PHILADELPHIA » Authorities in at least two states missed opportunities to help four mentally disabled adults who were discovered locked in a squalid Philadelphia basement while police say a convicted murderer stole their Social Security checks.
Linda Weston, the woman charged with orchestrating the scheme, was legally disqualified from cashing the victims’ government disability checks because of her criminal past.
But she apparently did anyway, enabled in part by a lack of accountability and follow-through by government agencies and police in Philadelphia and West Palm Beach, Fla.
Weston, 51, was charged Monday with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offenses after her landlord stumbled on the four adults, all weak and malnourished, in a dank, foul-smelling boiler room over the weekend. Her bail was set at $2.5 million.
Also charged were Gregory Thomas, 47, whom Weston described as her boyfriend, and Eddie "the Rev. Ed" Wright, 50.
The three remained jailed Tuesday and couldn’t be reached for comment. A lawyer for Weston didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment.
Also Tuesday, Philadelphia police — acting on a tip from Florida authorities — searched for and took into protective custody six juveniles and four young adults believed to be related to the suspects and possibly the victims.
Police spokesman Lt. Raymond Evers said the 2- to 16-year-old children and 18- to 19-year-old young adults were being medically evaluated. The 19-year-old, identified as a niece of Weston, was found malnourished and with signs of abuse, Evers said.
The case began Saturday morning when landlord Turgut Gozleveli discovered the victims after he heard dogs barking. The door to the basement room was chained shut, but Gozleveli got inside and lifted a pile of blankets to find several sets of eyes staring back at him. One man was chained to the boiler.
Police identified the victims as Derwin McLemire, 41, of North Carolina; Herbert Knowles, 40 of Virginia; and Tamara Breeden, 29, and Edwin Sanabria, 31, both of Philadelphia.
Detectives also found dozens of identification cards, power-of-attorney forms and other documents. Philadelphia police formed a task force to investigate the case as authorities try to find as many as 50 more possible fraud victims, Officer Jillian Russell said.
Knowles was reported missing in Norfolk in December 2008. According to an investigatory report by Norfolk police, Knowles’ mental health case worker reported him missing when she couldn’t reach him and family members failed to hear from him.
The case worker, who did not return a call from The Associated Press, 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.
A Philadelphia police report shows that officers knocked on the door on Dec. 5, 2008, and the woman who answered said that no one by the name of Herbert Knowles lived there, said Russell, the department spokeswoman. The report showed no sign of a follow-up or any indication that the responding officers had any reason to disbelieve the woman who answered the door, Russell said.
Knowles was found last weekend in the basement of a different house, chained to the boiler.
Norfolk police spokesman Chris Amos said authorities did not continue looking for Knowles because, as an adult, he was under no obligation to report to the case worker.
"It’s not illegal to be missing," Amos said. "A lot of people are missing by choice."
Douglas Thomassen, the Norfolk police officer who filed the missing-persons report, told the AP on Tuesday that police lacked evidence that any crime had been committed at the Philadelphia address to which the Social Security checks were rerouted.
"I don’t know what Philadelphia police could have done," said Thomassen, who’s now retired. "You can’t barge in."
Ella Davis, Knowles’ grandmother, told WTKR-TV he likely was an easy target because of his mental disability.
"He was a trusting person. You know if you told him something, he would believe it. I tried to get him to not have that kind of confidence in people," Davis said. "He thought everyone was his friend and act like his friends. That’s the way he was."
Police in West Palm Beach, where Weston lived earlier this year with the four mentally disabled adults, also missed a chance to crack the case.
Chase Scott, a spokesman for the West Palm Beach police, said officers were dispatched to the house several times for complaints about trash and code violations.
Investigators said they’re trying to piece together details of Weston’s scheme, including how long it went on, how much money it brought in and how many people in all were victimized. The FBI has joined the probe.
Weston had been convicted in the starvation death of a man nearly 30 years ago, though it’s unclear how much prison time she served.
The Social Security Protection Act of 2004 generally bars people who have been imprisoned for more than a year from becoming representative payees, those who cash someone else’s check. Yet a 2010 report by Social Security’s watchdog found that staff members do not perform background checks to determine if payees have criminal records.
The report from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General said that people who apply to become payees are supposed to answer a question on whether they’ve ever been convicted of an offense and imprisoned for more than a year. But the report noted that the agency recognizes that self-reporting of such information "is not always reliable."
The inspector general said that in the cases it reviewed, about 6 percent of non-relative payees had been imprisoned for longer than a year and "may pose a risk to the beneficiaries they serve."
Maureen Westcott, public policy advocate for adult issues with the Arc of Pennsylvania, an organization that benefits people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, said of the Social Security report that background checks might be a good idea, but the issue ought to be studied first.
"Always what we say when they go to do these policy changes (is) you really need to have advocates at the table," she told the AP. "It would be a good thing to suggest they investigate the use of background checks."
In Philadelphia, neighbors said Weston lived with Thomas, one of the other suspects, in the northeast section of the city several years ago, with four kids of their own and a girl, 11 or 12, introduced as her niece.
The woman who now lives in the house, Anna Rotondo, said Tuesday that Social Security statements in the names of various people were delivered to her house for years after she began living there in 2005. Rotondo said she notified the post office and the Social Security office but nothing was ever done.
Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle declined to provide details of the agency’s investigation into Weston but said the agency recently strengthened oversight of payees.
"We are very concerned about this situation," Hinkle said via email.
Next-door neighbor Kathy Ritterson said the children in Weston’s home were often verbally abused. Ritterson said she called police "because we heard the mom beating them," while other neighbors called social services agencies. Ritterson said she never saw any sign of mentally handicapped adults.
"I can’t believe they would let her have handicapped people when she already murdered someone," Ritterson said.