Judge Kevin Dougherty, head of the city's Juvenile and Family Courts, acknowledged Thursday that in 2002 he placed a young girl in the custody of her aunt, convicted murderer Linda Ann Weston - and added that he did so at the recommendation of the Department of Human Services, a child advocate, and the girl's mother.
Police say the child, Beatrice Weston, became a prisoner and endured years of severe abuse in her aunt's custody. Beatrice Weston, now 19, was rescued by investigators earlier this month after police discovered that Linda Weston was keeping four mentally disabled adults in a basement dungeon in Tacony and allegedly stealing their Social Security checks.
When Linda Weston appeared before Dougherty in August 2002, she had already served about four years in prison for starving a man to death in a closet in her North Philadelphia apartment in 1981.
Vicky Weston, Beatrice's mother, said last week that she initially approved of her sister Linda's taking care of Beatrice. But after Linda Weston stopped letting her see Beatrice, Vicky Weston said, she told the judge of her sister's criminal history.
"I told that man Linda Ann Weston was a murderer," Vicky Weston said.
Frank Keel, a Family Court spokesman, said confidentiality laws limited Dougherty from commenting, but he disputed Vicky Weston's account in a statement.
"Judge Dougherty has no recollection of ever being advised of Linda Weston's criminal record by DHS, or by the child advocate, or by the child's mother, Vicky Weston, all of whom were present in court and agreed to the placement on Aug. 16, 2002," the statement reads. "DHS was a party to the action, and DHS and the child advocate recommended to the court that the child should remain with Linda Weston.
"There are serious questions still to be answered regarding the information - or lack of information - Judge Dougherty received from DHS regarding Linda Weston and her suitability as a caretaker."
Several city officials contacted Thursday seemed surprised by Dougherty's statement, and sources with knowledge of the situation expressed shock that the judge had released information about the case.
Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, released the following statement:
"On behalf of DHS, we cannot and will not violate the requirements of confidentiality under Pennsylvania law. We are disappointed that the court would reveal, selectively, case-specific details in a confidential matter before the court, through a public statement.
"The city has begun a comprehensive internal investigation of all city agencies with involvement in this complicated case, and a report will be given to the mayor."
Vicky Weston told The Inquirer last week that she believed Dougherty was the judge who presided over her daughter's case. Asked about the possibility at the time, Dougherty said he had not yet reviewed the case.
Linda Weston, 51, is charged with kidnapping and other offenses in connection with the adults found in the basement. Also charged were her daughter Jean McIntosh, 32; Linda Weston's boyfriend, Gregory Thomas, 47; and Eddie Wright, 50, a street preacher who allegedly helped keep the adult victims in the basement.
On Thursday, the District Attorney's Office said it was approving additional charges against Linda Weston, as well as against McIntosh and Wright. The charges relate to the treatment of Beatrice Weston, said Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams.
Dougherty is known for his stern, no-nonsense approach. He has made headlines in recent years for his tough stance with teenagers and children accused of taking part in the city's so-called flash mobs, in which roving gangs of teenagers tore through Center City neighborhoods, stealing cellphones and attacking passersby at random.
Vicky Weston said she was recovering from a serious head injury and was not able to care for her children when she went to Family Court. Another relative was watching Beatrice but was not sending her to school, Vicky Weston said. Despite Linda Weston's past, Vicky Weston said, she trusted her sister to take care of Beatrice.
The judge granted Linda Weston partial custody of Beatrice.
In the statement, Dougherty said he also ordered DHS to investigate the placement and to ensure that the child was safe.
"The record reflects that Judge Dougherty had several court hearings over a span of eight months, wherein DHS represented to the court that the child, Beatrice, was safe and her needs were being met," the statement reads. "Additionally, DHS requested that the level of in-home services be reduced and ultimately the case be discharged."
Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, said a criminal conviction does not necessarily prohibit someone from obtaining custody of a child. He also said that in order to prevent someone from getting custody, a lawyer must show that the person's past criminal behavior is related to his or her current ability to care for a child.
"In hindsight, the crime [Weston] committed sounds pretty heinous," Cervone said. "Hearing the details of that, I think that any layperson, and I imagine any judge, would be moved to question that person's sense of humanity."
L. George Parry, a Center City defense attorney and former prosecutor, said he did not see any potential conflict in Dougherty's presiding over a case that was linked to one he handled years earlier.
"You could make the argument that this is a related case," Parry said. "Knowing the cast of characters here, I would think that he might be in a better position to render judgment."
Meanwhile, investigators are reexamining the death of Donna Marie Spadea, a 59-year-old Northeast Philadelphia woman who died in 2005 in the basement of a Castor Gardens house she was living in with Linda Weston and Thomas.
A medical examiner ruled in 2005 that Spadea died of natural causes, but the case is being reopened because of the Weston connection, sources said. Detectives photographed the basement and garage of the rowhouse this week.
A relative of Linda Weston's who did not want to be identified remembered seeing Spadea wandering across the front lawn of the property in 2005 with a scared look on her face. Linda Weston chased the woman back into the basement, the relative said.
"Linda Ann said there was something messed up with the woman, that she couldn't take care of herself, and that she was taking care of her," the relative remembered.
The relative said Spadea called Linda Weston "Mom."
There was another woman living in the basement with Spadea, according to the relative, who once saw the woman come upstairs, asking for food.
"Linda hit her with a wooden cooking spoon and said, 'What are you doing up here? Get back downstairs,' " the relative said.
Spadea lived in more than a dozen apartments through the 1990s and 2000s and rented houses in Northeast Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and Bucks County, according to records.
She was arrested twice for shoplifting, according to court records, and spent time in two mental hospitals. She received a Social Security stipend of $130 a week. Investigators would not comment on how she might have met Linda Weston.
Relatives declined to comment this week, with one asking, "Please respect our privacy."
Police in Norfolk, Va., are also reviewing the circumstances surrounding the death of a woman who died in Linda Weston's care in 2008.
Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.