TAMPA — Nikia Nichole Williams landed in court over dumb things, like underage smoking, ignoring traffic fines or lying to police about her name. She quit Robinson High School in 2001, had a baby, and got busted for shoplifting and weed.
She drove an old Dodge Spirit and, in 2004, reported income of just $808 a month.
But in August 2011, police stopped a Mercedes-Benz with custom chrome rims. In the search that followed a scent of marijuana, they found diamond jewelry, a new iPad, a new Nook, Armani sunglasses, Gucci and Coach handbags and a wallet stuffed with $1,020 cash.
Behind the wheel, and on the title, they found Williams.
At 28, she is now under federal indictment, charged with 30 counts related to the filing of fake tax returns that elicited refunds. Investigators believe she profited from a wave of refund fraud that has left a growing number of others defending themselves in state and federal court.
A grand jury indicted Williams in September. The charges were kept secret until after her arrest Oct. 17. She appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony E. Porcelli, pleaded not guilty and was released on $30,000 bail.
The Tampa Bay Times could not reach Williams for comment Wednesday. The phone number she provided on Oct. 18 bail paperwork did not work. She did not respond to email inquiries. Efforts to reach her through family were unsuccessful.
The indictment accuses Williams of stealing $27,497 — roughly the amount of the bail — but U.S. Postal Inspector Doug Smith said further court filings will likely show a significantly greater loss to the government.
His agency and the Tampa Police Department helped IRS-Criminal Investigations and the U.S. Attorney's Office build the case against Williams.
Although most details of the federal case have not yet been made public, Williams' documented interactions with local police offer glimpses of the early investigation.
Along with valuables, the August 2011 search of the Mercedes turned up a laptop computer, debit cards in other people's names, and papers that listed birth dates and Social Security numbers.
Police found marijuana. (For that, Williams was later ordered to pay $810 in fines and costs.)
After seizing the Mercedes, investigators spotted Williams in an array of other vehicles.
Last fall, she was pulled over in an unregistered purple-and-pink Chevrolet Impala with big rims.
Five months ago, she was in a New Tampa traffic crash, driving a Chrysler Pacifica registered to her mother, Linda Gail Lester.
The Sheriff's Office responded to the crash, but it wasn't the only agency watching. A Postal Inspection Service employee noticed and got Tampa police on the phone.
Williams, uninjured, was still on the scene when police Detective Sharla Canfield got the call from postal. Canfield, a veteran of tax fraud cases, warned officers that Williams would lie about her identity. (A judge later found her guilty of doing just that.)
Canfield smelled marijuana, she wrote. In a search of the vehicle, investigators found a TaxAct debit card, backed by Bancorp., with a balance of $9,280.61.
In June, closing out her report, Canfield wrote:
"Williams has been stopped several times and each time has been found in possession of narcotics and prepaid debit cards indicative of tax fraud."
Williams has also been seen driving a red 2010 Camaro. It had $7,000 worth of tires and wheels until Feb. 29. That day, deputies took a theft report. Someone had stolen the 24-inch Forgiatos as the car sat parked outside the apartment Williams shared with her boyfriend, north of the University of South Florida.
She was arrested there last week on the federal fraud charges, after climbing into the Camaro. Her boyfriend, Reginald Mosley, was also arrested when police say they observed him throwing away a marijuana cigarette.
Authorities haven't yet said what else was found at the scene.
Times news researcher John Martin and editorial assistant Stephanie Bolling contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3382.