A day after the Liberian immigrant community came together to mourn their losses in the fatal Gesner Street fire, many of those same Liberians came to the Criminal Justice Center to support two unlikely defendants accused of forcing two elderly women to withdraw large sums from their bank accounts.
Supporters say husband and wife Vickson, 57, and Lorpu, 51, Korlewala, who were jailed for weeks in April and are currently free on bail, were misidentified by police.
"They know their case is thin," argued Vickson's defense attorney, Kevin Mincey, at a hearing this morning, referring to prosecutors. "They don't have an identification. ... They're trying to get a lineup to fortify an identification they don't have."
Mincey and Thomas Fitzpatrick, who is representing Lorpu, were expecting a preliminary hearing to take place today, at which a judge evaluates the prosecution's evidence to determine whether the charges should be held for court.
But the preliminary hearing was delayed for two months after prosecutor Joseph McCool said one alleged victim was not ready to testify.
Mincey complained that the hearing had already been delayed two months from May so that prosecutors could prepare their case for the preliminary hearing.
"I'm struggling to find how we're here," he told Judge David Shuter. "It's a lot for them [the Korlewalas] to have to keep coming back."
"What do you want me to do about it? Throw the case out because he's not ready?" Shuter asked.
Mincey nodded yes in response.
More than 50 friends and family of the Korlewalas were at the hearing, many of them wearing shirts that said "Mistaken Identity: Release the Korlewalas," which were printed with a surveillance camera image of the alleged thief released by police adjacent to a picture of Vickson (see above).
Police arrested the Korlewalas on April 1 and charged them with an incident that occurred March 31 at a Citizens Bank branch on the 2900 block of Island Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.
Police said at the time that the victim, an 80-year-old woman, was walking to the West Philadelphia Salvation Army at 55th and Market streets when she was approached by a man and woman. They allegedly told her they were going to give her money, coerced her into entering their vehicle, and asked what bank she used, which was Citizens Bank. They then reportedly drove her to the Southwest Philly Citizens Bank branch.
The male suspect (pictured above) entered the bank with the victim and sat with her at a table where she asked to withdraw $8,000 in cash for her sister. After the teller handed over the money, the male suspect allegedly pushed the victim's hand away, took the money and put it in his pocket.
The 80-year-old victim was then reportedly seen by a witness being pushed out of a green Saturn SUV with New Mexico plates at 57th and Chestnut streets, and the witness brought her to police officers down the block to report the crime.
After being arrested, the Korlewalas were charged with a second, similar crime that reportedly occurred on Feb. 1 at 11th and Chestnut streets. In that case a 92-year-old victim was forced to withdraw $1,200 from a Sovereign Bank branch by a man and woman.
The Korlewalas declined to comment on their case, but supporters have argued passionately that they were not involved in either crime.
The Korlewalas have no prior criminal charges or records listed online. Vickson is a chemist who develops renewable energy technologies through his company Ecopower Liberia. Lorpu owns a hair-braiding salon at 55th and Market streets.
One piece of evidence reportedly linking the Korlewalas to the crime is an "identification" made by the Citizens Bank teller who unwittingly participated in extortion by withdrawing $8,000 from the victim's bank account.
But Mincey said police records show the teller did not clearly identify Vickson as the suspect.
"There's no identification. She said, 'The male I circled looks like the guy.' ... She made this equivocal [statement], 'Well it looks kinda like the guy,'" Mincey said at the hearing. "We have been talking about this for two months."
See below for stills from surveillance footage depicting the alleged thief.