Federal authorities on Wednesday presented a racketeering indictment against a Philadelphia woman who allegedly enslaved mentally disabled adults to steal their benefit checks, adding hate-crime and murder charges that could expose her to the death penalty.
The crimes alleged in the 196-count indictment against Linda Ann Weston and four others include much of the depravity and sadism that emerged when police found the dirty, emaciated victims locked in a Tacony basement in October 2011.
But the inch-thick document, which followed a yearlong probe, adds stomach-turning details and a new defendant, and casts the crimes in a wider light. Like a mob boss or gang leader, it says, Weston led a decadelong enterprise that targeted the most vulnerable of victims for alleged kidnapping, torture, sex-trafficking, and fraud.
"Shocking does not begin to describe the criminal allegations in this case, where the victims were tied up and confined like zoo animals and treated like property akin to slaves," U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said as he and officials from the FBI, IRS, and other agencies announced the case.
In chilling detail, the indictment describes how Weston befriended one alleged victim on a party line in 2002, then lured her into prolonged and ultimately lethal captivity.
Weston and her associates starved and drugged the woman, previously identified as Maxine Lee, the indictment says, and routinely beat her with bats and sticks as they shuttled her and others from state to state to avoid detection and keep collecting disability checks.
In 2008, her captors allegedly stuffed Lee, then 39, into a cabinet under a kitchen sink in their Norfolk, Va., apartment. After Lee broke the cabinet door, Weston forced her to strip and locked her in the attic, where Lee slept naked on fiberglass insulation and was rarely fed, prosecutors said.
Malnourished and suffering from bacterial meningitis, Lee died in the apartment in November 2008. Weston then allegedly directed the others to move the body to a clean bedroom and arrange the scene to make it appear to police that Lee died naturally in bed.
Prosecutors charged Weston with murder in aid of racketeering in Lee's death and in the June 2005 death of another woman, Donna Spadea, in a Philadelphia apartment. Because of those charges, prosecutors could seek the death penalty for Weston, Memeger said.
Spadea, who, like the others, is identified by only her initials in the indictment, had recently been released from a mental health facility when Weston and Weston's boyfriend, Gregory Thomas Sr., allegedly picked her up in spring 2005 on a Frankford corner and persuaded her to live with them.
Within weeks, Weston arranged to begin collecting the Social Security disability benefits Spadea had been receiving since 1985, according to authorities. Weston cashed the first check two weeks after finding Spadea dead in the laundry room at their apartment in the 2200 block of Glenview Road, authorities say.
More than 140 of the charges against Weston are fraud counts related to her alleged cashing and stealing benefit checks. Investigators, including officials from the Social Security Administration Inspector General's Office, concluded that Weston took more than $212,000 through the scheme, and also made money by forcing her captives into prostitution.
The indictment was announced five days before Weston and her codefendants were scheduled to be tried in Common Pleas Court on kidnapping, assault, and other charges.
A spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams said those charges would be dropped.
Weston's lawyer, George Yacoubian, said that he knew that federal charges were looming against his client but he had not yet seen the indictment. He called the case "a reach."
Yacoubian said he expected to challenge the suggestion that Weston kidnapped her alleged victims and that they did not go willingly with her. He also looked forward to seeing evidence related to the murder accusations.
"I think this is going to be a very difficult case for them to prove," he said.
Weston, 53, said little as she made a brief appearance in federal court. Cuffed and wearing a black sweat suit, she cracked a half-smile at Thomas, her former boyfriend and alleged accomplice, as a court officer led her past him to a defense table. Jailed since her arrest 14 months ago, she is named in all but two counts in the indictment, and is the only defendant accused of murder.
Judge Thomas J. Rueter ordered her, Thomas, and codefendants Eddie Wright and Jean McIntosh held for arraignment and a bail hearing on Monday.
The others face up to life in prison for crimes including racketeering, kidnapping, involuntary servitude, and hate crimes. Prosecutors said it was the first time a defendant had been charged under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act for an alleged crime against a mentally disabled person.
Prosecutors described McIntosh, Weston's daughter, as "her mother's right-hand woman" and a coleader of the enterprise. Wright and Thomas' job was to confine, transport, and discipline the captives, they said.
A fifth defendant, Nicklaus Woodard, was arrested Wednesday in Florida.
Woodard had not been charged in the Common Pleas Court case. Authorities described him as an enforcer Weston enlisted at a home she used in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Woodard, they say, beat and pistol-whipped one victim, previously identified as Derwin McLemire, and threatened to shoot him after he tried to flee.
According to the indictment, Weston had McLemire locked in a closet under a staircase, fed him once a day, forced him to drink his own urine, and directed others to unleash a pit bull on him. The dog bit off half his right ear, authorities said.
John Brosnan, the acting special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia office, said the indictment "represents just one more step toward closure and healing, not only for the victims of this heinous hate crime but for the community as a whole."