(MCT) — PHILADELPHIA — Federal authorities on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping racketeering indictment against the 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 outlined in the 196-count indictment against Linda Ann Weston and four others include much of the same depravity and sadism that first emerged when police found the dirty, emaciated victims locked in a Philadelphia basement in October 2011.
But the inch-thick document, which followed a yearlong probe, added stomach-turning details, a new defendant and cast the crimes in a wider light. Like a mob boss or gang leader, it said, Weston led a decadelong enterprise that targeted the most vulnerable of victims for 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 D. Memeger said as he and officials from the FBI, IRS and other agencies announced the case.
In chilling detail, the indictment described how Weston befriended one alleged victim on a party line in 2002, then lured her into a prolonged and ultimately lethal captivity.
Weston and her associates starved and drugged the woman, previously identified as Maxine Lee, the indictment said, and routinely beat her with bats and sticks as they shuttled her and others from state to state to avoid detection and keep collecting their 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 apartment 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 her body to a clean bedroom and arrange the scene to make it appear to police that Lee naturally died in bed.
Prosecutors charged Weston with murder in aid of racketeering for Lee’s death, and for the June 2005 death of a second woman, Donna Spadea, in a Philadelphia apartment. Because of those charges, prosecutors could seek a death penalty for Weston, Memeger said.
Spadea, who like the others is identified only by her initials in the indictment, had recently been released from a mental health facility when Weston and her boyfriend, Gregory Thomas Sr., allegedly picked her up in spring 2005 on a Philadelphia 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. She cashed the first check two weeks after finding Spadea dead in a laundry room at their apartment, authorities say.
More than 140 of the charges against Weston are fraud counts related to her cashing and stealing benefit checks. Investigators, which included officials from the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General’s Office, concluded she took more than $212,000 in the scheme, and also made money by forcing hostages into prostitution.
The indictment came five days before Weston and her co-defendants were scheduled to be tried in Philadelphia 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 he knew federal charges were looming against his client but had not yet had seen the indictment. Still, he called the case “a reach.”
Yacoubian said he expected to challenge the suggestion that Weston kidnapped her alleged victims and that they didn’t 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 sweatsuit, 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 the only defendant accused of murder.
Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter ordered her, Thomas and co-defendants 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 a crime against a mentally disabled person.
Prosecutors described McIntosh, who is Weston’s daughter, as “her mother’s right-hand woman” and a co-leader of the enterprise. Wright and Thomas’ job was to confine and transport the captives, they said.
A fifth defendant, Nicklaus Woodard, was arrested Wednesday in Florida.
Woodard had not been charged in the Common Pleas 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.”