PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – They were often handcuffed, tethered together with plastic ties and allowed to soil themselves, investigators say. They had scars on their wrists. Some had burns.
None appeared to have more than a fourth-grade education, not even the adults in their 20s. All were starving.
In all, nine teenagers and young adults were held like prisoners in Judith Leekin's home in what appeared to be a decades-long scheme to line her pockets with the government payments she received for adopting and raising them, police say.
From the outside, Leekin's home appeared to be as ordinary as the others in this well-kept working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of this Atlantic coast town, 120 miles north of Miami. But its pink and white stucco exterior hid the horrors inside, authorities say.
"Horrible, I think, would be the best word used to describe what was going on in that house," said police Capt. Scott Bartal.
Investigators have not yet confirmed the identities of the young people and have not established how long Leekin had them. But authorities believe she adopted all of them in New York City under at least five aliases over two decades.
They range in age from 15 to 27. One is blind and mumbles. One can barely walk or stand. One can't read. But authorities said they do not know if the handicaps are a result of the alleged abuse.
The case came to light on July 4, some 200 miles away across the state in St. Petersburg, when police received a call from a grocery store that a teenager was there wandering aimlessly. The 18-year-old woman, who said she has been with Leekin for 13 years, said Leekin drove her there and abandoned her after telling her they were going to an amusement park.
Police and child welfare workers went to Leekin's home, but found nothing awry. Just one child was with her in the house, and Leekin told investigators the 18-year-old ran away a year ago. But police soon returned, and this time they found all the children, who had apparently been hiding on Leekin's orders.
Leekin, 62, was arrested and jailed on 11 charges, including aggravated elder and child abuse. She declined to be interviewed. Her attorney had no comment.
According to authorities, she was unemployed and lived off the monthly stipends provided by child welfare authorities in New York. She owned at least two homes and several cars. The adopted children said they had never seen a doctor or a dentist and had not been allowed to attend school or even leave the house.
"These people have not received any formal education in the time they've been with her," Bartal said. "At times when they were restricted with handcuffs or zip ties, during the night, they soiled themselves because they weren't permitted to go to the bathroom."
They were fed only noodles, and "they would have eventually starved to death," Bartal said.
The 18-year-old told police Leekin threatened to cut her head off if she told anyone what was happening, authorities said.
"Was there any kind of emotional attachment? Yes, it was fear," Bartal said.
Child welfare workers in New York said they are still digging through paperwork to determine how Leekin came to gain custody. It was not until 1999 that New York City child-welfare authorities began fingerprinting adults who adopted children out of foster care.
If Leekin did adopt them in New York City, she could have been making as much as $180,000 a year for a time. Parents who adopt special needs children can get as much as $55 a day.
"If you adopt a child out of the foster care system, you receive a stipend to help with the child's care, to cover clothing and food, and whatever additional costs are involved with caring for the child until the child turns 21," said Sharman Stein, spokeswoman for the New York City Administration for Children's Services.
There is no legal requirement that a person adopting a child from New York City's foster care system live in New York State.
The Florida Department of Children & Families authorities investigated a complaint of child abuse against Leekin in 1999, but the case was later closed. Officials would not give details.
"Right now we're just concentrating on the care of the victims, making sure they get the medical attention and psychological care they need," department spokeswoman Ellen Higinbotham said. "These adults, they're like elderly people, they're frail and vulnerable."
In Leekin's neighborhood, residents said they were shocked.
"You'd think she was your grandmother. There was nothing suspicious at all," neighbor Jim Hammond said. "We never heard anything from over there, no hollering, no screaming. She was just a nice lady."