The final defendant accused in a decade-long, multi-state plot to kidnap, enslave, and torture disabled adults pleaded guilty Thursday to federal hate-crime charges, drawing to a close a case that shocked Philadelphia more than six years ago.
Nicklaus Woodard, 31, of West Palm Beach, Fla., admitted that he helped ringleader Linda Weston hold victims captive for years in cramped basement hovels, cupboards and attics — all so she could steal their government benefit checks.
Weston, Woodard and the other members of what prosecutors have called "the Weston Family" had so terrified their victims that when Philadelphia police found four of them emaciated, covered in filth, and chained in a Tacony apartment basement in 2011, the captives begged investigators not to take them away for fear they would be punished.
"It's a very difficult case," Woodard's lawyer William J. Brennan said Thursday. "The facts are atrocious. But it's important to remember that Nick was only in it for roughly a year."
Woodard's plea comes more than two years after Weston struck a deal of her own with prosecutors in which she agreed to life in prison to spare herself a possible death sentence.
Before his decision Thursday, Woodard – who prosecutors have described as Weston's onetime boyfriend — had been facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 85 years had he taken his chances at trial.
He agreed instead to plead guilty to a host of crimes – including conspiracy, kidnapping and using a firearm in an act of violence — that carry a mandatory minimum of only seven years. Still, he could face up to life in prison at a sentencing hearing set before U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe in April.
Standing before Rufe on Thursday, Woodard – a soft-spoken man with long hair drawn back in braids — appeared to waiver on whether to accept what prosecutors had offered. He criticized Brennan, his lawyer, and expressed displeasure with the deal he had negotiated to spare him 78 years of mandatory jail time.
"I have to sign it," he said, before ultimately agreeing to continue with his guilty plea. "I don't want to get life."
His decision brought to an end the first federal hate-crime prosecution of its kind – one in which the protected victims were mentally and physically disabled adults.
All five defendants have now admitted that they lured and confined mentally disabled targets for more than a decade, while seeking to make money off them in any way that they could.
Together, the group stole more than $200,000 in Social Security benefits from their captives between 2001 and 2011 by pressuring them to sign documents naming Weston their designated payee. They forced others, including Weston's 17-year-old niece, into prostitution.
The group shuttled their captives from Philadelphia to Texas, Virginia, Florida, and back again to avoid detection — and left in their wake the bodies of those who did not survive after being malnourished and beaten with sticks, bats, guns, and hammers.
To keep the costs of care low, they fed their captives with depressant-spiked beans and ramen. And when supplies ran low, they forced them to eat their own and other people's waste.
All the while, Woodard admitted Thursday, they lured in victim after victim by snatching them off street corners, proposing romantic relationships, and even forcing their captives to have children together so Weston could file new government benefit claims.
Prosecutors have said that most of the group's targets were estranged from their families and were lured into Weston's clutches while looking for a place to stay. It was Woodard's job to serve as muscle.
According to court filings, he joined Weston's crew while involved in a romantic relationship with her in West Palm Beach.
Woodard, prosecutors say, beat and pistol-whipped one victim and threatened to shoot him after the man tried to flee.
Weston has admitted that she had that man locked in a closet under a staircase, where she fed him once a day and directed others to unleash a pit bull on him. The dog bit off half the man's right ear, authorities said.
Brennan, Woodard's lawyer, said Thursday that he plans to argue at sentencing that his client's involvement only lasted during the brief period Weston was living in Florida.