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Overdose postpones sentencing for Hernando woman who gambled her in-laws' savings

Jennifer Dennison 44, has overdosed on alcohol and pills and spent more than 48 hours on life support, her lawyer says.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2011)

Jennifer Dennison 44, has overdosed on alcohol and pills and spent more than 48 hours on life support, her lawyer says.

BROOKSVILLE —The woman who gambled away a half-million dollars of her elderly in-laws' life savings was found unconscious Friday evening after overdosing, four days before a judge was set to mete out her punishment.

Jennifer Dennison, 44, overdosed on alcohol and two kinds of pills, according to an emergency motion filed Tuesday by her defense attorney, Bruce Denson of St. Petersburg.

Out on bail, Dennison was found about 6 p.m. and flown to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson, where she spent more than 48 hours on life support, Denson wrote. The motion did not say where Dennison was found, and Denson told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday afternoon that he did not have details regarding his client's location at the time she was discovered.

Hernando Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney said Dennison was found at a Brooksville location but declined to provide more details. No foul play is suspected, Moloney said.

Asked if Dennison tried to commit suicide, Denson replied: "I don't know, but it doesn't appear it was accidental."

Dennison's sentencing hearing had been set for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Brooksville. By Wednesday afternoon, Dennison had been medically cleared and will now undergo a psychiatric evaluation under Florida's Baker Act, Denson said.

Denson and Assistant State Attorney Jarod Gilbert said they hoped to reschedule the sentencing hearing for next month.

Dennison faces up to a decade in prison after losing more than $500,000 of Laverne and Janet Dennison's money at casinos, much of it at the Hard Rock in Tampa.

Between the fall of 2008 and summer 2010, investigators say, Dennison forged Laverne's name on checks, drained at least six of the couple's bank accounts, and cashed in a pair of the couple's life insurance policies that totaled $36,000.

At the time, Dennison's husband, Scott, had power of attorney for his parents. Jennifer, who handled the finances, lost her and Scott's savings before moving on to her in-laws' money, authorities said. Jennifer and Scott Dennison, who lived west of Brooksville, have since divorced.

Jennifer Dennison pleaded no contest this summer to one count of grand theft of $50,000 or more from a person older than 65. The count is a first-degree felony that carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

As part of a plea agreement, however, Dennison will serve no more than 10 years in prison. Statutory guidelines call for a minimum prison term of 21 months for Dennison, who has no prior criminal record.

Denson has filed a motion asking Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. to depart from the minimum guidelines.

A compulsive gambler, Dennison completed a residential treatment program and had been receiving outpatient treatment, Denson said. Avoiding a lengthy prison sentence, he said, would allow Dennison to get a job and start paying restitution.

Janet Dennison, now in her mid 70s, suffers from advanced dementia and needs around-the-clock care. Laverne took care of her for some 14 years before he died of cancer in August 2011 at age 89. The money Dennison lost was supposed to go toward Janet's care.

The couple have six children, including Scott. The siblings could not be reached Wednesday but have told the Times previously that Laverne Dennison, before he died, said he wanted his former daughter-in-law to go to prison for 20 years.

Gilbert said Wednesday he plans to call about a half-dozen witnesses, including some of the siblings, during the sentencing hearing. One of them had traveled from Mississippi for Wednesday's postponed hearing, he said.

"We are awaiting a new hearing date and will be ready with witnesses for that date," Gilbert said.

The impact of the crime on her former family weighs on Dennison, who is struggling with depression, her attorney said.

"This is something that has gone to her core," Denson said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes or @HernandoTimes.

Overdose postpones sentencing for Hernando woman who gambled her in-laws' savings 11/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 5:24pm]
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