TAMPA — A man wrote to police in March, asking them to return $1,521 that was seized along with evidence of identity theft. The money was a gift from his mother, he asserted. As proof, he enclosed her bank statement.
No refund arrived.
But he did get a letter. Tampa Police Department attorney Laurie Woodham noted that he had bought three cars in 2011 with no apparent income.
And, she let him know that he had just ratted out Mom.
"I have reviewed your mother's bank statement, and note that a tax refund check of $8,261 was deposited on Feb. 28, 2012. However, the IRS does not have a record of that refund going to your mother's Social Security number," she wrote.
"I have turned all of this information over to our Economic Crimes Unit for further investigation, as this appears to be evidence of refund fraud by both you and your mother."
Woodham, 43, specializes in forfeitures. She's one of many players trying to protect money the IRS unknowingly deposits into the middle of scams.
"I can't in good conscience let this stolen money go back to the people who stole it," she said.
The law allows police to seize evidence. Lately, the evidence is cash, sometimes from people who admit to police that they filed false claims for tax refunds. It's a crime so rampant and so complex to prosecute that some cases may never get their turn.
Assets wait in limbo.
Many tax thieves don't bother to go after the seized money.
If they try, they encounter Woodham, who wants proof that it isn't fruit of a crime.
Where did the money come from? How could they afford that car? Do they have jobs? Have they claimed poverty? She looks in databases. Is the Florida Department of Revenue after them? Do they owe child support?
Child support. The thought puts a winner's smile on the face of police Chief Jane Castor.
"I think it's wonderful," Castor said. "Getting that money and giving it to child support."
Castor holds out an optimist's hope that the IRS will one day stop the run on the Treasury, but she doesn't think the fix will come with any sense of urgency.
Cops don't run on federal time. Cops run on cop time. They see a dope hole, they dismantle it. If something happens, they put up yellow tape.
Red tape? What's that?
They hate this, the slow pace of a federal response to a problem that has infected a community like an outbreak.
"What we're stuck doing is saying, 'Well, you don't get to keep the proceeds. You don't get to do that,' " Woodham said. "Or, we work with HUD and say, 'You don't get to live in public housing for free and keep pocketing your money and driving your Aston Martin or whatever it is.' "
The chief told her to do whatever she had to do to keep assets out of the hands of tax thieves.
"We haven't lost yet," Woodham said.
Irony enters the scene. The IRS wants only some money. Getting it all is too complicated.
On a proud day in June, the Justice Department turned over $356,695 to the Treasury, money seized from the balances of 11,181 TurboTax debit cards after an investigation by the Tampa IRS Criminal Investigation Division.
The process required a lawsuit, a federal judgment and months of waiting.
Woodham understands the problem.
"The IRS can't handle 300 cases where we've seized $1,500 to $4,000," she said. "They want the $50,000 to $100,000 cases."
Local agencies and the IRS criminal division's aggressive new special agent in charge, James Robnett, have been exploring alternatives.
It's an ethical and legal dilemma: Police often keep assets from drug felons, as the law allows, but tax fraud has a known victim: the U.S. Treasury Department.
So Woodham has her own alternative, with the blessing of Chief Castor: They give child support enforcers a crack at the cash of parents who owe.
Woodham rattles off the names of fathers whose seized riches have been reported to the Department of Revenue, which issues garnishment letters.
It troubles her a little that parents might so easily shed child support debt, "but at least it's not cash in hand," she said.
She is the daughter of the late W. A. Woodham, sheriff of Gadsden County for 33 years. He grew up poor, she said, and always believed in giving second chances. He made sure she knew what a jail looked like, so she wouldn't wind up in one.
She has a law degree from Stetson University College of Law and 17 years' experience.
Others lawyers call her wanting to reclaim money for clients. They hang up dejected when she tells them it's tax money and they can count on a fight. "They miss their old dope cases," she said.
She looks forward to her tax refund. She can't imagine using someone else's identity.
"I think the whole thing has just disgusted me," she said.
A man writes and says he wants a car back. Police found Social Security numbers in it. She tells him the title isn't in his name.
He wants the cash. He wants the iPhone and the iPad, too.
Here's what he gets instead.
"I noted from the police report that you claim you earned the money as a barber," Woodham wrote. "You are not listed as a licensed barber. Practicing as a barber without a license is a criminal offense."