellow victim Drwin McLemire when Weston told him to.
Sanabria had three children with Breeden, including a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy who lived with the group in recent years. But he did not know the girl, nicknamed Little L, for Little Linda, was his daughter until he read it in a newspaper, which reported the results of DNA tests done on children taken in by authorities after the arrests, he said. He had been told his daughter had died and the girl was Weston's, he said.
“I didn't understand she was mine,” Sanabria testified.
The preliminary hearing was set to continue Tuesday with testimony from two more witnesses, perhaps some of the other victims. The others include Herbert Knowles, 40, of Norfolk, Va., and McLemire, 41, of North Carolina.
More than a dozen relatives of the victims, including Breeden's two aunts and a sister, attended the hearing. They said her health is improving but declined to say where she is staying. The victims had initially been in protective custody.
“That's horrible to treat a human being like an animal,” Sanabria's half-brother, Guillermo Burgos, of Willow Grove, said during a break. “The next step would have been to kill them.”
The suspects, all from Philadelphia, remain in custody. They haven't entered pleas. Weston showed little emotion during the hearing, looking bored at times, although McIntosh frequently suggested to her lawyer that he challenge the testimony.
Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dugan will determine Tuesday if there's enough evidence to send the case to trial. The charges include kidnapping, aggravated assault, custodial interference, theft by deception and neglect of a care-dependent person.
The victims have the mental capacity of 10-year-olds, authorities have said.
Police Officer John Murphy testified Monday about finding them and leading them out after the landlord cut Knowles' chain. He said they seemed unaccustomed to the daylight.
“The stench in the room and on their person was unbearable,” Murphy said.
Asked to describe it, he said, “Basically, death.”