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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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Attorney: Tampa officer stole tax refund checks to fund divorce

TAMPA — A former Tampa Police corporal says she stole checks from the department’s evidence locker to fund her escape from a bad marriage to another police officer.

Jeanette Hevel is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday on a federal charge of theft of government property for stealing and cashing about $88,000 worth of fraudulent tax refund checks, plus 21 money orders worth $10,000 and a $3,000 refund anticipation loan check, which were in her custody at the police department.

Hevel stole the checks in 2011 and 2012, at a time when stolen identity tax refund fraud had exploded on the streets of the city and when police were struggling to deal with a crime that the IRS was not aggressively pursuing.

According to a sentencing memorandum filed by Hevel’s lawyer, Mark O’Brien, Hevel was in a bad marriage to a husband who had numerous affairs and also controlled the couple’s finances.

“She was in a difficult position,” the memorandum says. “Her goal was to escape a failed marriage but she had no financial means in which to accomplish this goal.

“It was at this point that Ms. Hevel learned from others within the Tampa Police Department that there were a myriad of Internal Revenue Service refund checks in the Tampa Police Department evidence room that were seized from suspects ranging from traffic stops to criminal investigations.”

At the same time, the memo says, no one was being prosecuted for the fraudulent checks, and they were kept in the evidence room for months and years.

“At that point in time in Tampa there was little to no chance the criminals who stole them, or defrauded the government for them, would ever be prosecuted in a court of law,” the memo says. “One must remember that the Internal Revenue Service, at the time, refused to cooperate with county or state authorities to prosecute the tax fraud epidemic.”

So “in a moment of weakness that has forever changed her life, the defendant turned away from all that she knew to be right and began to steal checks in a desperate attempt to escape her failed marriage,” the memo says.

Hevel talked to a “street criminal,” who offered to cash the checks and give her 10 to 20 cents on the dollar, the memo says. Hevel took the checks and hoped and prayed no one would notice.

Hevel is the first of three Tampa Police officers, plus one former civilian employee, accused of committing crimes in connection with the epidemic of stolen identity refund fraud.

A former detective and his wife, a former sergeant, Eric and Lajoyce Houston, have been indicted on charges including identity theft, money laundering and theft of government property. Former civilian police employee Tonia Bright has been charged in a federal indictment with conspiring to commit tax refund fraud.

After all that, Hevel is still married “to the same unfaithful man (yet tremendous father) who sleeps in a separate bedroom in their shared house,” the sentencing memorandum says, “and who to this day, still has an out-of-state girlfriend that he regularly visits.”

The memorandum says Hevel won the 2004 Officer of the Year award during her 27 years in law enforcement.

The charge to which Hevel pleaded guilty carries up to 10 years in federal prison, although the federal probation department has calculated that sentencing guidelines put her possible prison term at 12 to 18 months.

The defendant is asking the court to sentence her to a day behind bars followed by home detention.

O’Brien argues in the memorandum that Hevel has already paid a steep price for her crime. She was fired from her job and lost a pension valued at nearly $5,000 a month and $500,000 in deferred benefits.

“Besides the monetary loss, the defendant now also faces the stigma of being a felon within a small group (law enforcement) of men and women known for their loyalty and solidarity to one of their own,” the memo says. “This conviction will not be easy to overcome within her peers. The defendant has lost the majority of her professional relationships. This is made worse by the fact that when you are in law enforcement professional relationships often become your only personal relationships.”

Hevel, the memo says, “is living in a sort of odd exile, partly self-imposed and partly imposed by others.”

Still, the memo is accompanied by 18 letters of support, several from retired law enforcement officers who worked with Hevel.

“Though disappointed in her actions, I honestly believe that this one lapse of judgment does not define who she is as a person,” wrote one retired law enforcement officer, Arthur L. Cole. “I love and respect her immensely, even during these dark times for her and her family.”

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