PHILADELPHIA — A judge on Tuesday dismissed all charges against a man whose attorney argued he was more of a victim than a perpetrator in a case involving four mentally disabled adults who were found locked in a filthy basement as part of an alleged Social Security fraud scheme.
Three others, including the alleged ringleader, were ordered to stand trial.
The woman accused of leading the brutal scheme, 51-year-old Linda Ann Weston, is charged with exploiting the mentally infirm for money and government benefits.
Authorities said they began unraveling her scam in October when a landlord called police after stumbling upon four adults living in a squalid basement room. One was chained to the boiler.
Judge Patrick Dugan ruled there was enough evidence for Weston, her daughter, Jean McIntosh, and her boyfriend, Gregory Thomas, to stand trial. The charges include kidnapping, aggravated assault, custodial interference, theft by deception and neglect of a care-dependent person.
"What we heard is something similar to a real life horror movie," Dugan said, comparing the victims to something between people who were just out of a concentration camp and "old-beaten-up boxers."
But Dugan dismissed charges against Eddie Wright, citing testimony that Wright was sometimes held captive as well.
"I cannot in good conscience hold Mr. Wright for trial," Dugan said after Wright's attorney argued that his client was more a victim than a perpetrator.
Testifying earlier Tuesday, the second day of the preliminary hearing, Weston's 20-year-old niece, Beatrice Weston, said her aunt had forced her into prostitution. She also alleged physical abuse and taunting at the hands of Weston and McIntosh.
Beatrice told the court she was forced to have sex with men her aunt brought home. She said one of the four adults who authorities say were imprisoned in the basement also was forced into prostitution.
"She would make us do it at the same time," Beatrice said of McIntosh, adding that the money was given to Weston.
Beatrice Weston said McIntosh padlocked her in a closet inside an apartment that was above the basement.
Wright's attorney, Louis D'Onofrio, said outside court that he expected his client to go free within the next several days.
"He himself is far from a conspirator," D'Onofrio said, adding that he does not know if his client will agree to testify against the other defendants.
In court, prosecutors had argued that, while Wright's case was somewhat different, he had acted as a "bodyguard" and played a role in the conspiracy.
A landlord said he stumbled upon the four adults — Tamara Breeden, 29; Edwin Sanabria, 31; Drwin McLemire, 41, of North Carolina; and Herbert Knowles, 40, of Norfolk, Va. — in the basement on Oct. 15. Authorities have described the victims as having the mental capacity of 10-year-olds
Investigators maintain Weston moved the group among Philadelphia; Killeen, Texas; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Norfolk, Va., over the past decade. They often were one step ahead of stiffed landlords or the law, according to investigators.
Beatrice said that she was repeatedly locked inside for long periods of time, often with little to eat or drink, and did not know why Weston and McIntosh kept her there.
"I was inside there for a long time," Beatrice testified, adding that she could only tell if it was daytime because of light coming through the cracks around the door.
At one point, she said, McIntosh mocked her and said: "Don't you wish that you was out of that closet taking a hot shower like me?"
On Monday, the first day of the hearing, spectators gasped when grim hospital photographs of some of the victims were shown in court. One alleged victims, Sanabria, also testified that Weston took him to a Social Security office soon after he moved in and took over his financial affairs. He said he never again saw his $674 monthly Social Security checks or food stamp card.
On Tuesday, Beatrice Weston testified that she was often beat her with bats and sticks and that once Weston took her to a psychiatrist in an effort to see if she also could get disability checks.
"She took me to a psychiatrist and told me to act crazy," she said. After she was denied benefits, she testified, she was beaten as punishment.