Port St. Lucie woman accused of abusing 11 adopted children sentenced to 20 years
FORT PIERCE — A Port St. Lucie woman who forced her adopted children and young adults, some with mental and physical disabilities, to sleep on a storage room floor, will spend most, if not all, of the next 20 years sleeping in a prison cell.
Judith Leekin, 63, pleaded no contest late Wednesday afternoon to four counts of aggravated child abuse and four counts of aggravated abuse of disabled adults.
Circuit Judge Robert Belanger, calling Leekin’s actions “reprehensible,” sentenced her to 20 years in prison, the maximum term called for under a negotiated plea. Florida law requires Leekin to serve at least 85 percent of her 20-year term.
Belanger allowed roughly the first half of Leekin’s sentence to run concurrently with a 10-year, 10-month term she received in New York City last year for defrauding that state’s adoption system out of $1.68 million that was supposed to go toward taking care of the adoptees.
Detective Stuart Klearman of the Port St. Lucie Police Department testified that while Leekin’s two-story house on Hawthorne Circle was “lavishly furnished,” the adoptees were forced to sleep in a small storage room with “thin blankets and pillows” and fed mostly noodles and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Noting that numerous “zip ties” and several pairs of handcuffs were found at the house, Klearman said the adoptees reported they were often handcuffed, regularly beaten and denied medical care and schooling.
Klearman said some of the “children,” who ranged in age from 14 or 15 to the mid-20s, had neither the mental nor physical ability to be interviewed; all were “very frail and horribly malnourished.”
Belanger said it was “unfathomable that (Leekin) ... could calculatedly inflict that kind of suffering on children over a period of time. It has no doubt caused permanent damage.”
“I’m very sorry,” Leekin repeated several times in a brief statement to Belanger.
Public Defender Diamond Litty, Leekin’s attorney, asked for the minimum sentence under state guidelines, slightly less than 17 years, saying Leekin had accepted responsibility for her actions, expressed remorse and “given up all her worldly possessions” to help pay restitution.
Also, Litty said, by accepting the plea agreement rather than force the adoptees to testify at a trial, Leekin was acting in the best interest of the victims, all of whom are “thriving” in other homes.
“The children still love their mother,” Litty said.
“That’s how damaged they are,” Assistant State Attorney Jeff Hendriks replied, comparing the children’s affection for Leekin to that of “a beaten dog” still loyal to its owner.
Hendriks also noted before the hearing that the fate of one of the adoptees is still unknown: Records show Leekin received money to take care of Shane “Moo” Graham — a boy with Down syndrome, autism, sickle cell anemia and no ability to 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.
Port St. Lucie Police have asked for the public’s help in trying to find Graham, who now would be about 20 years old. Leekin reportedly took Graham from a Port St. Lucie apartment in July 2000 and returned a half-hour later without him. Other adoptees thought Graham was dead, they told police.
The Case Against Judith Leekin:
• July 1988-April 1996: Leekin uses four aliases to adopt 11 children, most with mental and/or physical disabilities, in New York City.
• 1998: Leekin moves with the children to Port St. Lucie.
• July 2000: According to statements of several witnesses, Leekin takes Shane “Moo” Graham — an adopted child with Down syndrome, autism, sickle cell anemia and unable to walk or talk beyond making the sound that gave him his nickname — from a Port St. Lucie apartment and returns a half hour later without him. Port St. Lucie police later ask for the public’s help in finding Graham, who would now be about 20 years old.
• July 2007: Leekin is accused of abandoning an 18-year-old woman in her care at a Publix supermarket in St. Petersburg.
• July 5, 2007: Leekin tells Port St. Lucie police visiting her Hawthorne Circle house that only she, a son and a brother lived there; officers return and find four children and four adults hiding in an upstairs bedroom.
• July 18, 2008: Leekin is charged with four counts of aggravated child abuse, one count of aggravated abuse of a disabled adult, one count of tampering with a witness and one count of having a fictitious driver’s license. She later would be charged with another count of child abuse and three more counts of abusing a disabled adult.
• October 2007: Authorities decide not to file criminal charges against Leekin’s son, Desmond Leekin, after finding no evidence that he assisted his mother in committing fraud.
• July 14, 2008: A New York judge sentences Leekin to 130 months in prison for defrauding that state’s adoption system out of $1.68 million. U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman also orders Leekin to pay back the money and forfeit her homes in Port St. Lucie and Sanford.
• Aug. 8, 2008: Leekin is returned from New York to the St. Lucie County Jail to await trial on local charges.
• Jan. 4, 2009: Leekin pleads no contest to charges of abusing children and disabled adults and is sentenced to 20 years in prison by Circuit Judge Robert Belanger.