The wave of tax refund fraud that has rocked the Tampa area is making its way across the country, and authorities say several former Hillsborough County high school football players brought the crime to the University of South Dakota.
Alphonso Rico Valdez, a graduate of Chamberlain High School, is accused by the IRS of being at the center of a ring that involved at least five current and former football players, as well as one former track-and-field athlete at the university.
"Unfortunately, the crime you're accused of has become all too familiar to our community," U.S. Magistrate Anthony Porcelli told the defendants during a hearing Thursday afternoon in federal court in Tampa. "And it's become quite an epidemic."
Given the background of many of those arrested, the judge said, the fact that they now are accused of this crime is "a tragedy."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney told Porcelli that Valdez recruited students at the University of South Dakota and people he knew in Tampa to gather names, addresses and other identifying information, and used that information to file fraudulent tax returns.
The suspects stole more than $500,000 from U.S. taxpayers in a conspiracy that spanned from June 2011 through May 2012, authorities said.
In addition to Valdez, the IRS in Tampa arrested Charlie Frank Adams, Jeremy Jamar Blount, Melissa Dinataly and Christopher Duane Frierson. Also named in an indictment unsealed Thursday was Christopher Jamel Lundy, who was arrested in South Dakota, according to court records.
A spokeswoman for the University of South Dakota said Lundy is the only defendant currently attending the school.
Michael Thompson, stepfather of defendant Jeremy Blount, said he doesn't think Blount was involved.
"I think he was hanging out with the wrong crowd, wrong group of people," Thompson said.
Asked if Blount was pulled into the scheme, Thompson said, "I think he's got … a smart head on his shoulders. I don't think he would have been. But I don't know how his name came up in none of this."
He added that he hopes the arrest won't hurt Blount's chances for a career in football.
Sweeney told Porcelli the scam came to light when Valdez used preloaded debit cards to withdraw $900 in cash from an ATM in South Dakota. Valdez tried to hide his identity by wearing sunglasses, a stocking cap and sunglasses, she said.
Sweeney said Adams' brother is a codefendant who has not been arrested yet. Though she did not name the brother, she said the brother's girlfriend allowed the IRS to search a car Thursday, and agents found a list of Social Security numbers, which Sweeney said suggests the "scheme may be continuing."
Authorities say people committing tax refund fraud frequently direct that the fraudulent refunds be deposited on the debit cards.
The defendants all are charged with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, an offense that carries a maximum of 10 years in federal prison. All but Frierson also are charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year prison sentence, required to be served consecutive to any other penalties imposed.
Dinataly formerly worked at Universal Health Care in St. Petersburg where, Sweeney said, Dinataly obtained identifying information and gave it to Valdez. Dinataly was fired from that job and now works where she doesn't have access to people's information, the prosecutor said.
Blount, a Middleton High 2008 graduate, earned All-Hillsborough County honorable mention honors from The Tampa Tribune as a wide receiver for the football team in 2007.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Blount received a scholarship to the University of South Dakota where he made an impact on the program. In 2011, he earned second team all-Missouri Valley Conference honors. He had 467 receiving yards and five touchdowns and averaged 21.5 yards a kickoff return, and now holds the school record for kickoff return yards in a career with 1,950.
After leaving South Dakota, Blount signed a professional contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. His attorney said he is working in a warehouse and plans to return to the University of South Dakota in January.
Valdez and Frierson are Chamberlain graduates and Lundy is a Tampa Catholic graduate.
Valdez's lawyer said he formerly attended South Dakota and now plans to attend the University of Tennessee, where he was accepted on a football scholarship.
South Dakota heavily recruits the Hillsborough County area because of its strong tradition of producing quality football players. There are five current players on South Dakota, including Lundy, who are from Hillsborough County.