IMAGINE BEING locked in a dank, dark basement. Starved. Forced to defecate and urinate in a shared bucket. Beaten.
Imagine having your two children, whom you had with a person you cared about, snatched away from you.
Imagine being moved from state to state, held captive - all because you are mentally disabled and your captor wants your Social Security benefits.
This happened to Tamara Breeden, of Philadelphia. For 10 years. From 2001 to 2011.
Yesterday, after her captor, Linda Ann Weston, was sentenced to life in prison plus 80 years, Breeden, 33, happily told reporters: "I'm free!"
Breeden was one of several victims of Weston, the Philadelphia woman who was the mastermind behind a decadelong scheme to kidnap mentally disabled people to bilk them of their Social Security benefits. Weston's victims were locked in attics, basements and closets in Philadelphia; Killeen, Texas; Norfolk, Va.; and West Palm Beach, Fla.
In sentencing Weston, who turned 56 last month, to the agreed-upon term in a plea deal, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe said Weston will never see the light of day outside of a prison. But the judge also said Weston's "future years in federal prison will be paradise compared to the pain inflicted on her victims."
Weston pleaded guilty in September to all 196 counts against her - charges that included two counts of murder, hate crimes, multiple counts of kidnapping, conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise, sex trafficking, theft and forced human labor.
In exchange for her plea, the government agreed not to seek the death penalty against her.
Of the five defendants indicted by the feds, Weston alone was charged with two counts of murder - for the 2005 death of Donna Spadea, 59, in an apartment on Glenview Street in Northeast Philadelphia, and for the 2008 death of Maxine Lee, 39, a Philadelphia native, in Norfolk, Va.
Lee died of starvation. Spadea died of multiple drug toxicity, Assistant U.S. Attorney Faithe Taylor said, noting that Weston put antidepressant pills in her victims' food to control them.
Weston's victims, for years, had no voice. Yesterday, they did.
"Linda, she beat me," Breeden told Rufe. "She was just crazy."
Breeden was one of four mentally disabled captives found locked in a sub-basement of a Longshore Avenue apartment building in Tacony on Oct. 15, 2011. Also rescued that day were Breeden's then-boyfriend, Edwin Sanabria, originally of Philadelphia; Drwin McLemire, of Florida; and Herbert Knowles, of Virginia.
"I'm free, I'm a survivor, I'm a strong black woman," Breeden said in court.
As Taylor showed the judge photos of Breeden after she was rescued - showing little hair on her head, her body gaunt and bruised all over - Breeden's mother, Peggy Wanamaker, wept.
McLemire, Knowles and Weston's niece Beatrice Weston, who was also a victim, were also in court. Sanabria, 35, and other victims did not come to court.
McLemire, 46, who had been chained to a boiler in the Tacony sub-basement, said of Weston: "I don't know if the word is evil, I don't know what it is. She done a bad job on me."
Knowles, 44, didn't want to speak in court, but in a video impact statement played in court, he said after he met Weston in Norfolk in 2008, he stopped working because Weston told him to and promised him food. But when he went to live with her in Norfolk, he was hungry "all the time."
Beatrice Weston, 23, also didn't want to speak in court, but in a video statement, said of Weston and her accomplices: "They beat me with broomsticks. They burnt me with metal spoons. They beat me with sticks." She and Breeden were also prostituted out to men.
Taylor also read letters from relatives of Lee and Spadea.
Weston, dressed in a baggy green jumpsuit, with her hair in tight braids pulled together in a bun on top of her head, loudly told the judge when it was her turn to speak: "I'm sorry and I do feel also I believe in God, and God knows what happened."
That prompted the judge to say: "There are a lot of people in this courtroom who know what happened, too."
"Only God knows," Weston softly mumbled.
Wanamaker, Breeden's mother, told reporters afterward: "As far as I'm concerned, the lady had no remorse. She acted like she could have done it again."
In a handwritten note dated Sept. 26, Weston asked to withdraw her guilty plea. The judge dismissed her request. Yesterday, she asked Weston to confirm she was admitting to her crimes.
"Yes," Weston said.
Spadea and Lee's deaths weren't Weston's only murders.
In January 1983, Weston was arrested for starving a sister's boyfriend to death in a closet two years prior. She was convicted and served about four years in state prison.
Two of Weston's co-defendants in the kidnapping scheme - her daughter, Jean McIntosh, 36, of Philadelphia, and a self-described pastor, Eddie Wright, 54, of Texas - have pleaded guilty.
Weston's ex-boyfriend, Gregory Thomas Sr., 51, is expected to enter a guilty plea next Friday.
Nicklaus Woodard, 29, of Florida, still faces trial in the case.