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Ex-Tampa detective rues her crimes, betrayal of colleagues at sentencing for stealing checks

Published Jan. 22, 2016

TAMPA — Detective Jeanette Hevel used to be proud of her Tampa Police Department uniform. She taught her girls that cops are heroes. And in 2004, she was named officer of the year.

"I look at the picture every day," she told a judge while choking back sobs Thursday at her sentencing in U.S. District Court.

Hevel's future was once secured by a now-forfeited pension package that could have been worth $2 million, her attorney said. Then came the felony conviction.

Now there is only shame for a woman who ended a 27-year career by stealing tax refund checks from an evidence room as her colleagues worked with IRS investigators to combat stolen identity refund fraud.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't hate myself for what I did," she said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't cry at night and ask God to forgive me."

U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington could have added a short prison term to Hevel's angst Thursday. Covington, instead, imposed a term of five years' probation, with eight months of house arrest.

She considered Hevel's remorse, her fall from grace in the law enforcement profession, the lost pension, the lost career and the continued assistance she is providing to investigators in the case. She ruled out prison.

"I thought about it," the judge said, "but I think you have paid a very big price here."

Covington also ordered Hevel, 48, to perform 1,000 hours of community service and pay restitution of $101,512.

Hevel's attorney, Mark O'Brien, said she got 10 to 20 cents on the dollar selling the checks.

He said she took them to pay for a divorce, which ultimately didn't come to fruition.

Her husband and four children were not in court. She said she didn't want to put her family through it. She faced the judge with a row of friends behind her.

The sentence came with the approval of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Prosecutor Jay Trezevant had sought a two-step reduction in Hevel's "offense level," which dropped the bottom of her sentencing range to eight months in prison, the portion she will serve at home.

He alluded to a memo he filed under seal this week about others who may be involved and made it clear the investigation isn't over, but he said he is not ready to disseminate findings.

In court, Hevel's attorney said the targets are "not all civilian," but did not elaborate further.

The Tampa Police Department already has two other former officers — Eric and LaJoyce Houston — and a civilian employee facing charges related to tax refund fraud. Those cases are unrelated to the Hevel case.

Trezevant, however, did link Hevel's conduct to another person's 2014 conviction.

Robert L. Sanders, 34, of Riverview and, more recently, New Port Richey, was sentenced to probation for participating in the theft and conversion of tax refund checks.

At the time, his connection to Hevel was not made public.

His plea agreement didn't name her, but implicated two others in the scheme, identified only by the initials J.L. and C.M.

Sanders' occupation is unstated. He was not a Tampa Police Department employee, a police spokeswoman said. He drew GI Bill benefits until last spring, according to a court record.

But his name now appears in Hevel's restitution order, imposing a form of shared responsibility known as "joint and several liability."

The judge said Hevel's crime wasn't simply financial; it was a betrayal of trust. Hevel acknowledged that. She said her conduct should not reflect on the uniform.

"These were my brothers and sisters," she said, turning to Brian Dugan, an assistant police chief, and former colleagues in the back of the courtroom, "and I'm sorry I betrayed you."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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