TAMPA — Each time a judge placed an order of contempt on Danny J. Collins for failure to pay child support, he ignored it, sometimes packing up and leaving the state.
And each time, the mother of the son he had never seen would track Collins down.
Michelle Wilder of Seminole traced his moves through three states and 14 years before the government intervened and took the rare step of prosecuting Collins in federal court.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday sentenced Collins to a year in federal prison for failing to pay child support, an unusual punishment, say attorneys familiar with family law. Merryday also ordered the Weedsport, N.Y., resident to pay the $29,478 in back child support he currently owes.
"I really didn't know if I should feel bad for him or if I should hate him or resent him," said Brandon Wilder, 14, who has cystic fibrosis and saw his father Tuesday for the first time.
Marshals took immediate custody of Collins, preventing him from having the father-son conversation that Brandon wanted.
"I wanted to ask him why he would want to do this to himself," Brandon said later. "I wanted to tell him that he had a chance to make things right, and he should take it."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle Bedke asked the judge to sentence Collins to five years of probation. That way, Bedke argued, the court could monitor Collins as he caught up on his neglected child support.
As a show of good faith, Collins gave the court a cashier's check for $5,000 before the judge sentenced him. The 43-year-old electrician promised another $10,000 payment after completing a construction job in the Washington, D.C., area.
Defense attorney Stephen Leal made numerous pleas with Merryday to give Collins probation so he could continue to work and make money. But the judge said requiring someone to pay what he should have paid all along wasn't punishment enough.
"What in the world have you been doing all this time?" Merryday asked Collins.
"I'm an idiot," Collins responded.
"I don't mean to quibble. ... It's beyond dumb," Merryday said. "It really shows a remarkable and almost inhuman disrespect for your own flesh and blood."
Prosecutors also told the judge about four other children Collins has who are in various stages of trying to obtain back child support from their father.
Deliberately failing to pay child support has been a federal crime since the 1990s. It's a misdemeanor if the past due amount is greater than $5,000 and has remained unpaid for more than a year. It's a felony if the amount is greater than $10,000 and has remained unpaid for at least two years.
In both instances, the child must reside in a different state than the parent violating the court order.
"The person being pursued in federal court is somebody who has really been a deadbeat parent for quite a while," said Caroline Black, a Tampa attorney who practices family law. "It's just unusual for a federal court to become involved in these types of procedures."
Adam Allen, an assistant federal public defender in Tampa, said that several years ago, his office might handle a case like this a few times a year. Now it's even more rare, he said.
"They're difficult cases, because having someone be a convicted felon and putting them in jail doesn't provide them an avenue to pay child support," Allen said. "On the other hand, some people aggressively go out of their way to avoid the obligations they have to their children."
Prosecutors said that at one time, Collins was depositing his paychecks into his sister's bank account to hide his income.
"I'm not sure how to feel," Michelle Wilder said after the sentencing. "My heart broke for Brandon."
She said she struggled with allowing her son to be in court, but Brandon told her "it's probably the only chance he'll have to lay his eyes on his father in person."
Wilder, who is now a nurse, said she lives paycheck to paycheck as a single parent. Brandon needs constant medical attention for his cystic fibrosis. He has had seven surgeries and is on eight medications.
When Brandon was 4, the state wanted to place him in foster care so he could receive proper medical care. Wilder said she got a private loan instead.
"It's been hard for us," Brandon said. "I have a great mom, though, and I'm happy about that."
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.