2 more teens under protection in Pa. basement case

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Police took two more children into protective custody Wednesday, another step in an intense investigation of four people accused of locking disabled adults in a squalid basement as part of a Social Security fraud scheme.

The case could be among the first of its kind prosecuted as a federal hate crime, according to a law-enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named for two victims of notorious hate-based killings and expands earlier federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation or disability, among other things.

The law has been used sparingly since its passage. The first to go to trial was the case of Frankie Mayberry, of Green Forest, Ark., who was convicted in May of attacking a car last year with five Hispanic men inside it.

Meanwhile, police in Virginia confirmed they investigated the 2008 death of a woman living with Linda Ann Weston, who’s accused of being the ringleader in the Philadelphia basement case and who cleared out of the Norfolk home hours after calling police about the death.

A Virginia death certificate said 39-year-old Maxine Lee died of meningitis but also suffered from a wasting disease.

In Philadelphia, police told reporters a malnourished teenage niece living with Weston had marks suggesting she was burned with a hot spoon and had pellet gun wounds.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before in a living person. It is just remarkable that she is alive,” police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said of Beatrice Weston. “There is no penalty, and I repeat, no penalty that is too harsh for the people who did this.”

In all, eight juveniles and four young adults between the ages 2 to 19 linked to the case have been taken into protective custody.

Police spokesman Lt. Raymond Evers said authorities are conducting DNA tests and obtaining birth certificates to try to determine the nature of the various relationships.

Earlier Wednesday a fourth suspect, Jean McIntosh, 32, the daughter of Linda Weston, was arrested by police.

She, along with Weston, Gregory Thomas, 47, and Eddie “the Reverent Ed” Wright, 50, have been charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other charges.

None of the four could be reached for comment, and efforts to contact Weston’s lawyer were unsuccessful.

Landlord Turgut Gozleveli discovered the victims after he heard dogs barking in the basement. 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.

Ramsey said the case has multiple threads in multiple jurisdictions.

“This is unfolding,” he said. “These are folks who have gone through an awful lot.”

One of the many questions that remains under investigation, Evers said, is whether any female captives were forced into having sex or having children.

Police believe Weston had been stealing their Social Security disability checks, perhaps as part of a much larger fraud scheme. They found dozens of other Social Security and identification cards, along with power of attorney documents, in a search of McIntosh’s apartment, where Weston had been staying.

Weston 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.

Weston remains jailed on $2.5 million bail, along with Thomas, whom she described as her boyfriend, and Wright. They face similar charges.

One of the victims, Knowles, was reported missing in Norfolk, Va., in December 2008. According to a 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 no one by the name of Herbert Knowles lived there. The report showed no sign of a follow-up or any indication the responding officers had any reason not to believe the woman who answered the door.

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.

Chase Scott, a spokesman for West Palm Beach police, said police and code enforcement officers were sent to a house where Weston lived earlier this year several times for relatively minor complaints such as trash or other violations.

Since the arrests were made in Philadelphia, they’ve begun to see if abuse of disabled people occurred in West Palm Beach.

“We don’t know if something criminal occurred there or not,” he said.

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 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 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 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.”

A Social Security spokesman declined to provide details of the agency’s investigation into Weston but said the agency recently strengthened oversight of payees.

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