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Stolen Social Security checks find way to Tampa shooting scene

TAMPA — After midnight in east Tampa on Oct. 4, someone knocked on a door. The man who answered, on probation for dealing weed, was shot in the chin. He survived, the gunman fled, and the case was never solved.

You weren't there.

But your Social Security check might have been.

Tampa police, investigating the crime scene, found $165,926 in Treasury checks, most of them huddling in envelopes on a kitchen table when the gunfire erupted. Each of the nine envelopes contained 19 or 20 checks, police said.

The wounded man, Alphonso Guice, now 35, was recently indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts related to stolen mail and stolen benefit checks. He is set to appear at a bail hearing Friday in Tampa before Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli.

The checks weren't far from their intended homes. Some came from people in Pinellas Park. One belonged to Juan Garcia-Rodriguez, 65, of New Port Richey, a retired mall maintenance worker. He was counting on the money to pay bills.

People who steal Social Security checks are "people who have no feelings, who have no heart," he said.

"We have a lot of elderly people that are depending on that money for their rent and their food," he said. "Sometimes, they live check by check."

It's unclear how Guice might have obtained so many checks.

Paper benefit checks are all but extinct. As of March, the Treasury requires nearly all Social Security beneficiaries to use direct deposit. Some exceptions are made, based on age and geography. But both paper and electronic payments have been targeted by criminals.

Last fall, a week before police found Guice and the checks, the Tampa Bay Times reported on a crime that was then new: Identity thieves had begun rerouting electronic Social Security benefits onto fraudulently obtained debit cards.

And a week after Guice was shot, U.S. Rep. Bill Young announced that more than 300 paper Social Security checks bound for people in the Tampa Bay area had been stolen.

With Guice under indictment, agents for the investigative arms of the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service declined to comment on the case against him.

Nor does the court file say much at this stage. The grand jury indictment notes that the crimes occurred between May 23 and Oct. 4, 2012, and that proceeds totaled $188,987.

The Times found some details in a police report of Guice's shooting.

When Tampa police first tried to interview Guice, his mouth was wired shut, records state. The bullet hit his chin, traveled through his neck and lodged behind his ear. He's had multiple surgeries since then. As of 13 days ago, he still had a tracheotomy opening and a speech impediment, an officer on a traffic stop reported.

Last October, he told detectives he didn't know who shot him, though he heard someone had paid $7,400 and a quarter kilo of cocaine to have him killed and that it related to anger over a woman. No one was arrested.

Someone else in the house had called 911. That man, who had no job, had $4,480 cash on him, police reported.

When police arrived, they found Guice on the floor, one Social Security check on a heater and the other checks in the kitchen beside a digital scale.

The other man professed no knowledge of them. If Guice said anything about checks, it isn't in the police report. A day after the shooting, a special agent from Social Security started looking into the checks.

The one meant for retiree Garcia-Rodriguez eventually came wandering home.

The places it had been. The things it had witnessed.

The next one arrived on time.

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Stolen Social Security checks find way to Tampa shooting scene 09/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 11:05pm]
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