BROOKSVILLE — Jennifer Dennison took the stand and described how her love affair with gambling began.
At first, Dennison and her husband, Scott, were content playing nickel slot machines at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. Then Jennifer suggested they try the high-limit room. They put $500 in a machine and won $10,000.
"We never left the high-limit room after that," Jennifer said. "It was better than my first kiss or falling in love. It controlled my life."
Over the next two years, Jennifer would gamble away about $500,000 of the nest egg Scott's parents, Laverne and Janet, had built. On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. sentenced her to five years in prison.
"I recognize the testimony that compulsive gambling is an illness," Merritt said. "But even though it is compulsive, there is still some area of conscious decisionmaking there, and when you make bad decisions, you have to pay the consequences."
Dennison, 44, of Brooksville, pleaded no contest last summer to one count of grand theft of $50,000 or more from a person older than 65. The first-degree felony carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, but prosecutors agreed to a cap of 10 years.
During three hours of emotional testimony, a parade of Laverne and Janet Dennison's family members asked Merritt to levy the maximum sentence to punish Dennison for stealing the money the couple had saved to ensure that Janet, who suffers from severe dementia, could be cared for at home.
Laverne, a World War II veteran, died of cancer in August 2011, about four months after his daughter-in-law was arrested. Janet, a former postal carrier, is 75 and doesn't recognize her children.
"She's now in a nursing home," daughter Vera Cannon said. "This crime has put her there, and she doesn't get released until she dies."
Bruce Denson, Dennison's attorney, called expert witnesses to try to persuade Merritt to give Dennison probation.
Tiffany Lawrence, a clinical social worker, testified that Dennison suffers from depression and post traumatic stress disorder triggered by years of physical and sexual abuse by her stepfather. Hearing Lawrence recount graphic acts prompted Dennison and her family members in the gallery to start sobbing.
Both Lawrence and Damon Dye, Dennison's licensed therapist, said Dennison is a remorseful gambling addict. They noted that Dennison, after being released on bail, spent a month in an in-patient program and is continuing her recovery.
To send her to prison, they said, would keep her from getting a job and paying restitution.
"She was aware that what she was doing was wrong, correct?" Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson asked Lawrence at one point.
"In some part of her brain, yes, but she couldn't control herself," Lawrence replied.
"Did she understand she was stealing?"
"I'm sure she did," Lawrence said.
"No further questions."
Between the fall of 2008 and summer 2010, investigators say, Dennison forged Laverne's name on checks, drained the couple's bank accounts and cashed in a pair of the couple's life insurance policies that totaled $36,000.
Dennison admitted Wednesday that she gambled away most of the couple's savings but denied that she methodically, calculatingly stole. She said Scott Dennison, who had power of attorney for his parents, also gambled some of the money during a time when their own finances were in shambles.
Scott Dennison was never charged and did not attend Wednesday's hearing. The couple have since divorced, but Dennison said they are living together despite a "strained" relationship.
The former medical ultrasound instructor said she wants to get a job and start paying restitution. She turned to her former in-laws.
"I know you are sitting there today and hate me, and I understand. But I'm so sorry," she said. "I want to make it right."
She broke down in tears when Merritt announced the sentence. The judge rejected Denson's request to give Dennison a couple of days to get her affairs in order, and a bailiff led her away.
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 494-8148. Follow him on Twitter @TMarreroTimes.