PHILADELPHIA – A judge on Wednesday ordered a mental health evaluation of the alleged ringleader of what authorities describe as a Social Security fraud scheme in which mentally disabled victims were held captive in a squalid Philadelphia basement.
Linda Weston, 51, and three others were charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offenses after her landlord stumbled on the four victims in a foul-smelling boiler room last month. Investigators believe the defendants locked the victims in the basement's boiler room and wrested control of their disability checks.
On Wednesday, Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield granted the request of Weston's attorney, George Yacoubian Jr., for a mental health examination of his client. Neifield also granted a partial gag order in the case, preventing prosecutors, the defense and others from making extrajudicial statements prohibited by the state's rules of professional conduct.
Prosecutors requested the gag order, citing publicity surrounding the case. A spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams declined to comment after the hearing, citing the order.
But Yacoubian said he didn't think it prevented many statements about the case. He said his interpretation was that he would be guided by the state's rules of professional conduct indicating that individuals should not make statements that would prevent a fair trial. "There is certainly no complete gag order," he said.
A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 19. The mental health examination would likely have to be conducted within 30 days of that hearing, Yacoubian said.
Competency could be an issue, he said, citing issues involving mental retardation and low IQ that came up during a previous case involving Weston three decades ago.
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 a murder charge in 1985 and served about four years in prison.
"When Ms. Weston was going through her criminal proceedings 25 years ago, competency was an issue then," he said.
In the current case, Weston and three other defendants — Weston's daughter, Jean McIntosh, 32, Weston's boyfriend Gregory Thomas, 47, and Eddie "the Rev. Ed" Wright, 50 — are accused of preying on mentally disabled adults, locking them in the basement and wresting control of their disability checks. None has entered a plea.
Investigators are working to discover the extent of the alleged scheme after finding more than 50 Social Security cards, power of attorney documents and other forms of identification. Eight children and four young adults linked to the defendants were taken into protective custody, and DNA tests are being conducted to determine the children's identities.