Adopt ma began her cruel $3M 'con job in 1970's
By MATHEUS SANCHEZ in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and JOHN DOYLE and LEONARD GREENE in N.Y.
EERIE LAIR: Judith Leekin allegedly shackled children in her Florida home. Queens neighbors says she mistreated kids 30 years ago.
August 1, 2007 -- The woman accused of keeping New York kids in a Florida house of horrors netted up to $3 million from the adoption scam, which began 30 years ago in Queens with two foster kids she tormented even as she pampered her own son, The Post has learned.
Judith Leekin, now 62, was charged today with child and elderly abuse and other crimes.
Leekin, of Port St. Lucie, could face 190 years in prison if convicted on all 10 counts stemming from her alleged abuse of the children, including handcuffing them and holding them captive at her home, said prosecutor Ajay Whittemore. He said more charges were likely.
"It's definitely an evolving case. More evidence is coming in on a daily basis," Whittemore said. "We've just scratched the surface on this."
Currently, Leekin faces four counts of aggravated child abuse, four counts of aggravated abuse of the elderly or a disabled person, witness tampering and possession of a fictitious driver license, Whittemore said. All the charges are felonies.
Leekin remained jailed Wednesday on more than $4 million bail. Her attorney, Mario Garcia, has said she would plead not guilty and denies the allegations.
Leekin began mistreating 11 adopted children and disabled adults in her home, she was setting the stage for abuse by mistreating the foster children city agencies placed with her in Queens, neighbors said.
The degradation was so vivid that neighbor David Spence recalls it 30 years later.
Spence used to play with Leekin's biological son, Eddie, who was showered with affection and toys in the Springfield Gardens home.
But when it came to the foster children, she showed nothing but contempt, Spence said.
"They weren't allowed to play with his toys," Spence said.
"They were treated horribly. She treated them mean. It was a shame."
Eddie Leekin moved with his mother to Florida. It is unclear what became of the foster children from that era.
Judith Leekin, an immigrant from Trinidad, is embroiled in an interstate adoption scandal in which cops accuse her of being a heartless scam artist who abused the New York children she took in while living high off government subsidies intended to help her raise them.
Scars, burns, shackles and lies are just a few of the elements involved in a sordid scheme that netted Leekin nearly $3 million from New York taxpayers, Florida police said.
"We know she received an awful lot of money, and the figure is still rising," said Port St. Lucie Police spokesman Robert Vega.
"We don't know where all the money went, but we do know she didn't spend it on these poor kids."
New York City's Administration for Children's Services was scrambling yesterday to explain how the seemingly kindhearted woman was allowed to take the children in - and how to keep it from happening again.
ACS officials said there are no restrictions keeping parents from leaving the city with the foster children they adopt.
Adoptive parents must send ACS proof annually that an adopted child remains in the parent's care, said a spokeswoman, Sheila Stainback.
"That appears to be have been done, but we're still investigating," Stainback said.
"This is not a super state of foster care.
"These children are hers. That's what the process states in terms of adoptions. These children are as permanent to her as a child she has given birth to."
Authorities in Florida said Leekin, who was arrested last month, used a network of aliases - including Judith S. Johnson, Judith Lee-kin-de Johnson, Michelle Wells and Eastlyn J. Giraud - to adopt 11 children and disabled young adults in New York between 1993 and 1996.
ACS said the adoptions occurred before a policy was introduced in 1999 to take fingerprints from adoptive parents to verify their identity.
Florida authorities have already asked a New York judge to unseal adoption records that might shed some light on Leekin's alleged scam. The documents being sought include birth certificates and caseworker reports with details about the placements.
At least four adoption agencies in New York are believed to be involved in the scandal, but cops are waiting for the legal papers to identify which ones did the placements.
Cops said Leekin pocketed the millions in New York state and federal subsidies even after moving to a house in Florida. There, she allegedly kept the school-aged children out of class, and bound several of them with plastic ties, feeding them little more than noodles, rice and beans.
Cops learned that the children were being held prisoner on July 4, when an 18-year-old woman was found abandoned in a Florida grocery store.
Officials later uncovered evidence, including plastic ties and locks outside bedroom doors, that Leekin kept four children, ages 15 through 17 hostage in the two-story, 3,141-square-foot, pink house.
"All had scars on their wrists and their ankles," Vega said. "It appears that whenever this lady left her home, the youngsters were either handcuffed or zip-locked to each other.
"They were forced to sleep in the hallway on a towel with only a sheet for cover. They were not allowed to use the bathroom and were simply left to soil themselves. All of them had been badly abused."
At the time of the arrest, authorities could account for only nine of the children and disabled adults placed in Leekin's care. Police found a 10th Monday, a 19-year-old who left home two years ago. Leekin continued to receive a subsidy for him.
An 18-year-old adoptee remains missing, cops said.
None of the youngsters appeared to have had any formal education, although some neighbors say the children had been seen getting on to a school bus.
Police are believed to be looking into whether Leekin forged documents to make it appear to authorities as if the children were attending school.
Other than a bizarre outdoor statute of a screaming child, there's little about the exterior of Leekin's impressively luxurious property that hints at the horror inside. Elsewhere on the well-kept, expansive grounds is a charming stone statue of two youngsters and their puppy huddled underneath an umbrella, and a wrought-iron settee, chairs and table set flanked by towering palms.
A wooden shed is crammed full of Christmas decorations: snowmen, elves, reindeer and figures for a creche. And a gleaming pool runs the length of the house. A sticker on the window indicates the landscaped property is protected by a security system.
The home and garden were quiet last night, with all the windows covered by blinds or hurricane shutters.
Leekin is being held in lieu of $4.5 million bail at the St. Lucie County jail. She faces several counts of child abuse, including four counts of abuse of a disabled person.
All the adoptees found by police in the home are currently under the care of the state of Florida.
Post wire services contributed to this report.