Though Pinellas County prosecutors sought only two years in prison for a husband-and-wife duo accused of fraud, a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge had other ideas after a series of victims related their experiences to the court.
Last Friday the couple, a 32-year-old man and his 30-year-old wife, arrived in court to plead guilty to charges of scheming to defraud in relation to an alleged home-renting scam. Though the crime could garner the duo up to 15 years each in state prison, prosecutors and the public defender were prepared to negotiate over either a two-year sentence followed by five years of probation and restitution, or a seven-year sentence of probation and restitution.
However, before the decision on sentence could be made, the couple’s alleged victims had their say. One couple described how the alleged scammers kept stringing them along for months, establishing a relationship with them that involved both couples’ children. Ultimately they say the scammers bilked them out of $1,500.
Another couple said the defendants took them for $3,000, forcing them to live in a hotel while they sought more permanent lodgings. A third couple was prepared to move from a camper into the same home promised to the other victims, but ended up moving in with the wife’s parents instead, ultimately losing over $3,000 in the deal.
After the last alleged victim addressed the court, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger asked them if they preferred that the defendants go to prison or offer restitution. The majority of the victims requested prison time, prompting Judge Helinger to rule that a two-year prison sentence was insufficient. As the couple’s public defender decided that he could not represent both due to the existence of a conflict of interest, the hearing was rescheduled for early next month while new attorneys are enlisted to represent each of the defendants.