Respected entrepreneurs or slick scammers?
The Liberian immigrants who packed the bail hearing for Vickson Korlewala and his wife, Lorpu, were incredulous. The couple they knew as respected entrepreneurs stood accused of swindling elderly women. Compounding the disbelief: doubts about the evidence.
The Liberian immigrants who packed the bail hearing for Vickson Korlewala and his wife, Lorpu, were incredulous.
The couple they knew as respected entrepreneurs stood accused of swindling elderly women. Compounding the disbelief: doubts about the evidence.
"Does the bank's surveillance photo look like this man?" asked Borsu Jallah, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the photo released by police next to a snapshot of Vickson Korlewala supplied by his family. "It's not him."
For the close-knit community of Liberians in Southeastern Pennsylvania - more than 15,000 people, comprising one of the largest Liberian groups in the United States - the prosecution of the popular couple is traumatic.
These immigrants who went through the anguish of two civil wars from 1989 to 2003 say that having confidence in a secure criminal justice system here is paramount.
Never before arrested, the Korlewalas are charged with robbery and assault for a March incident in which police say they kidnapped an 80-year-old woman, drove her to her bank near Philadelphia International Airport, and forced her to withdraw $8,000.
A spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said two witnesses had identified both defendants from photos. Lt. John Walker of Southwest Detectives said a green Saturn sedan owned by the Korlewalas matches the description of one used by the perpetrators as does a brown trench coat seized from their house.
Supporters say they will again pack the courtroom at a status hearing Friday, where a judge is expected to order lineups.
Born in Liberia and naturalized as Americans, Vickson, 57, and Lorpu, 51, Korlewala are longtime residents of West Philadelphia. He is a former professor of chemistry in his homeland, and president of EcoPower Liberia, which supplies Africa with small electricity generators fueled by burning coconut shells. She runs a hair-braiding salon at their home near 55th and Market Streets.
About 45 T-shirt-wearing supporters flooded the Criminal Justice Center last week, where Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Ehrlich granted a motion to reduce the Korlewalas' bail. Jailed since April 2, they were released last Wednesday after supporters posted the required $50,000.
The Liberian Association of Pennsylvania jumped to their aid, distributing the shirts and raising money. Kevin Mincey, an experienced defense attorney, was hired.
Outwardly, the community is unified. A prayer service at Faith-Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Lansdowne on Sunday drew 100 people and raised $2,000 for the defense.
In conversation, some Liberians advise caution.
"Every time the [Liberian Association] steps up for something like this, there is a risk," said member Vera Tolbert. "There are people who will say, 'I'm not putting my neck out for them ... with the risk of looking like an idiot' " if they get convicted. We take an oath to represent our community, which is why we cautiously step up."
And there is another case.
The Korlewalas also are charged in a February incident in which a man and a woman abducted a 92-year-old woman in Center City and forced her to withdraw $1,200 from her bank, police say.
Some local Liberians struggle to rationalize their image of the couple with the picture of con artists presented by police.
Preying on the elderly "is a crime against society," Walker said Monday. Earlier, he had said, "Any time we have an elderly victim that someone has taken advantage of ... we charge pretty hard to get these people off the street."
Doubt about the bank's surveillance photo may prove inconsequential, said Voffee Jabateh, the Liberia-born director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, a Southwest Philadelphia nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees resettle here.
"But if there is other evidence that we have not seen," he said, "I don't want us to get caught up in an assurance of innocence without all the facts."
Still, he said, "given the character of the man I know, these charges seem way out of focus."
The 80-year-old victim, whom police have declined to identify, reportedly told investigators she was walking on Market near 55th when a woman claiming to have money for her approached. The older woman waved her off. Then a man appeared with the same story. When the woman tried to leave, she said, he pushed her into a car driven by a woman.
In separate interviews at the church Sunday, the Korlewalas said they were not involved in any of that.
"The Korlewalas would never do this," said Kulubozomo Gbolle-Weefaa, a biomedical technologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Philadelphia, who was a groomsman at the couple's wedding.
Weefaa said he and Vickson Korlewala share membership in a local association of Liberians from Lofa, one of the country's 15 counties.
He said Korlewala is a strong booster of Liberia's A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine, travels to the country several times a year on business, and once arranged a donation of scientific books for the school in Monrovia.
The Korlewalas "are innocent," opined Ambrose Taplah of Upper Darby in a forum of the Liberian website Front Page Africa. "Yes, some Liberians are bad. ... I make no excuse, but not this couple."
Speaking at the church Sunday, the Rev. John K. Jallah, a visiting pastor, said: "Police are doing a job, a dangerous job. We need to keep them in our prayers. ... Our prayer is that the law will vindicate the Korlewalas."