A judge dismissed charges Tuesday against one of four people in an alleged kidnapping scheme that ended with the discovery of four mentally challenged adults locked in a Tacony basement in October.
Testimony from several witnesses in a two-day preliminary hearing in Common Pleas Court indicated that Eddie Ray Wright was a victim of alleged ringleader Linda Ann Weston, not the accomplice that prosecutors and police had alleged, said Judge Patrick Dugan.
Assistant District Attorney Erin O'Brien had argued that Wright acted as a bodyguard and jailer on Weston's behalf, sometimes abusing the other captives when she demanded it.
But witnesses testified that Wright, 50, slept in the same foul basement where the four victims were discovered Oct. 15, and that Weston was collecting his Social Security benefits. Beatrice Weston, Weston's niece, testified Tuesday that when Weston ordered Wright to do something, "He never said no to her."
"I cannot in good conscience hold Mr. Wright for trial," Dugan said. "When he was in Philadelphia, he was one of the victims."
Weston, 51, was ordered held for trial along with her boyfriend, Gregory Thomas, 48, and her daughter, Jean McIntosh, 32. They are charged with kidnapping, conspiracy, assault, theft by deception, and related charges.
Wright, a street preacher who met Weston in Texas, will be freed within the next day or two, said his attorney, Louis D'Onofrio. Asked if Wright would testify against Weston and the others, D'Onofrio said, "I'm not going to speculate on that."
Much of Tuesday's testimony came from Beatrice Weston, who police said was kidnapped by Weston as a child and subjected to years of physical torture. She was one of the people Weston brought to McIntosh's apartment building in Tacony about two weeks before her arrest.
While the four mentally challenged adults spent about two weeks living in the dark basement boiler room, one chained to a pipe, Beatrice Weston said she was crammed into an alcove in a bathroom closet in McIntosh's apartment. She said Weston and McIntosh pushed her in, locked the door, and from then on fed her once a day or not at all.
When Assistant District Attorney Cheryl Yankolonis asked whether anyone ever spoke to her there, Beatrice Weston replied, "I did hear Jean [McIntosh] say, 'Don't you wish that you were out of this closet, taking a hot shower like me?' "
Linda Weston is a convicted murderer who starved to death her sister's 25-year-old boyfriend in a closet 30 years ago. After serving about four years in prison, authorities believe she began targeting vulnerable people, coercing them to sign over their government checks to her and moving them around the country to escape detection.
Wearing an oversize orange prison jumpsuit and with her hair in braids, Weston appeared thin as she sat silently in court this week. At times she appeared to listen intently to testimony, and at other times stared into space.
After testimony concluded, Dugan described the case as "something similar to a real-life horror movie."
"You hear stories of people being chained, being whipped - treatment we don't tolerate for animals," he said. "If somebody's walking four or five emaciated dogs, someone calls the cops."
Her voice steady and defiant, Beatrice Weston testified that when she moved in with her aunt at age 10, her life became a living hell.
Linda Weston started viciously abusing her and locking her in the basement, she said. Asked to recall in which years she suffered abuse, Beatrice Weston said, "Every grade I was in, I would get hurt."
When she was about 11, she said, Linda Weston took her to a psychiatrist and told her to "act crazy" so that Weston could start getting Social Security. When she was denied, she said, Weston beat her as a punishment.
Linda Weston pulled her out of school after seventh or eighth grade, she said, and she was never allowed to return.
Weston began moving her from state to state, along with Thomas, their children, and several mentally challenged adults who were by then living with Weston. Everywhere they went, the abuse continued. One of Linda Weston's boyfriends hit her with a metal bat and his gun, Beatrice Weston said, knocking her teeth out. She was punched, whipped, hit with a broomstick. One of Weston's daughters burned her on the back of her neck with a hot fork, she said, and Weston burned her with a hot spoon.
The apartments were sometimes locked from the outside, Beatrice Weston said. Other times, she was confined to places such as a closet or attic.
In Texas, Beatrice Weston testified, Linda Weston started calling a "party line" and arranging for strange men to come to the house and have sex with Beatrice and Tamara Breeden, one of the people who was found in the basement. Beatrice Weston said she was 16 or 17 at the time.
"She would tell us to have sex with the men and get the money from them," Beatrice Weston said.
After the group moved to Philadelphia in October, in an SUV with blankets covering the back windows so that she and others could not see out, she said, Linda Weston and McIntosh threw a jacket over her head and took her upstairs to McIntosh's closet.
McIntosh brought her out after police discovered the basement dungeon Oct. 15, Beatrice Weston said, and told her to tell police that she didn't know Linda Weston and to give them a fake name. Police tracked her down several days later, she said.
Earlier in the day, Dugan heard testimony from Benita Rodriguez, a 15-year-old from West Palm Beach, Fla., who ran away in July to live with her boyfriend, a teenage son of Thomas and Weston. Rodriguez traveled to Texas with the family before ending up in Philadelphia.
Rodriguez said that she never saw any of the people who ended up in the basement, but she did hear McIntosh say that she needed to put a lock on the door of the bathroom closet.