TAMPA — Adult dancer Danielle Denson was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison Thursday after admitting in a plea agreement that she obtained more than $1.6 million in fraudulent income tax refunds.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew was unmoved by the defense position that Denson, 27, who lost her mother to AIDS and claimed to have an abusive father, had turned to tax fraud for self-worth and empowerment.
It didn't help that the government produced its own victim, Jackie Schoenherr, to describe how awful it is to get through identity theft when a family is already grappling with other problems. Schoenherr's 27-year-old daughter has severe autism, and Denson used her identity to file multiple returns.
The mother spoke at length about a daughter so afflicted she injures herself and others, soils herself and can't bathe, can't communicate, let alone work; and had to be sent to an assisted living facility.
Schoenherr showed the judge photos. The judge had her share them with Denson.
Denson, when it was her turn to speak, apologized to the victims, but said she didn't know them when she was using their identities.
"I didn't know if they were black or white, Spanish or Puerto Rican. I didn't know," she said.
Judge Bucklew was incredulous when Denson admitted a lack of knowledge about legitimate tax filing requirements. Denson said she started dancing at 18 and didn't know she was supposed to pay taxes. The judge asked: Did she think the government just sent people money?
"It sounds crazy," Denson said, "but I just found out ..."
It also sounded crazy to Bucklew that Denson had obtained fraudulent refunds for several years.
"We have got to be really dumb, and I'm talking to the IRS, that we don't catch onto this for one, two, three, four, five years?" the judge said.
She called the crime egregious and sentenced Denson to 52 months for theft of government property and 24 months for aggravated identity theft, for a total of six years and four months, to be followed by three years of community control.
She said she would have considered a longer sentence, but the government hadn't recommended one.
She ordered restitution to the IRS of $1,646,636.60, while expressing doubt about Denson's ability to pay, either in or out of prison. Denson said she was willing to dance.
Investigators recovered $101,800 from her closet, and the plea agreement called for forfeiture of a Mercedes Benz and a Nissan 350Z titled to a girlfriend, along with a judgment for $9,046, equal to the one refund she pleaded guilty to collecting.
As for the rest of the money, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mandy Riedel said Denson frequently patronized the Hard Rock Casino and that a record had been found of $300,000 in transactions there.
Her preferred customer card at Gucci had tracked another $14,000 in spending.
Defense attorney Jenny Devine elaborated on the pricey "thong" that showed up on a receipt after investigators followed Denson to Gucci at International Plaza.
It wasn't an item of intimate apparel, she said. "Thong" referred to sandals.
Prosecutor Riedel shot back that whether the purchase related to intimate apparel or flip-flops, "it's $350 of stolen money representative of the lifestyle that she was leading."
Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3382.