PHILADELPHIA – For years, paroled murderer Linda Ann Weston marched several mentally challenged adults into Social Security offices to sign off as their representative payee, someone who helps manage their monthly benefits of about $600 to $900, authorities say.
Weston, once deemed mentally unfit to stand trial, was arrested last week after a Philadelphia landlord found four malnourished, mentally disabled adults in her care in a basement crawl space, one chained to a boiler. They later found her burned, badly abused teenage niece locked in a closet. Police have since learned that another disabled woman died in Weston's care in Virginia, of meningitis coupled with severe malnutrition.
To advocates, the case demonstrates just how vulnerable the disabled are if they don't have family or friends protecting them. Their Social Security checks lure predators, one expert said.
"Anyone with a cognitive impairment is a walking target," for Social Security fraud, said Nora Baladerian, a clinical psychologist who works with disabled crime victims in Los Angeles. "It's not just the money. It's sexual abuse. It's physical assault."
All of those crimes and more may be at work in Weston's case. She is charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and other charges, and is scheduled to make her first court appearance Monday.
Despite the horrific nature of such charges and attempts by neighbors and others to get authorities involved when they suspect wrongdoing, such fraud and abuse can go on for years.
Police can be reluctant to pursue crimes involving disabled victims because they may find it difficult communicating with them, said Baladerian, who has seen cases where the disabled have been taken in for their checks and used as free laborers or sex workers.
But, she argues, that shouldn't be an obstacle.
"It's no more of a challenge than dealing with elder abuse or children, who have difficulty talking like adults," Baladerian said. "And you're a cop. You can go to Social Security and see who's cashing that check."
In the case of Herbert Knowles, one of the people found in the basement, a case worker learned after he was reported missing in Norfolk, Va., in 2008 that checks were being diverted to Philadelphia. Police went to the given address, where Weston, now 51, had lived from about 2003 to 2005. They were told Knowles did not live there, and the trail apparently stopped.
But officials had been getting tips. A tenant at that Philadelphia address said this week that she called the Social Security office and U.S. Post Office when she kept getting Social Security statements made out to Weston, her boyfriend and fellow suspect Gregory Thomas, victim Tamara Breeden and others. The tenant, Anna Rotondo, said she never heard back from anyone, and the statements kept coming for years.
Breeden's family in Philadelphia reported her missing in 2008. After she was found in the basement dungeon last weekend, she said her teeth had been knocked out and her head bashed with a baseball bat over the years. Breeden, 29, had also borne two children, police believe.
She and the other victims have the mental capability of 10-year-olds, police said. The men are identified as Derwin McLemire, 41, of North Carolina; Edwin Sanabria, 31, of Philadelphia; and Knowles, now 40. They told police they had moved with the suspects from Texas to Florida to Philadelphia this past year.
Knowles, reported missing three years ago, was found chained to the boiler.
Protections for Social Security recipients do exist. There are rules governing representative payees, such as the requirement that they pledge to use the money only on the individual's care and upkeep, and to file yearly reports on how it's spent.
But some of the rules lack enforcement. For example, people who have served more than a year in prison are ineligible to be representative payees, but the reporting is voluntary, and the Social Security Administration does not do background checks.
Weston was charged in 1983 with killing her sister's boyfriend by locking him in a closet for weeks until he died of starvation. She was found incompetent to stand trial but pleaded guilty to the murder charge in 1985. She was paroled in 1987.
Weston's children told reporters this past week that she regained custody of them after her release, a scenario that the city's Department of Human Services could neither confirm nor deny, given privacy rules.
According to neighbors, Weston by 2003 was living with four of her children, her niece, and her boyfriend. More efforts to get officials involved ensued. The neighbors said they called police and Human Services because they thought the children were being verbally and physically abused.
They saw no evidence that anyone intervened. Nor did they see any signs of the disabled adults, though online records link Breeden to the address.
Social Security officials did not return calls for comment about the case.
The ease with which the money can be collected can be an attraction for some in such plots.
Police believe Weston may have engaged in an extensive fraud scheme. They found more than 50 Social Security cards, power of attorney documents and other such forms when they arrested her at her daughter's apartment above the basement hiding place. The daughter was later charged.
The case has gotten widespread attention — and brought back memories Linda Weston's brother had hoped to keep buried.
Troy Weston is one of her younger brothers and lived with her off and on for years. She had been left to raise her younger siblings after their mother died, when she was about 21.
Troy Weston, 35, and other siblings disclosed this week that she was frequently violent, and forced the siblings to have sex with other people, sometimes for money. By age 23, she and her sister Venus were charged in the boyfriend's starvation death.
"It's like rekindling all this stuff that happened," said Troy Weston, who works as a cook in a North Philadelphia cheesesteak shop. "I'm really trying to make some sense of this."
Associated Press writer Patrick Walters contributed to this report.