Port St. Lucie woman accused of abuse may go to trial soon

Date: 2008-05-27
Source: tcpalm.com

Port St. Lucie woman accused of abuse may go to trial soon

By Derek Simmonsen
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Judith Leekin, child abuse child neglect starvation adopted handicapped mug shot

PORT ST. LUCIE — Judith Leekin may have recently resolved federal fraud charges against her, but her legal troubles aren't over yet.

She could go to trial as early as August if plea negotiations fall through with state prosecutors.

Leekin, 63, of Port St. Lucie, was arrested in July and charged with 10 felonies alleging she abused and neglected 11 children she adopted using fake names and aliases in New York City between July 1998 and April 1996. She moved with the children to Port St. Lucie in 1998. Police have accused her of forcing the children to sleep on the floor of a utility closet, binding them with plastic ties and handcuffs, beating them and keeping them away from school and medical care.

In the months since she was arrested, local and federal investigators have been piecing together how Leekin was able to adopt the children, combing through 7,000 pages of adoption records, reconstructing shredded documents in her other home in Sanford and conducting interviews with people who knew her in New York and Florida. The adoption records confirmed the identities of the children she adopted and also gave investigators solid information about one of the children who is missing, according to investigative records.

Last week, that information led to Leekin being charged in federal court with defrauding the New York state adoption system and collecting $1.68 million in subsidies. She pleaded guilty to federal mail and wire fraud charges and under sentencing guidelines faces up to eight years in prison when she is sentenced July 15.

"Judith Leekin defrauded a system designed to provide for the care and well-being of New York's neediest children," said U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia in a statement. "She got public money by lying about her identity and the care she was providing and used it to enrich herself rather than meeting the serious needs of her adopted children."

New York state gives extra subsidies to parents who adopt children with physical and mental disabilities and requires yearly evidence that those children are still in the parent's custody.

Leekin used four different false names to adopt the children through four different adoption agencies with different case workers handling each case. Her adoptions occurred at a time when New York state was flooded with children — some 50,000 foster kids at any given time — and didn't require fingerprints or thorough background checks to adopt, according to court and investigative records.

She lied about how many children she was taking care of and later enlisted the adopted children to help create fake report cards and other documents to prove to New York the children were still in her care. She received money for Shane "Moo" Graham — who has Down syndrome, autism, sickle cell anemia and cannot walk or talk beyond making the sound that gave him his nickname — for about seven years after she was no longer taking care of him, records show.

Port St. Lucie Police have asked for the public's help in trying to locate Graham, who would now be 19 years old. According to statements of several witnesses, Leekin took Graham from a Port St. Lucie apartment in July 2000 and returned a half hour later without him.

A woman who was a part-time babysitter for Leekin said, "Moo is with his godmother now," though the woman wasn't aware he had a godmother. The children told police they thought Graham had been sick and was now dead. The Medical Examiner's Office had no record of a body matching Graham's description and Assistant State Attorney Jeff Hendriks said they are still trying to determine what happened to him.

Any of the one actions Leekin was accused of — the fake names, falsifying records, mistreating the children — would have led the state to cut off payments, according to federal court documents. Federal prosecutors are seeking to gain the $1.6 million back, partly through seizing her homes in Port St. Lucie and Sanford and taking about $62,000 out of an escrow account that holds money from an insurance policy she cashed.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman said in court papers he wants the parties to address what steps might have been taken to prevent Leekin from adopting the children and what actions could be taken to keep it from happening again.

Hendriks, who is prosecuting the state charges in Florida, said he is in plea negotiations with her attorney, Chief Assistant Public Defender Mark Harllee, but if things fall apart, he expects a trial to occur later this year.

Harllee, who represents Leekin in federal and state court, could not be reached for comment.

Leekin rejected an earlier plea deal that would have led to about 20 years in prison.

• The case began against Judith Leekin, 63, after she was accused of abandoning an 18-year-old woman in her care at a Publix in St. Petersburg in July 2007. An investigation revealed children and adults living in her care in Port St. Lucie who were mistreated, bound with handcuffs and plastic ties and socially isolated, according to police reports.

• She was charged in state court with several counts of elderly or disabled adult abuse, multiple counts of aggravated child abuse, possession of a fake driver license and tampering with a witness.

• Federal prosecutors said she used four aliases to adopt 11 children in New York City between July 1988 and April 1996 between moving to Port St. Lucie in 1998. She collected more than $1 million in government subsidies for the children's care. She pleaded guilty last week to federal mail and wire fraud charges and will be sentenced July 15 in New York.

• Leekin's previous defense attorney said she indicated she cared for and loved the children and had evidence that the children had been to a doctor and were taken on trips outside the house.

• State prosecutors are in plea negotiations with her defense attorney. If the negotiations fall through, a trial could occur as early as August.

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