- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — 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, 51, 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, locked in a dank, foul-smelling boiler room on Saturday in north Philadelphia.

Also charged were Eddie “the Rev. Ed” Wright, 50, whom Ms. Weston described as her boyfriend, and Gregory Thomas, 47.

Detectives also 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.

In 1983, a 13-year-old Philadelphia boy testified that his older sister had beaten another sister’s boyfriend with a broomstick and locked him in a closet. The man died of starvation weeks later.

Ms. Weston was convicted of murder, but it’s not clear from court records how much time she spent in prison.

She’s now behind bars in another heinous scheme that echoes the earlier case.

Police suspect Ms. Weston and the two others were keeping the four in squalor while wresting control of their Social Security checks. One victim said he met Ms. Weston through an online dating service.

“That was real dirty of (her). That was wrong,” Derwin McLemire told KWY-TV on Monday. “I escaped one time to one of the house 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 the small apartment house. “Whenever it looked like people knew what was going on, they moved.”

Turgut Gozleveli, the landlord, found the victims Saturday morning after he heard dogs barking in the area. He found the door to the foul-smelling room chained shut. Inside, Mr. Gozleveli lifted a pile of blankets to find several sets of eyes staring back at him. One man was chained to the boiler.

Philadelphia police soon arrested Ms. Weston at her daughter’s apartment upstairs, along with two 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 [been] 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,” Lt. Evers said.

A Florida girl missing since July 4 from West Palm Beach, where neighbors said the group had come from earlier this month, also was located by Philadelphia police. The mother of 15-year-old Benita Rodriguez told WPTV-TV her daughter had been friends with Mr. Thomas’ son. Benita 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.

The victims, a woman and three men, were found in a crawlspace that reeked of urine and was too shallow for an adult to stand up. There were mattresses and blankets, but the only food found was a container of orange juice. The adults shared their space with three dogs.

Mr. 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, ages 29 to 41, had the mental capacity of 10-year-olds, along with some physical disabilities, authorities said. One could barely see.

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 slowly and patiently have been trying to elicit information from the alleged captives. All four were treated at hospitals and placed with social service agencies.

The woman had been reported missing by her family in Philadelphia in 2005, police said. One of the men was also from Philadelphia, and a second one from North Carolina. Their relatives were contacted. Police were having trouble finding family members for the fourth victim, 40-year-old Herbert Knowles.

According to an investigative report obtained by the Associated Press, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Knowles.

Mr. Knowles’ government benefits were stopped at one point after his mail was forwarded to Philadelphia, but Ms. 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 Mr. Knowles because, as an adult, he was under no obligation to report to his case worker.

“It’s not illegal to be missing,” Mr. 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.

In Florida, Ms. Weston and Mr. 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 she 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.

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