TAMPA — She recalls, as a kid, coming home to an empty refrigerator in a house where food stamps were traded for crack.
She tells of selling her body at 12 or 13 to survive.
Rashia Wilson denies that she grew up to dub herself the queen of tax refund fraud on Facebook.
But she did enjoy the Audi, the big TV, the house, the parties and feeling special over a $2,000 Louis Vuitton bag, a lifestyle she maintained by stealing the identities of scores of victims.
"It feels good not to be that little girl at the beginning of the school year wearing the same dirty clothes and shoes from last year," she said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, the first since her 2012 federal arrest.
"And, basically, to be able to buy everybody shoes."
Wilson, a 29-year-old mother of three, may be the most vilified beneficiary of stolen-identity tax-refund fraud in the region. A judge recently sentenced her to 21 years at the urging of federal lawyers who said she publicly bragged about claiming tax refunds in other people's names.
"Such behavior requires a significant sentence in order to provide a deterrent effect to others who might seek to emulate the defendant," prosecutor Sara Sweeney told U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr.
The 21-year term was one the stiffest penalties to grow out of such investigations nationally. Wilson's co-defendant, Maurice Larry, who spent tax money to chrome plate a Camaro, got 141/2 years. The U.S. Attorney's Office considered Wilson a tax-fraud leader and organizer; not so for Larry.
No jury heard the evidence because both took plea deals, but investigators reported finding thousands of names and Social Security numbers.
Prosecutors said Wilson and Larry tried to steal at least $11 million and succeeded in taking at least $3.1 million. In a plea agreement, they admitted to theft of $2.24 million.
Millions? No matter what she signed, Wilson now estimates she took only $200,000, though prosecutors said the Audi alone cost $90,000.
Wilson acknowledges wrongdoing, but doesn't think it merited 21 years.
She has publicly apologized.
"That's all I can do is apologize," she said.
For many, it isn't enough.
A photo of her brandishing wads of cash has skipped across the nation. The photo is tax fraud's version of a Rorschach ink blot test, evoking strong reactions from strangers. Some use it to justify their attitudes about race; others, to fuel tirades about flat taxes or Wall Street.
Its traveling companion is a now-famous Facebook quote that Wilson said she didn't write.
"I'm Rashia, the queen of IRS tax fraud," the post goes. "I'm a millionaire for the record, so if U think indicting me will B easy it won't . . ."
She said her account was hacked. In court, a prosecutor scoffed at the idea, asserting than an Internet address showed otherwise. Wilson offers to take a lie detector test.
She also said the photo of her holding piles of cash, made public by Tampa police, had nothing to do with tax fraud.
The bills in her hands were singles, she said, and the money belonged to a club owner. The photo was for a flier promoting the Hush Gentleman's Club. She contends that she made most of her money as an event promoter, calling her business First Lady Entertainment.
These defenses aren't new. Her lawyers have raised them in court. They are of little benefit to her now, post-sentencing, except to illustrate her position that she was singled out unfairly.
Attorney Mark O'Brien, who represented Wilson through the plea agreement and first sentencing, wrote in a 2013 court filing that prosecutors wouldn't allow her to qualify for a reduced sentence by helping investigators.
He wrote that Wilson was "being singled out as something she is not" and that she "didn't originate this crime."
In her phone interview with the Times, Wilson said she doesn't take the blame for teaching Tampa how to fool the IRS. Any kid capable of reading a computer could do it, she said. It was like a chain replicating links.
"I'm not the person the world is trying to make me out to be," Wilson said. "I'm not this whole first lady of tax fraud person.
"I'm a regular human being that's been struggling all their life and made a mistake. Everybody deserves a second chance."
She made that point recently in a Tampa federal courtroom, where Moody presided over her resentencing on charges of possessing a weapon, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
He wasn't the first judge she had faced. She had a long history of encounters with law enforcement, including two felony convictions for grand theft and burglary. That's why she wasn't allowed to have a gun.
But Moody was the first judge to send her to prison.
An appeals court had returned the case to him, citing procedural errors that potentially lengthened her sentence by 31/2 years.
In a court filing, appellate attorney Andrew Greenlee noted the disparate sentences of Wilson and Larry.
The judge reminded Wilson that she had stolen from the public while on public assistance.
He stuck with his original plan: 21 years.
• • •
She had entered the courtroom March 5 looking jubilant and hopeful, using the minutes before the judge's arrival to gesture to friends and family, including her three children, ages 3 to 14.
She lives 10 hours northwest of Tampa at a federal prison in Aliceville, Ala.
"I know they miss me," she said of her kids. "I see it in their eyes and it hurts."
She's proud of her eldest daughter's good grades and her son's athleticism. It makes her feel good about raising them in the suburbs of east Hillsborough County. But last year, her toddler survived a serious car crash. It tore Wilson up to be in prison.
The toddler is the one whose first birthday party, by official accounts, included carnival rides and cost Wilson $30,000.
She said she never had parties growing up — no parties, no butter for bread, no spoon for cereal, no comb for her hair. She remembers using a fork to comb her hair for school, before quitting in seventh grade.
She spends her days working in the prison library. She said she reads the dictionary to correct her spelling and she's writing a book about her life.
She passed the GED test and received a high school diploma, spurred in part by the public that made fun of the IRS for being duped by a seventh-grade dropout.
"For them to call my name and say I passed, I was proud of myself," she said.
She has met others in prison for tax refund fraud, though none with her kind of sentence.
It was no secret at Aliceville that she had a shot at a better sentence.
"I'm embarrassed to go back there," she said. "To come back to the compound with the same sentence is heartbreaking."
• • •
The world may not have heard the last from Wilson. She plans to file another appeal.
The road from rags to riches to rags left little means to pay a private lawyer, so she's turning once again to public money.
This time, it's no crime.
Her friends and family helped set up a legal defense fund in her name on a popular crowd-sourcing site.
No Social Security numbers required.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.