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In tax fraud's wake, dozens of kids grow up motherless

Ashley Guy’s 6-year-old daughter cherishes a purse her mother crocheted for her in prison. Guy also has a 9-year-old son.
Ashley Guy’s 6-year-old daughter cherishes a purse her mother crocheted for her in prison. Guy also has a 9-year-old son.
Published Jul. 5, 2015

TAMPA

The 6-year-old girl has a pink-and-blue purse, crocheted by her mother in prison.

"She clings to it everywhere she goes," said her great-grandmother, Annie Etti of Tampa. "It's always, 'Mommy, Mommy.' "

Adults tell the girl that prison is a college campus, but her older brother knows better. He has been having nightmares since their mother, Ashley Guy, was locked up last year for filing fraudulent tax refund claims. For three weeks, the kids slept in a car as relatives tried to regroup.

Across the Tampa Bay area, dozens of children are growing up motherless, a cruel consequence of stolen identity refund fraud. The crime drew in women in numbers nearly equal to men.

Identity thieves have hurt thousands of innocent taxpayers, overwhelmed the Internal Revenue Service and cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $5 billion a year. But they've also made victims of their own kids.

Some children have been handed over to adults who have histories of child neglect, drug addiction and cocaine trafficking, court records show.

Imprisoned Rashia Wilson, a single mother of three, once drew outrage for stealing $3.1 million in public money and celebrating her 1-year-old daughter's birthday with a $30,000 party, complete with carnival rides.

But last year, at age 2, the child's ride was all too real. She was unbuckled in a car that sped through a red light and spun into a Clearwater crossing guard, killing him. Police said her father, who served prison time for selling cocaine, fled the scene, leaving two preschoolers behind.

"She's all we got out here in this harmful world," Wilson's eldest child once told a judge.

Wilson, now 29, got 21 years. Goodbye hugs weren't allowed. The kids were left wanting what $3.1 million couldn't buy.

They bawled as she was led away in chains.

•••

Ashley Guy's mother, Valerie Guy, 48, recalls coming home after living away, seeing all the Gucci bags, and thinking she was in Hollywood, not Tampa. Everyone was dressed up.

"It just looked like a whole different place," she said.

Cops noticed, too. Drug dealers had left street corners to file 1040s. Moms on public assistance were pretending to be dead people with excess withholding. Tampa had become the epicenter of a new crime that soon touched every state in the nation.

The scheme was a minor irritation to Americans until thieves began to claim the refunds of people who were still alive. IRS Criminal Investigation anchored a task force. Federal prosecutors talked about sending a message. Judges stamped it and a beleaguered public cheered.

So far, 44 women and 52 men have been ordered to prison, among 140 charged in the Tampa Bay area since 2011, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found. Eleven others await sentencing.

Many of the women are single parents. It's unusual for women to go to federal prison in such high proportions. Only 7 percent of federal inmates are women.

"This thing that I did was nothing I wanted to do," said Ashley Guy, 32, who admitted in a court paper to theft of $309,895.

"I couldn't find a job. My back was against the wall. I had my kids. Hearing other people say it's so easy to get $8,000, $9,000, you get sucked in."

More than 80 percent of those charged in the tax cases are African-American, according to voter records, jail booking logs and prison data. They represent less than 1 percent of the bay area's African-American population, which tops 337,000.

Guy said whites were just better at keeping the money a secret, while African-Americans showed off.

Tax fraud got a foothold in a Tampa public housing complex several years ago. Patricia Shaw and Leah Lang filed claims using a computer at Robles Park Village, where Lang worked.

Shaw used a kids' jump rope team bank account to cash the Treasury checks. Word spread.

Some attribute the crime's local demographics to the sharing of instructions among friends and family. Tip sheets circulated containing line-by-line entries required for tax forms. As the scheme evolved, some posted their successes on Facebook.

"The recipe was shared and everyone started cooking," said Tampa lawyer Wade Whidden, who has represented at least three refund fraud defendants.

"The evidence indicates this was something that was communicated among people who knew each other," concurred Rachelle Bedke, who oversees criminal prosecutions at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

The impact on children runs across other types of cases, too, she said.

"It's very, very unfortunate, sad," she said, "that these children are being impacted by their parents' choices to engage in criminal activity."

• • •

Mother-of-three Tavia Ball, 36, was once a Tampa Bay Tech track star, No. 2 in Florida at the girls 800-meter run. As a teen, she had reasons to run. Her stepfather beat her mother and brought cocaine home, court records show.

For most of her life, Ball avoided trouble.

As an adult, she had worked her way up to a $19-an-hour customer service job at Amerigroup, settling disputes about health care claims.

But she had also married longtime boyfriend Carlos Goodman, now serving 21 years for cocaine trafficking. He beat her, an attorney wrote. He made her compete with other women for his affection. He coerced her into stealing Social Security numbers on the job and she got caught.

In his wife's defense, Goodman wrote a letter from behind bars, taking the blame.

"This woman has worked all her life starting from a very young age," he wrote. "She truly doesn't deserve the hand that she has been dealt."

A prosecutor noted that Ball still got to wear expensive clothes and drive an Escalade in a plot that brought in $405,000 by exploiting vulnerable clients. Amerigroup manages publicly funded health care programs such as Medicaid.

As she prepared to be sentenced, Ball told a judge she was only concerned about her kids.

"I'm puzzled," U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew said.

"If you're so worried about your kids, why weren't you worried before? Why weren't you worried when you married the guy that beat you up? Why weren't you worried when he asked you to do all this and you knew it was illegal?"

"I was always concerned about my kids," Ball said. "I wanted my kids to be like any other family in America with a mother and a father."

The judge gave her five years.

It was the first time Ball had been convicted of a crime.

• • •

Many of the tax fraud mothers previously had been booked in county jails for offenses such as battery, shoplifting or driving illegally. But few had committed crimes big enough to land in a prison, state or federal.

Most could still vote in elections, records show. They hadn't forfeited civil rights. They were registered, active and overwhelmingly Democrat.

Tax fraud was just too easy and too lucrative.

"It was just so easy to get $10,000 in five minutes," said mother-of-four Selathiel Frazier, 30, who is serving eight years. "Everybody started doing it."

Lawyer Mark O'Brien said it opened opportunities for women who otherwise might not have committed crimes.

"I'm not going to tell you there are no female drug dealers or stick-up artists or loan sharks," he said. "But that is typically criminal conduct that's committed by males; whereas, anyone can cash a check. You don't have to have a particular amount of strength or intimidation level."

At each step of the scam, there was a way to profit.

Clerical jobs gave women access to records in offices, medical practices, diagnostic labs and nursing homes.

Women could sell identities, provide mailboxes or Internet service, purchase reloadable debit cards for collection of refunds, file tax returns or help spend the money cards on merchandise to be fenced.

Whidden calls it a "travesty" that the IRS didn't put fraud-prevention measures in place after allowing electronic refunds to be placed on cards.

"It was like leaving a bag of cash on the street every night, expecting no one to touch it," he said, "and then only prosecuting people that were caught with empty bags in their cars."

• • •

On their way to prison, some of the mothers who stole America's tax refunds shared things in court about the influences that shaped their lives.

Some told of hunger, neglect, childhood sexual assault, teen abortions, beatings, bipolar disorder, suicide attempts and domestic violence.

More often, they told of parents who were absent.

The women's own absence now sets the stage for their own children to struggle — and for society to shoulder additional burdens born of tax fraud that may not yet be apparent.

Kids who lose parents to prison are especially vulnerable to deteriorating school grades, anger, depression, drug use and unhealthy adult sources of support, said psychologist Valerie McClain, who has a history of working with juveniles and now testifies on behalf of defendants in bay area court cases.

Ninety-nine percent of her clients in criminal cases have suffered a disruption to their attachment to a parent, she said.

But the tax fraud kids have also boomeranged from food stamps to Gucci and back, tasting wealth and opportunity they may never be able to recreate.

They likely feel powerless and ashamed, McClain said.

Some have been separated from siblings, divided up among families of birth fathers. They have lost not only mothers, but also aunts, uncles and grandparents to prison.

When mother-of-three Makaeia Demps, 25, was sentenced for identity theft, she couldn't leave her newborn with her mother because Bernadette Demps-Jackson was serving time on the same charge. The stepfather who took two of the kids has a history of cocaine trafficking.

Six of seven defendants in another case, all banished to prison, were related or had kids together.

"I find it very disheartening and sad," McClain said. "These children are basically victims themselves — victims of economic deprivation and social shame — and there are all kinds of tragic consequences.

"They're not the ones that did the crime and there needs to be a better way of incorporating them into the planning."

She was critical of a federal court practice that bars children from physical contact with parents in custody.

"One parting hug is a very small thing," she said. "Give them a chance to say goodbye."

Judges can smooth the transition. They routinely recommend placement at a facility in Florida so that families can visit.

They may let the convicted surrender a few weeks after sentencing, a privilege called self-surrender, unless there's a risk of flight or danger to the community.

Ball, the former track star, was free for 32 weeks after her guilty plea last August. Bucklew delayed sentencing so Ball could place her three children with her mother in Georgia.

In contrast, Wilson never got bail after her arrest. The Bureau of Prisons put her in a facility in Aliceville, Ala., 10 hours from her family. She hopes good behavior will get her back to Florida.

• • •

It's just an hour's ride from Tampa to the Coleman Correctional Complex, where some of the mothers live in a prison camp comparable to the one on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

The kids have gotten taller. Young ones are learning new vocabulary.

"When they come, they sit on my lap," said Ashley Guy. "We hug a lot. We sit around a little table and we play card games and we talk. It's bittersweet because you know at a certain time they have to go.

"My daughter is 6. She doesn't really understand. She's always asking, 'Mom, when are you coming home?' I know I won't be home for a long time."

Prison itself isn't bad, said Frazier, the mother of four. Outside, she depended on a $625 a month disability check and food stamps. Here she gets three meals a day, a shower, a roof over her head.

She just misses the kids. It's an extra penalty paid by parents.

"Now that I sit in prison, I say it's not worth it," she said.

• • •

Grandmother Valerie Guy is back in Tampa, taking care of Ashley's children.

The kids had been living with their mother in Riverview but after she was taken into custody, the family's housing subsidy fell through the cracks.

That's when the grandmother started keeping the kids in a car and letting them brush their teeth at McDonald's. Finally, another relative found room.

"She was a good mom," Valerie Guy said of her daughter. "When she left, they didn't know what hit them."

She catches her 9-year-old grandson daydreaming a lot.

She reminds him that his mother still loves him.

He wants to go to college, she said, and make his family proud.

"You can still be whatever you want to be," she tells him. "Just do what you got to do. Forget what's going on in the streets."

Tampa no longer seems like Hollywood to her, no longer glamorous.

Instead of cash, people have guns. Instead of talking about tax season, they talk about young men's funerals.

• • •

A hearing ends, and a thin thread of a 5-year-old boy steps into a down elevator at the federal courthouse in Tampa.

He looks uneasy as the bottom sinks. No one holds his hand. His mouth trembles.

Upstairs, a sobbing woman has been led away in chains.

The door opens. He follows an older boy out to the street.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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