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Woman accused of gambling in-laws' savings enters no-contest plea in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — Laverne Dennison didn't believe a judge should be lenient on his daughter-in-law if a jury found her guilty of gambling away nearly all of the life savings he had planned to use to take care of his ailing wife, Janet.

"Our dad asked for 20 years," said Vera Cannon, one of Laverne and Janet's six children.

During a hearing Monday in Hernando County Circuit Court, Cannon and her siblings learned that Jennifer Dennison will not spend that long in prison for siphoning more than $500,000 from her in-laws and losing it in casino slot machines.

Dennison, 44, pleaded no contest 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. Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. approved the agreement and set Dennison's sentencing hearing for Nov. 14.

Dressed in a black suit, Dennison answered Merritt's questions in a quiet voice during Monday's hearing. All of Laverne and Janet's children except Jennifer's ex-husband, Scott, of Brooksville, watched from the gallery.

Statutory guidelines call for a minimum prison term of 21 months for Dennison, who has no prior criminal record. Prosecutors are happy with the deal, Assistant State Attorney Jarod Gilbert said after the hearing.

"It saves resources, and she's accepted responsibility," Gilbert said.

Merritt could depart from the required minimum prison term if he decides mitigating circumstances justify it. Dennison's attorney, Bruce Denson of St. Petersburg, said he will ask Merritt to sentence Dennison to probation without prison time.

Dennison was motivated by a gambling addiction, Denson said. She completed a residential treatment program and is now receiving outpatient treatment.

"There was no intent to steal any money," he said. "This was a pure compulsive gambling case."

Dennison will certainly be ordered to pay restitution to the family. And it would be difficult for her to do that if she spends several years in prison, Denson noted.

"Our hope is that she can be gainfully employed and make some strides in that effort," he said.

The siblings reject the notion that Dennison simply fell victim to a compulsion.

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

"She had to gather this money methodically and slowly and deliberately," said Debbie Palmer, one of the couple's daughters. "Piece by piece, she emptied these accounts."

Janet Dennison, now 75, 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. Janet now stays at Heartland of Brooksville, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility.

As a retired postal worker, Janet brings in $2,400 a month — too much to be eligible for Medicaid to cover Heartland's roughly $6,800 monthly cost, Cannon said. Heartland has agreed to defer billing while the family seeks legal help to win Medicaid approval.

The siblings said Dennison never apologized to their parents.

Denson said his client is "extremely remorseful."

"She realizes it's ruined her family's life."

Woman accused of gambling in-laws' savings enters no-contest plea in Hernando 08/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012 9:50pm]
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