13 arrested in tax fraud sting following two-year investigation

WIMAUMA - It was a home that stood out, not only for its corner location and its 18-foot vaulted archway entrance, but also for its elaborate array of surveillance cameras, mounted on every wall, seemingly shooting every angle.

"It looks like every time somebody came over there, they had to be buzzed in," said Jack Jackson, who lives across the street from 10917 Dunscore Cottage Way in the Ayersworth subdivision in Wimauma.

"We knew something was going on over there, with the high-end cars and always different people in and out of the house," Jackson said.

According to Tampa Police, the house was a key location in a region-wide scam operation involving tax fraud, identity theft, and stolen credit cards.  State and federal agents raided the home, pulling out a 73-inch flat screen television, and towing away a $90,000 Audi A8L sedan.

Stephanie Rickman lives two doors down, and said all the expensive cars and late night activity made her nervous.

"Very concerning, especially when I have three children at home," Rickman said.  "Walking to my mailbox right around the corner, I never felt safe," she said.

Several law enforcement officers live in the development, further surprising residents that a suspected criminal enterprise could be carrying on right under the neighborhood's nose.

In all, 13 people were rounded up in multiple locations throughout the Tampa area.  Twelve of them face federal indictments for identity theft, scheming to defraud, fraudulent use of credit cards, among other charges.  A lone suspect faces state charges; Rashia Wilson, 26, is accused of illegally possessing a firearm as a felon.

It's the culmination of a two-year investigation that started with Operation Rainmaker, named for all the cash raining down on suspects' mailboxes.  

Police detectives noticed a significant decline in drug-dealing activity in 2010.  Their theory is that many of those criminals switched to the easier and more lucrative business of ripping off taxpayers through tax fraud and other scams.

Tampa police Major Ken Morman said the significance of this sting is that many of the masterminds of the fraud epidemic were taken into custody.

"If there was a kingpin within the Tampa Bay area, this is them," Morman said.  "These are the organizers.  These were the ones that actually structured and directed everybody when this phenomenon started."  

Morman said the suspects would use hotel rooms and rental homes to train new recruits to learn how to commit fraud.  For a time, law enforcement found it difficult to keep the suspects behind bars.

Tampa police said today's bust is an example of how the combined efforts of local, state, and federal agencies will make it easier to arrest and convict tax fraud criminals.  The IRS, the Treasury Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office all contributed to the crackdown.

Two of the suspects living in the home in Wimauma had several tell-tale items typical of fraud schemes, according to police.

"They have a Medicare card in their name.  The have a food stamp card in their name.  And they have $23,000 in cash from the stolen and fraudulent income tax in other's names," Morman said.

"That's coming to an end."

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