TAMPA — There are criminals. And then there is Priscilla Ellis.
Prosecutors say Ellis, 51, is so callous, so depraved that even prison can’t guarantee she won’t continue to do harm.
The Texas woman, convicted in a massive fraud scheme, was so incensed after her 2016 federal trial that she tried to hire a hit man to murder witnesses against her.
She said she wanted one to receive a "Colombian necktie" — a killing method in which the victim’s throat is slit and the tongue pulled through the open wound. She offered to pay more if another victim’s 9-year-old daughter was also murdered.
"Ellis is the rare defendant who will pose an acute danger to society for as long as she walks this earth," Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Scruggs wrote in sentencing memo in October.
Ordered already to serve 40 years in the fraud case, Ellis faces a second sentencing Thursday in the murder-for-hire. The government will ask for 85 years on top of her first sentence.
The attempted retaliation grew out of Ellis’ involvement in what prosecutors described as an international criminal organization, which defrauded dozens of people in the United States and laundered the stolen funds, some of which were sent overseas.
Some victims were law firms, solicited online to perform legal work. The firms were given cashier’s checks, then directed to wire money to third-party shell businesses controlled by Ellis and her cohorts.
Other victims were title companies defrauded through phony real estate transactions. Still others were people bilked by fake suitors on dating websites.
The victims typically wired money into bank accounts controlled by the fraudsters. The funds were then quickly moved to other accounts before the fraud was discovered. Participants in the scheme worked from Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Senegal and elsewhere.
Working from Texas, Ellis helped coordinate millions in stolen funds. She also arranged the creation of high-quality forgeries of checks and other documents.
Scruggs’ sentencing memo, which is as artfully worded as it is procedural, suggests that Ellis used her ill-gotten gains to fuel a lavish lifestyle.
It describes a New Year’s trip she took to Las Vegas at the end of 2014, where she anchored herself to a blackjack table, boasted to friends of winnings in excess of $50,000, dined on fine food and sampled high-priced booze.
As she prepared for the trip, one of her cohorts, Texas lawyer Perry Cortese, sent her a text message saying that one of the victims had become wise to the loss of $200,000.
"That other lawyer is blowing up my phone I can’t do anything ... for him," Cortese wrote, according to the memo.
"No you can’t," Ellis replied. "Block him."
The command "suggests that what Ellis needed to make it through each day, churning through human lives and sowing (misfortune), was the mental salve of deliberate ignorance," Scruggs wrote. "Just turn off the phone, ignore the pleas of the victims, and pretend that everything she was doing was fine and righteous."
He referenced T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem, The Hollow Men, to describe Ellis’ lack of remorse.
"For like the Hollow Men of T.S. Eliot’s imagination, her mind for years has dwelled in a barren land, devoid of any self reflection and awareness of what she has wrought upon others."
The prosecutor noted that Ellis drew her own daughters and her sister into helping her carry out her schemes.
"They were a means to an unsavory end," the memo states.
She was known to make threats against people she felt had wronged her, according to the memo. Her rage erupted at the posting of negative Yelp reviews for Texas Grill BBQ & Crabshack, a Texas restaurant she ran.
All of that came before her fraud conviction, for which she was held responsible for more than $11 million in fraudulent proceeds.
Within 24 hours of her trial’s conclusion, FBI agents heard from a jailhouse informer who said Ellis was soliciting inmates to murder one witness and the mother of another, according to a second sentencing memo filed in late December by Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gerard.
To pay the would-be hit man, the informer said, Ellis had begun a new check fraud scheme, using contacts she had worked with previously, according to the memo.
FBI agents enlisted the informer to secretly record conversations with Ellis, in which she discussed her murderous plans. She wanted one witness killed, believing it would prevent future testimony at what she believed would be her eventual retrial, according to the memo. She wanted a Colombian necktie for the mother of another witness, to serve as a warning against snitching. She agreed to a price of $800 per victim.
An FBI employee, posing as the informer’s cousin, met with Ellis to further discuss the plans. Ellis mentioned that one victim had a 9-year-old daughter. If the girl was present when the hit was carried out, Ellis directed that the hit man should "checkmate" her, too, the memo stated. She was willing to pay extra.
Ellis later enlisted her 18-year-old daughter to put her in touch with a Nigerian man, who helped her obtain counterfeit checks, the memo stated. She then directed her daughter to deliver $1,600 from the checks to pay for the hit, the memo stated. The money was exchanged in the parking lot of the daughter’s college dormitory.
Prosecutors declined to charge the daughter. But Ellis was charged with wire fraud and murder-for-hire soon thereafter. She was convicted at a second trial in March.
"As these events show, even incarceration is not enough to stop Ellis from trying to commit serious crimes," the October memo states. "It is, however, at least a barrier."
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.