Wrongly accused? Questions in home-invasion case

McDuffy's friends describe him as the "man of the house" for his sisters and mother. His family has held fundraisers to pay for his legal defense and started a "Tomayo McDuffy Wrongfully Accused" Facebook page.
McDuffy's friends describe him as the "man of the house" for his sisters and mother. His family has held fundraisers to pay for his legal defense and started a "Tomayo McDuffy Wrongfully Accused" Facebook page.
Posted: July 12, 2013

THE LITTLE BOYS gather, beating boredom by chucking sticks or balancing on porch edges. Bigger boys slalom in the street on bikes and scooters, while a woman sweeps her steps nearby.

The stretch of Marple Street just south of Torresdale Avenue in Holmesburg is usually like this - alive with the everyday ordinariness of kids at play and life underway.

But since May 3, neighbors rarely pass one another without sharing new gossip about the blind lady with the dog named Yolanda.

That night, police swarmed Maria Colon's three-story brick rowhouse. The 54-year-old told police that someone had broken in and turned the stove on, filling her home with toxic gas.

She was saved, she said, only because Yolanda, her yellow Labrador retriever guide dog, chased the intruders off and dialed 9-1-1 on the telephone. She reported nothing stolen. Within hours, police arrested her next-door neighbor, Tomayo McDuffy, 18, and jailed him on $500,000 bail for attempted murder and 12 related offenses.

Although the case made for great headlines, a murkier picture has emerged in the ensuing weeks: McDuffy's supporters say Colon is mentally ill and has a history of wrongfully accusing people, including her own relatives, of serious crimes. None of those allegations has led to criminal charges.

With McDuffy facing about 80 years behind bars if convicted of all charges, his family is fighting to clear his name, as their Marple Street neighbors mull some nagging questions.

Is Colon a vulnerable woman whose disabilities made her irresistible prey to thugs? Or did she accidentally leave the gas on herself and imagine the invasion, or invent it to get attention or revenge on an irksome neighbor?

"That's the million-dollar question," said Capt. Francis Bachmayer, commander of Northeast Detectives. "As far as we're concerned, we believe we have evidence that a crime was committed."

Bachmayer declined to discuss that evidence in detail, saying it will come out at McDuffy's preliminary hearing July 19. Melissa Francis, the assistant district attorney handling the case, couldn't be reached for comment.

But according to an affidavit, detectives zeroed in on McDuffy because Colon told them she heard two male voices and recognized one as McDuffy's. Further, a rear basement door showed signs of forced entry, and authorities had investigated two prior incidents in which Colon accused McDuffy and his family of trying to poison her dog and verbally harassing her.

No one was charged in those alleged incidents, and McDuffy's mother, Nesheba Adams, denied that she or any of her four children harassed Colon.

Colon couldn't be located for comment. A few days before the Fourth of July, neighbors said, she moved. Bachmayer said officers helped to relocate her, at her request, but he declined to say where.

A neighbor who supports Colon refused to comment, referring questions to police. Colon's landlord confirmed that workers fixed the jimmied basement door, and said he believes she had been victimized.

But it's tough to find anyone else on Marple Street who thinks police nabbed the right guy - or even that a crime happened.

"I know Tomayo personally. He cherishes his sisters and his mom; he's the man of the house. So why would he try to blow up the house next door when he knows that would harm his family?" block captain Lateefah Russell asked.

McDuffy was sick with the flu the day of Colon's break-in, supporters said. "He was throwing up and stuff. He was really sick, like bad. He's going to wake up at 3 in the morning to go in her house when he's that sick?" asked Tamia Polite, 16, his ex-girlfriend.

The Marple Street drama sounds exhaustingly familiar to Colon's ex-boyfriend Richard Vargas and Colon's four estranged children.

Vargas dated Colon off and on for maybe a decade. Her habit of accusing others of wrongdoing led to their breakup, he said, when she baselessly accused him of raping her and stealing the insurance money she received after a house fire.

"I'm taking her every Saturday to buy dresses, every Sunday to buy shoes. I say: 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you talking about? I treat you like a queen!' And then I said: 'You got to go,' " said Vargas, 56, of North Philadelphia.

Colon's children declined to comment for this story, but court records show a fractured family history rife with accusations.

In protective orders Colon sought and other paperwork, Colon accused her son of raping, beating, drugging and threatening her, stealing her prosthetic eye and paying someone to kill her. She claimed her daughter pushed her down steps, threatened to kill her and otherwise abused her. And she accused her ex-husband, a now-deceased New York City police officer, of rape and other abuse.

Her children countered in the paperwork that she abused them, suffered from depression and other unspecified mental illnesses and refused to take prescribed psychiatric drugs. Relatives had her involuntarily committed for mental care, and her son sought and obtained custody of his younger sister, saying their mother was mentally ill and verbally and physically abusive.

The Marple Street incident wasn't Colon's first home-invasion claim. She told police an intruder beat and raped her in her home on Torresdale Avenue near Bleigh in November 2009. That case resulted in no arrests.

Colon moved from there in May 2010, when someone set a fire in the basement that destroyed the home and killed her dog. The arson remains unsolved, said Chief Richard Davison, a fire spokesman.

Both addresses prompted many 9-1-1 calls, records show. On Marple Street, police responded to 16 9-1-1 calls from or about Colon's home in the past four months, and an additional 23 in a year from or about her Torresdale Avenue home, police records show.

Vargas said he first believed many of Colon's accusations, but later decided he didn't when he fell under her suspicion, too.

"Crime victim? She's a crybaby, that's what she is," Vargas added. "I love her to death, but I would not speak up for her lies."

Bachmayer said he was unaware of Colon's mental issues or any accusations she made against anyone beyond Marple Street.

Still, he said, any mental impairment "doesn't mean she couldn't become a crime victim," Bachmayer said. "All that will be adjudicated through the court."

Colon's calls for help didn't end with McDuffy's arrest. A few weeks ago, officers investigated her complaints that someone tossed an unknown liquid and matches onto her porch and that another man tried to break in. Police increased patrols and even stationed a squad car curbside to stand guard.

McDuffy, meanwhile, remains jailed at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

He's optimistic that he will be exonerated and return to play basketball with friends on Marple Street and finish his studies at Excel Academy South, an accelerated program for students lagging academically, said his attorney, Beverly Muldrow.

His family hired private investigators to help exonerate him, planned fundraisers to pay for his legal defense, started a Facebook page ("Tomayo McDuffy Wrongfully Accused") and made T-shirts exhorting "Free Tomayo McDuffy."

Muldrow said she's eager to see what evidence prosecutors might present beyond Colon's words.

"Did they fingerprint the phone to see if the dog called 9-1-1 [as Colon claims]?" Muldrow asked. "This case shows that someone can just make any allegation, and no matter how fantastic it is, the case can proceed."

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