TAMPA — One weekend in late 2011, after a night of vodka and a day of vomiting, a woman with high blood pressure collapsed on the floor of her apartment off Nebraska Avenue. She was 37.
Days after her death, her grieving sisters tried to pay for the funeral by frying and selling fish.
The sisters raised their fish-fry pittance in a district where others were partying hard on the money they'd made filing fake tax returns.
The irony did not go unnoticed by "the Lovely D.O.D.," anonymous maven for an online peanut gallery to Tampa's tax fraud underworld. "D.O.D.," or "drops on deck," is slang for expected refunds.
"SOURCES ARE TELLING A LADY THAT THE FAMILY IS HAVING TO WASH CARS AND DO FISH FRIES," she posted on a Facebook page.
Where were all the people with drop money, she asked. "THERE IS NOOOOOOOO REASON THIS FUNERAL SHOULDN'T BE PAID IN FULL."
She posted an old jail mug of the deceased woman's little brother and accused him of being cheap.
Fish and the little brother paid for the funeral.
• • •
The Internet is an incubator for gossips who hide behind false names. But they don't often run afoul of the Secret Service or draw the scorn of a federal prosecutor or have their writings read aloud to a U.S. District Court judge. The last of these happened during a recent tax fraud hearing in Tampa.
" 'The lovely Drops on Deck,' " quoted an incensed Assistant U.S. Attorney Mandy Riedel, " 'has learned and verified the identity of this confidential informant. The informant is none other than …' " Riedel stopped reading and looked up at the judge. "It lists his full name," the prosecutor said. "She posts his picture."
D.O.D.'s own identity is a mystery to most who follow a pair of Facebook pages that serve as her mouthpieces: "Whenu Knobetta" and "Thelovely Dod," neither of which is currently viewable by the public.
Is she even a she? The government thinks so.
Is she more than one person? Maybe.
"My gut tells me it's never one person acting alone," said John Joyce, special agent in charge for the Secret Service's Tampa field office. The agency participates in financial fraud investigations, along with protecting public figures.
D.O.D. did not respond to an interview request from the Tampa Bay Times, except to post a reporter's Facebook message on one of the pages and then block public access.
There is good reason for the secrecy. Along with publishing the identities of rumored police snitches, D.O.D. posts photos of men alleged to have dual-gender sex lives. She exposes people she hears may be spreading the HIV virus. And she gives the boot to any friend who challenges her.
She has enemies in high places, and low too. But she also has 5,089 friends or pretend friends on her largest page ("Whenu Knobetta"), along with 3,017 registered followers. Many live in Tampa or surrounding Hillsborough County.
Some of the Facebook friends have been victims of tax fraud, some have had ringside seats to the spending sprees that followed, and others have been key players, guilty of federal crimes.
Rashia "FirstLady" Wilson used to be one of the friends, until she became the target of police. Wilson and her off-and-on boyfriend Maurice Larry recently took plea deals admitting to $2.2 million in fraud. They await sentencing in July.
Exotic dancer Danielle Denson, who got six years after admitting to $1.6 million in fraud, was also on the page and in 2011 posted a video there of her dance moves, part of a separate Internet sensation called twerking.
"Half of the people on there are on probation, or doing something illegal, or doing something they have no business doing," said community activist Michelle Williams.
A spot check turns up felons — "Mista Foetwenty," convicted cocaine dealer — but also people with clean records who say they follow D.O.D.'s page for laughs, as they would a reality TV show.
Williams herself became fodder in October, after she was arrested on a warrant related to a home sale. She's fighting a grand theft charge and says it should be a civil matter, not a criminal matter.
D.O.D. posted Williams' mug shot under a "breaking news" headline.
"FRIEND I WONDER WHY NONE OF YOUR INSIDEEEEEEEEEEEEEE SOURCES TOLD YOU ABOUT THIS WARRANT BEFORE YOU GOT PULLED OVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR," D.O.D. wrote.
Williams responded, as did her critics and supporters, fueling a two-week-long tit-for-tat over her integrity and civic contributions. The page being what it is, people also critiqued her eyebrows and lip liner.
That's the pattern.
A post typically starts with the TEAZZZZZZZZZZ from D.O.D., who can't seem to undo her caps lock, and things quickly deteriorate into a raw, often foul-mouthed brawl.
This isn't a page for children, and many adults would find it offensive.
A warning about explicit language could not begin to describe the endless, often incoherent, stream of F-bombs, vulgarities about sex and body parts, racial and gay slurs — all spliced between urban vernacular and social media acronyms.
Tamely, "smh" shows up a lot. Shaking my head. Or, from the Urban Dictionary, "when someone finds something so stupid, no words can do it justice."
There are those who jump into the ring swinging, those who grab the ropes and cajole, those who stand behind Jesus while swearing, and those who sit and marvel as they impart wisdom from the sidelines.
D.O.D. posts a bulletin about the shooting of a black man by another black man. Someone writes that white people love this.
Judging from photographs, nearly all of D.O.D.'s Facebook friends are African-American.
Race also bubbles up when she posts a bulletin about a big wave of stolen identity refund fraud arrests.
Most of the Tampa Bay area defendants federally charged in those cases have been black. They represent far less than 1 percent of the black population of about 205,000 in Hillsborough, the county that has seen the greatest fraud activity in the bay area.
Repeatedly, people on the page say that the arrests unfairly target African-Americans.
"All I'm saying," wrote Erika Westfield, "is the mob and white people have been doing this for years." She declined to be interviewed by the Times.
People on the page also said these things: "Although it sucks living paycheck to paycheck, my freedom is priceless." And, "The white man has nothing to do with our problems. It's us."
"The bottom line is they had no right to steal people's Social Security numbers and file taxes," wrote Esther Tracey Eugene of Bradenton, who grew up in St. Petersburg.
• • •
The talk isn't limited to tax fraud.
Six weeks ago, Osh "O.T." Williams, 21, was shot to death outside the Snack Attack store in northeast Tampa.
D.O.D. learned that deputies were looking for someone whose nickname is "Hot Rod."
"WHAT HOT ROD ARE THEY SAYING KILLED O.T. IN NUCCIO TODAY," D.O.D. posted late that night.
"From 43rd (Street)," a man answered.
"I'm getting his picture now," a woman wrote. "They both (are) family to me."
Rapid-fire comments followed, 214 of them from dozens of people, some by cellphone. They figured out that Hot Rod was short for Rodney Speights, even before police charged Speights with murder.
"Them damn Speights," one wrote.
"His daddy name Poppa Luv?" wrote another. It is, and he's already doing life for raping a child.
The Speights family was on Facebook, too. Some took up for Rodney. Others defended their own names, noting that you can't judge all Speightses by one or two.
Someone had video of a fistfight that led up to the shooting.
Let the police do their jobs, a man cautioned.
By morning, they had settled on the who, the what, the when, the where, the why. They barely needed TV or newspapers. D.O.D. called her Facebook friends "the media."
• • •
Cheryl Rodriguez likes the sound of all that.
A cultural anthropologist, she is director of the Institute for Black Life at the University of South Florida.
She couldn't view the actual Facebook pages because they were visible only to friends of the page last week.
But Rodriguez heard a thorough description. She explained their racially homogenous friend base by saying that African-Americans often seek out each other because the black experience in the United States is unique.
"How magical," she said. "You can participate from anywhere. And you're not by yourself. You have this community that's waiting to hear what you have to say. People actually have to pay attention."
They can't yell and scream at each other, she noted. They have to read.
"I think it's ingenious."
• • •
Who is D.O.D.?
Not someone who's nice to her 5,089 friends.
She brags, "I'M RICH, B----!!!"
The family that held the fish fry for funeral expenses says D.O.D. didn't share any of her money with them. She just embarrassed them in a time of pain.
She calls people's babies ugly and offers to Photoshop them.
She once said a car window was broken out because the intended victim looked identical to a deformed Volkswagen Beetle.
She calls the "first lady" of tax fraud the "last lady."
And then she insists on hundreds of Facebook "likes" before she'll share the gossip they send to her inbox.
At the end of 2012, with drops waning under increased federal scrutiny, she taunted the nouveau broke.
"YOU … BACK IN LINE LOOKING FOR TOYS FOR TOTSSSSSSSS?" she asked.
"WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE STATUSES ON DROP DAYS SAYING 'GOD HAS BEEN GOOD'?"
Had the stores at International Plaza filed for bankruptcy? What happened to all the extravagant kids' parties? (That line got 619 "likes.") Was everyone back at Chuck E. Cheese's?
She once predicted what would happen if her identity got out.
"EVERYBODY IS GOING TO WANT TO KILL THE LOVELY D.O.D."
Would anyone help her fight, she asked.
How would they even know what she looks like?
Her signature cover illustration shows $100 bills falling around a figure hidden in a black cat suit and skeletal mask, with a Gucci-patterned handbag and Kool-Aid red dreadlocks.
• • •
The Secret Service has a theory. It came to light at the April 4 court hearing, where prosecutor Riedel vented about the public outing of a confidential law enforcement source.
The defendant that day was adult dancer Denson, who arrived with fading red dreads.
Until tax fraud, her big claim to fame was a YouTube butt-wiggling video that captured 62,000 hits. She went by the stage name dacandyladyxo or MszRemi. The prosecutor and Secret Service suggested another name: D.O.D.
"I'm not at liberty to tell how we know," said Joyce, the Secret Service special agent, "but we do believe it is her page."
In court, Denson admitted to worse, accepting the government's claim that she had tricked the IRS out of more than $1 million.
"I did the crime, true enough," she told Senior U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew.
But not the Facebook page, she assured the judge.
"They even had me on there, saying I am facing 10 years," she said. "It's a page that's created for Tampa, for people who have done tax fraud and got caught. What they do is try to make you look bad and tell everybody your business.
"I was on the page, so how could I have made it?"
Some prison-bound felons get to take time to settle affairs. Not Denson. The judge put her in the custody of federal marshals to begin serving her six-year sentence.
Had the agency that protects the president managed to get the better of the Lovely D.O.D.?
Was this reign of gossip over?
The answer came at 10:44 p.m., the night after Denson's confinement began.
Someone cross-posted on both pages.
"YEZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ," it began. "INQUIRING MINDSSSSSSS WANT TO KNOW THE TEAZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ON DUKEYYYYYYYYY … ."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.