The accused leader of a ring that held disabled people as captives to collect their social security benefits pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday in a deal that took the death penalty off the table.

The deal means that Linda Weston, 55, will be sentenced to life in prison plus 80 years for kidnapping, slavery, sex trafficking and benefits fraud in a case that stunned the nation and led to the first federal prosecution for hate crimes under new laws to protect the disabled.

Philadelphia police in 2011 discovered four of Weston’s victims in a dank basement of a Tacony apartment building, chained to a boiler in a room that smelled like death with three emaciated dogs. 

The subsequent investigation led to more horrors. 

Prosecutors say the ring used the promise of romantic relationships to lure people with mental and physical disabilities into captivity. They were held in basements, and in closets, moving from house to house in Texas, Florida, Virginia and Philadelphia to stay one step ahead of authorities. Prosecutors said the eight victims were forced to sleep nude, often on top of pink fiberglass insulation that lined the unfinished attic in one of the houses they rented. Sedatives were put in their food, which they received so rarely that some resorted to eating feces. Female captives were forced to cook, clean and work as prostitutes.

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It was hard to square the image of a hardened psychopath who held disabled people captive for a decade with what appeared in court. Weston appeared in a green prison jump suit, telling the court that she had dropped out of school in the fourth grade. She could barely spell her middle name, Ann, though it was unclear whether that was due to nerves, educational attainment or the psychiatric medication. Weston at one point pleaded not guilty. leaving the court stunned and silent. 

“Oh, guilty,” she said. 

Weston's defense attorney said she pleaded guilty to spare her family the ongoing embarrassment a trial would bring. 

"Nothing that Ms. Weston caused or was part of was something that she or herself did not go through,” said a member of Weston’s defense team, Patricia McKinney. "This has been an ongoing thing with the Weston family.”  

Weston had previously been convicted of starving her sister's boyfriend to death in the 1980s.

Two other people, Jean McIntosh and Eddie Wright have already pleaded guilty and are awaiting trial. Gregory Thomas and Nicklaus Woodard are awaiting trial.