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Hernando gambling case to go on despite death of victim

BROOKSVILLE — For the first time, Dianne Kenney listened to her dad pray.

Laverne Dennison had always believed in God, religion was just a private thing to him. But as he lay in a bed Saturday at a hospice house in Brooksville, Mr. Dennison closed his eyes. He thanked God for the beautiful day outside, for his kids and for a long life.

"It was amazing," Kenney said. "Amazing."

Three days later, the 89-year-old died of cancer.

Mr. Dennison's death may have dealt a significant blow to the State Attorney's Office's case against his daughter-in-law, Jennifer Dennison. She's accused of gambling away Mr. Dennison and his wife's life savings — more than $500,000.

His 74-year-old wife, Janet, has dementia and can't testify against Jennifer Dennison. That made Mr. Dennison's testimony even more critical to the prosecution.

Still, even without Mr. Dennison's statement, Assistant State Attorney Jeremy Powers said he has a strong case against the 43-year-old suspect, charged with 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.

"It doesn't mean this case is over," Powers said. "The elements of the crime are still provable without his direct testimony, but there's no doubt this will cause more difficulty with the case."

Doctors first found the cancer at the base of Mr. Dennison's spine in June. They gave him six months to live. Within weeks, Powers had filed motions with the court to allow his testimony to be taken by video in advance of a possible trial. The prosecutor also asked that the court expedite the trial date, which has not yet been set.

A judge granted both requests, but a few weeks ago, Mr. Dennison fell and broke his leg. At the hospital, doctors discovered the cancer had spread into his lungs. He was moved into hospice care.

Bruce H. Denson, Jennifer Dennison's attorney, said he hasn't considered how Mr. Dennison's death will affect his defense.

Jennifer Dennison wagered at least $14 million over two years at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Tampa, authorities say, but because she played slot machines — a game that pays a high return on investment — she won nearly 95 percent of that money back. In total, she lost about $730,000.

His client, he said, recently has been treated for gambling addiction and has quit going to casinos.

"She's in a terrible situation," Denson said.

The money she is accused of stealing from the couple was intended to take care of his wife when he died. Now, the family says, they can afford to pay nurses to provide her with round-the-clock care for only the next five months. After that, they're not sure what they'll do.

The Dennisons will hold a private service Friday morning. At 1 p.m., the public is welcome to join the family at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell where Mr. Dennison, an Army veteran, will be buried.

In life, Mr. Dennison wore a broad smile and spoke in a deep, Southern drawl. He was an eloquent storyteller but didn't shy from a well-placed curse word. A survivor of the Great Depression and World War II, he still called himself a simple man. He loved his six kids and, more than anyone, his wife of 53 years.

Janet Dennison had forgotten much in recent years. People she knew, where she was at times and, most recently, that her husband had cancer.

As he lay in bed earlier this week, she asked him a question people had posed to her so many times before — did he know who she was?

Of course, he told her. He would always remember her.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Hernando gambling case to go on despite death of victim 08/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 5, 2011 12:00am]

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