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Daughter-in-law stripped elderly couple clean to fuel gambling habit, says Hernando detective

BROOKSVILLE — Jennifer Dennison used to bring her father-in-law doughnuts and ice cream cake and lemon pies. Back then, before he knew what she was capable of, Laverne Dennison called her a doll.

Between those afternoon visits, authorities say, his daughter-in-law gambled at least $14 million in slot machines over two years at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — and in the process, lost more than $500,000 of her in-laws' money.

Jennifer Dennison is accused of stealing the 88-year-old's Social Security and his wife's retirement money. Hernando County sheriff's investigators said she forged his name on checks, drained at least six of their bank accounts and cashed in a pair of the couple's life-insurance policies that totaled $36,000.

She left Laverne Dennison and his 73-year-old wife, Janet — who suffers from advanced-stage dementia — with $9,000. "She stripped us clean," he said. "I didn't think things like this happened."

After a five-month investigation, detectives on Tuesday charged Jennifer Dennison, 42, with 16 theft-related counts. She turned herself in, refused to give a statement and posted bail later that night.

It started, authorities say, when Laverne and Janet Dennison gave their son, Scott Dennison, power of attorney in November 2008. His wife, Jennifer Dennison, handled all of the couple's finances.

Three months later, she took a job teaching a sonography class at Tampa's Sanford-Brown Institute, just a mile and a half from the casino on Orient Road.

Laverne Dennison first learned of what happened when he took his wife to the dentist in August, and the check he paid with bounced. His children looked into their parents' accounts and discovered they were empty.

"That's when we learned we done been cleaned out," he said in a slow Southern drawl. "I didn't sleep too good that night."

His daughter, Vera Cannon, went to the Sheriff's Office with the details.

Detective Irene Gray said some days Jennifer Dennison wagered nearly $290,000. She once won a car, earned more than $43,000 in profit on a single trip, and one day hit a $90,000 jackpot but still lost more than $3,000.

In total, reports show, she lost about $734,000.

Aside from the half-million dollars she's accused of draining from her in-laws, Jennifer Dennison also took a $300,000 mortgage out against her Brooksville home to fuel her compulsion, Laverne Dennison said.

In her 12 years working fraud cases, it's the most money Gray has ever seen stolen. "This family was just all in the dark, and by the time they realized it," she said, "the money was gone."

Scott Dennison knew nothing of what his wife had done, Gray said. Neither he nor his wife, who are now separated, could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Gray said she thinks addiction prompted Jennifer Dennison's actions.

Brian Kongsvik, the help-line director for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, said about one-third of the people who call seeking help admit committing crimes to support their gambling habits. The addiction, he said, can often be more damaging to families than even drugs or alcohol.

"There's no overdose," he said. "There are no signs until they hit rock bottom."

The news didn't break Laverne Dennison. He's angry, but the World War II veteran has endured hard times before. He survived the Great Depression, lost his first wife when she was 27 and over the past four years has cared for his second wife, Janet. He pours her bowls of cinnamon swirl cereal in the morning and microwaves TV dinners for them both at night. Sometimes, he reminds her of where she is.

The couple has been married for 53 years and lived in a small, white house on Arizona Street through it all. Because Jennifer Dennison did not pay insurance on the couple's minivan, Dennison can't even drive to the store to pick up groceries anymore. All the money she's accused of stealing — their life savings — was supposed to take care of Janet when Laverne is gone.

"That was the idea," he said while clutching the handrail on his front porch. "We thought we had a nest egg."

His skin is paper thin, he shuffles with a limp, but he shakes a firm hand. Dennison, who still jokes and finds moments to reveal a broad smile, tries not to dwell on what's happened. For now, he said, he'll lean on the support from his six kids and his faith in God.

"He ain't let me down so far," he said, "so I ain't worried about him running out on me now."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Do you need help?

You can reach the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling at gamblinghelp.org or toll-free 1-888- 236-4848.

Daughter-in-law stripped elderly couple clean to fuel gambling habit, says Hernando detective 04/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 1:30pm]
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