Actor Wesley Snipes flew in from Africa and turned himself in to federal authorities on income tax fraud charges Friday.
A few hours later, he was back on his way, headed to the small country where they're shooting his next film.
Wearing a dark suit with his hands cuffed in front of him, he entered pleas of not guilty in U.S. District Court on charges of trying to defraud the government of more than $11-million in income taxes.
Outside the Ocala federal courthouse moments later, he remarked to reporters that the chilly Florida weather was "a big difference from Namibia."
He was cool and confident that he would beat the charges.
"I look forward to clearing my name and resolving this issue posthaste," Snipes said.
A crowd gathered to gawk at the star of such movies as White Men Can't Jump and Blade. "Wesley, you my dog!" yelled one young woman.
Friday ended a month and a half of suspense.
The government indicted Snipes in October, but it took days to locate him. Rumors had been rampant on the former Windermere resident's whereabouts.
Soon, word leaked out that he was in the African country of Namibia filming a futuristic Western trilogy called Gallow Walker. After a two-day trip with a stop in the Bahamas, Snipes flew into Orlando on a private jet Friday morning.
His attorneys asked that he be allowed to complete filming in Namibia because of the economic importance of his movie to that young nation, which is trying to carve a niche in the film industry.
Namibia is "feverishly trying to become a hotbed" of movie activity, and Snipes is helping, working with locals and crew members, Daniel Meachum, one of his attorneys, told the judge.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary Jones agreed, allowing Snipes to fly back after posting $1-million bail.
He must return to the United States by Jan. 10, at which time he will surrender his passport to authorities. He must live with his wife in Marina del Rey, Calif.
Snipes' attorneys disputed reports that the actor was trying to elude authorities on the charges by staying in Namibia since the indictment. They said he had offered to surrender to authorities there if the U.S. government wanted, but prosecutors and defense attorneys negotiated his return to Florida to appear in court today.
The prosecution didn't contest Snipes' request to return to Namibia, which had been part of the negotiations, said Bobby O'Neill, criminal division chief in the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Suspects in these types of crimes are often allowed to go free before trial, and Snipes isn't getting preferential treatment because he is a celebrity, O'Neill said.
"Don't forget, he flew here himself," he said. "We had no recourse of forcing him to come here."
Barry Sorrels, a Dallas criminal defense lawyer who has represented professional athletes and taken high-profile cases, said the federal government doesn't like locking suspects up until trial unless they pose a violent threat to others.
Besides, Sorrels said, Snipes' fame makes it nearly impossible for him to hide, even if he tried.
"The guy is known all over the world," he said. "There's no way he can run."
Snipes, 44, was indicted with two other Florida men: Eddie Ray Kahn, 63, a tax protest group leader from Sorrento, and Douglas P. Rosile, 58, an unlicensed accountant from Venice. All three are accused of conspiracy to defraud the IRS and presenting a false claim for payment to the agency.
Officials said the men helped Snipes - who earned $5-million to $8-million per film in the mid-1990s - file amended tax returns for 1996 and 1997, which said he didn't actually owe taxes but was due refunds of $4-million and $7.3-million.
Snipes is also accused of failing to file his income tax returns for several years.
His lawyer, Billy Martin, said his client was the victim of "unscrupulous tax advice."
But prosecutors say Snipes knew what he was doing. Some of the bogus arguments and tactics he used on the IRS have been rejected repeatedly by courts, and IRS workers warned him that his ploys had no merit, prosecutors say.
Because of this, the case will probably be settled, said Steve Johnson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tax law professor, who served as a senior attorney at the IRS Chief Counsel's Office.
"Snipes has no position," said Johnson, a former special assistant to the U.S. Attorney.
Snipes would have to prove to a jury that he was fleeced by the other co-defendants and that he believed "flaky" arguments even though the IRS told him repeatedly that they weren't credible, Johnson said.
If prosecutors make a deal, Johnson said, they would likely offer Snipes a minimal prison term and a payment plan.
But they probably would not forgive any of the money they say is owed.
Johnson said, "$11-million is a big number, but isn't that one film for Snipes?"
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.