When William Rick Singer appeared in U.S. District Court in Boston Tuesday, he already knew his fate.
The 58-year-old man from Newport Beach, California, had organized an elaborate operation that took in more than $25 million, according to federal investigators, to get the children of wealthy clients into elite universities fraudulently.
But Singer apparently flipped on his own clients, according to court documents. He turned over emails and even wore a wire to record conversations.
Unlike some investigations that work from the little guy up to the kingpin, this one unfolded top-down.
"Once he was cooperating, he may have continued essentially working undercover until the other people are charged. And at that point, he's exposed, but he's already worked out his deal," said Boston defense attorney Peter Elikann.
As a defense attorney, Elikann said he is familiar with how federal investigations work.
Once investigators got Singer's name, they allowed him to continue operating, rather than shutting down the whole enterprise right away.
"And once Singer decides to hop aboard and cooperate, then he's got his finger on the pulse. He knows where everything is, he knows every secret, he knows every strategy," Elikann said.
And because the ringleader was a cooperating witness, he helped investigators collect a trove of information that could pin down the accused parents and coaches.
"It's so well documented, it may discourage people from going to trial," he said.
Court documents unsealed Tuesday detailed emails and payment instructions from parents to Singer.
"Signer's clients paid him anywhere between $100,000 and $6.5 million for this service," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said Tuesday.
Elikann says that prosecutors are usually harder on the organizers of a scam like this and that they are held more responsible.
But Singer's cooperation means he had more to offer the feds than a parent, who only knows one small aspect of the whole picture.
"So he, ironically, as the kingpin and the mastermind, he may be getting the sweetest deal of all because he can be the most helpful to the authorities," Elikann said.
Singer has told NBC News he worked with more than 750 parents, helping to fix college entrance test scores and bribing coaches and administrators to sign clients' kids up as athletic recruits.