Police: Adopted children tormented; scam widespread
Bradenton Herald, The (FL)
PORT ST. LUCIE --- Adoption is supposed to be a refuge for parentless children, but for Stephen Wells it was a house of horrors.
Since his adoption roughly 15 years ago, Wells says, he has been attacked with a stick and a can of evaporated milk. He says he was handcuffed and tied up and forced to sleep on a cold tile floor in a locked hallway, where he soiled himself because he wasn't allowed to use the bathroom.Scars mark his wrists from years of restraints. Police say he was denied education, medical care and food, and basically spent his entire life indoors. His home was his prison.
Wells' account surfaced in recently released court documents and interviews that provide a fuller picture of Judith Leekin, the woman at the center of what authorities call a lucrative adoption scheme that stretched from New York City's hardscrabble Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood to sunny South Florida.
Leekin, 62, and originally from Trinidad, used intimidation and violence to control her 11 adopted children for years while earning a staggering $1.26 million in adoptive subsidies, police said.
She has been charged with multiple counts of abuse and could face up to 190 years in prison.
Leekin has pleaded not guilty and denies the allegations. Her lawyer, Mario Garcia, says she loved and nurtured the children, providing them with medical and dental care, and taking them to parks and out to eat.
Much about Leekin remains a mystery. She had two Florida driver's licenses under different last names, along with two Social Security numbers. She had at least seven known aliases.
Piecing together her life
Investigators have been slowly trying to piece together her life, dating back to her time in Queens, when, according to records, her adoption plan was probably hatched and perfected.
Authorities believe she used four aliases to adopt the 11 children in New York City from 1988 to 1996. She adopted only special-needs children, the ones who brought the highest subsidies --- up to $55 a day, according to the New York City Administration for Children's Services.
She never went to the same adoption agency twice, and she never used the same name. It wasn't until 1999 that New York began requiring fingerprints from prospective parents.
It didn't take long for a pattern of cruelty to emerge in New York.
''They were treated horribly. She treated them mean. It was a shame,'' David Spence, an old Queens neighbor, told a local newspaper.
Wells refers to his adoptive mother as ''evil.'' He said he was forced to sleep on the basement floor in Queens. Once, Leekin left the house all day and Wells, now 20, urinated on himself, he recently told investigators. An enraged Leekin took a can of evaporated milk and cut his right hand, he said.
Wells, who still calls Leekin ''mommy,'' and some of the others are severely developmentally disabled, a testament to their years of isolation, police say.
His sister, Tracey Wells, said Leekin once punished her by burning her hand on a stove.
After the last adoption, in 1998, Leekin moved to Florida with the kids. Not much later, a rookie child welfare worker came close to catching Leekin after a tip that she was abusing the children.
Leekin simply denied any abuse allegations, hid the children and fled. The Florida Department of Children and Families and New York ACS workers never saw any of the children or their records and closed the case.
In Florida, Leekin lived in a lavishly furnished home.
''Judith Leekin never worked,'' Claudette Jackson, Leekin's former lover, told police. Apparently she had never even used her oven or dishwasher, police noted after searching one of her two homes in Florida.
Her children, now ranging in age from 15 to 27, suffered in silence and fear.
According to accounts given to police, she would threaten to shoot the children or cut off their heads if they ever revealed her secrets, and once told the children she had served five years in prison for shooting a woman in the head.
Jackson, who did not return repeated telephone messages seeking additional comment, told police that Leekin was ''manipulative.'' Jackson said she could hear Leekin screaming at the children, ''cursing at them, the 'whacks' of her hitting them and the cries of the children.''
One step ahead
To evade interlopers, Leekin constructed an elaborate surveillance system, which allowed her to keep watch on a closed-circuit monitor, police said. Whenever an unexpected visitor approached, she would hustle the children into a passageway that could be locked with dead-bolts from the outside, according to authorities.
Tracey Wells told police ''of being forced to hide in secret rooms when someone would come to the house.''
Leekin also created fake report cards to document the children's progress in school, allowing her to keep ACS at bay, according to court papers.
The abuse went on for years until, police say, she abandoned 18-year-old Tracey Wells at a store in St. Petersburg. That led to a search of Leekin's house and the eventual discovery of the other kids. Nine are now are in Florida state care.
A 10th man, a 19-year-old, was discovered living homeless elsewhere in the state. He remains on his own. He said Leekin abandoned him in 2004.
Some continue to be fearful of Leekin, like Shawn Wells, who turns 28 on Sunday. A police report said an officer had to ''repeatedly reassure him that she could never hurt him again.''
Police are searching for an 11th foster child, an 18-year-old boy named Shane Graham, whom the children said died in 1999 or 2000.
''Other than his name and date of birth and a nickname, we know very little about him,'' Port St. Lucie Police Detective Stuart Klearman said.
At this point, not much is clear, but the children are curious.
''They're asking questions --- 'Who are we?' '' Klearman said.