TAMPA — A year ago, a bay area task force publicly exposed a gaping hole in the U.S. Treasury, a lucrative scheme that tricked the IRS into paying out fraudulent tax refunds.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department came knocking.
The federal government unsealed a 39-count indictment against two Tampa men who are believed by police to have spawned an epidemic of fraud in a city where its fruits totaled an estimated $468 million last year.
And the news didn't end with the arrests of Marterrence Holloway, 33, and Maurice Larry, 26, who pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Even as the men appeared for the first time before U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins, police officers hunted down some of the 13 other suspects who will face state charges generated by the investigation.
Larry's girlfriend, Rashia Tocara Wilson, is one of the 13. Wilson, 26, was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, but police say more charges against her are expected.
They say Wilson's chosen nickname, "First Lady," refers to her role in Tampa's first family of tax fraud — not a formal family, but a kinship of convicts that included Holloway and Larry.
Police believe Holloway helped father tax fraud by hosting filing parties at a Tampa motel, Larry at his side.
Tampa police Maj. Ken Morman, who oversees major crimes and strategic investigations, predicts charges against 15 people will send a signal to others stealing from the government.
"This will have a domino and ripple effect that will continue henceforth and forever more until it is gone," he said.
The federal indictment was handed down last week but kept sealed until the arrests began. Holloway and Larry, who go by "Quat" and "Thirst," were handcuffed but still dressed in their street clothes when they made their first appearance in court.
Prosecutors told the judge both men tested positive for drugs Wednesday — marijuana and opiates for Holloway, and marijuana for Larry. Both are drug felons who have served time in state prison.
The simultaneous local and federal assaults on fraud reflect increased cooperation between local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Seven of the 13 suspects are expected to face grand theft charges, made possible by information sharing between the IRS and local authorities. Previously, because of the strict confidentiality that surrounds tax matters, the IRS couldn't tell local police how much money was taken. A pilot program now allows disclosure with taxpayer consent.
Tampa police Detective Sal Augeri, who testified about tax fraud before a congressional panel this year, credited the work of Detective Bernie Ginaitt, who put the state cases together.
"It is a long process from start to finish," Augeri said. "With these cases now, with that pilot program, maybe we're turning the corner."
The day's events included the seizure of a 2013 Audi 8L, a car with a sticker price of $70,000.
It was parked in the driveway of a two-story, beige home at 10917 Dunscore Cottage Way in a tidy pocket of Wimauma. Police say that's home to the "First Lady." Her boyfriend, Larry, was arrested there, too. Afterward, authorities executed a search warrant.
In court with the two men, federal prosecutor Kelley Howard-Allen alluded to fraud that may have netted $1 million.
Holloway, in a financial affidavit, reported that he earns $4,000 a month and pays $700 in child support. He details automobiles from a tent in East Tampa.
His attorney unsuccessfully sought bail, noting that Holloway supports seven children.
Both men were denied bail.
The judge said Holloway was a danger to the community because of his criminal history.
Until two years ago, police knew him chiefly as a supplier of drugs, including cocaine.
Until then, tax refund fraud had barely caught anyone's attention.
But in early September of 2010, Holloway had three outstanding arrest warrants, drawing street level narcotics officers to his room at the Howard Johnson Inn on 50th Street.
There, police found Holloway, Larry and three other men, with four laptop computers, reloadable debit cards and the social security numbers of strangers.
Police soon learned that it was raining money all over Tampa's poorest neighborhoods.
That launched a yearlong investigation — dubbed "Operation Rainmaker" — and a task force comprising local police, sheriff's deputies, the Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the IRS-Criminal Investigation division.
The investigation went public with the announcement of dozens of arrests in September 2011, but corresponding federal charges came slowly and state charges carried little weight.
Times researchers John Martin and Natalie Watson and photographer Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report.