South Florida identity thieves jailed in $3 million tax refund case

South Florida identity thieves jailed in $3 million tax refund case

A woman who stole more than $3 million in less than three months by illegally filing fraudulent income tax returns — many on behalf of dead people — was sentenced Monday to 2 1/2 years in federal prison.

Sabrina Balkman-Bradwell, 47, who is also known as “Nellie Bell,” admitted last year that she filed numerous false returns and received approximately 948 income tax refund checks and electronic deposits, worth more $3,057,914, court records show. The tax returns were all filed between January 15 and March 23, 2011.

A co-conspirator, Edwin Bonannee, 32, of Hollywood, was sentenced Monday to two years and two months in prison and agreed to turn over $286,776 worth of restitution that federal agents seized from linked bank accounts.

Federal prosecutors had recommended that Balkman-Bradwell and Bonannee should both get reduced punishments because they said the duo provided a very significant level of help in tracking down and prosecuting other identity thieves.

After hearing about the extent of their cooperation and learning that both of them received threats from people who walked up to them on the street or called them on their phones, U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas decided they deserved even more of a break than prosecutors suggested.

Balkman-Bradwell, of Hialeah, and Bonannee pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the government.

Bonannee’s lawyer, Edward O’Donnell, said his client was orphaned at the age of 8 and grew up in 12 foster homes, where he was physically and emotionally abused. Though Bonannee stole identities and committed fraud, O’Donnell said he did his best to make up for his crimes by testifying against others who were involved in similar crimes.

Bonannee was a “superstar” informant and cooperating witness, O’Donnell told the judge, adding that he will likely suffer in prison because of that cooperation with law enforcement.

Balkman-Bradwell’s lawyer, Rick Hutchinson, said she was being punished more severely because prosecutors were able to prove that a greater amount of money moved through her accounts.

Prosecutor Neil Karadbil told the judge that the arrests were made as part of an undercover FBI investigation that led to Bonannee’s phone being tapped by investigators.

Bonannee and Balkman-Bradwell worked together and also worked separately with other identity thieves, the prosecution said. Investigators have not yet been able to track down all of the stolen money but have made several related arrests and told the judge they expect to make more arrests soon.

The two had “almost a mother-son relationship” that involved her counseling him, Karadbil said. “They also prayed together in the course of their conversations,” he said.

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