- Associated Press - Monday, July 21, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Two Florida men accused of participating in a scheme in which former University of South Dakota athletes and others used stolen identities to fraudulently collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax refunds were sentenced to federal prison Monday.

U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier ordered Raunta Ellison to serve 5 years and 1 month in prison, while Dametrius Turner, a former cornerback for the Coyotes, was sentenced to 3 ½ years.

Prosecutors say Ellison, 25, and Turner, 23, were among 11 people who participated in a ring that stole people’s identities and filed bogus income tax returns showing about $1.1 million in refunds due, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Dakota. The Internal Revenue Service paid fraudulent refunds of about $500,000 before the scheme was uncovered.

Seven of the 11 people have ties to the University of South Dakota. Six, including the alleged ring leader, Alphonso “Rico” Valdez, played for the school’s football team. Another former student was part of the track and field team and student body president.

The ring was indicted in 2012. Four people, all from Tampa, Florida, have since pleaded guilty. Ellison, Turner and co-defendant Charlie Frank Adams, 23, who was sentenced in January, have been ordered to pay the IRS and ID theft victims nearly $422,000. Valdez’ former girlfriend, Melissa Dinataly, 23, was sentenced to two years in prison in June.

Seven co-defendants are expected to face trial before the end of the year.

Prosecutors say Valdez recruited students at USD and people he knew in Tampa to gather names, addresses and other identifying information, and used that information to file the fraudulent tax returns.

The scam was discovered when Valdez used preloaded debit cards to withdraw $900 in cash from an ATM in Vermillion, South Dakota. Valdez tried to hide his identity by wearing sunglasses and a stocking cap. That led investigators to a USD dorm room, where authorities say they found evidence of fraud that started a more than 6-month investigation.

Turner’s attorney, Kenneth Tschetter, said on Monday his client is “definitely” remorseful for his actions and will not appeal his sentence. Tschetter said Turner was in the “back end” of the operation and did not steal any identities. The attorney said Turner provided addresses where some of the returns where sent and picked up a couple of the debit cards in the mail.

William Sims, Ellison’s lawyer, said he and his client have not decided whether to appeal the judge’s decision.

The 11 people were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, and all but one was charged with aggravated identity theft. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The identity theft charge has a mandatory punishment of two years in prison.

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