CHICAGO (CBS) — Federal authorities on Thursday charged a woman with filing false tax returns and obtaining fraudulent COVID-19 stimulus payments using the identities of homicide victims in Chicago and beyond – some of them children.
As CBS 2’s Charlie De Mar reported, the families of homicide victims and violence in Chicago were of course already grieving when they lost loved ones — only to be victimized all over again, this time financially.
Katrina Pierce was charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. She has already served a prison sentence for a pattern of similar crimes.
As CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reported, among Pierce’s alleged victims is Amari Brown, who was just 7 years old when he was shot and killed on a Humboldt Park neighborhood sidewalk in 2015.
In a 33-page criminal complaint, a special agent from the IRS reported that the Cook County Bureau of Vital Records first became suspicious of Pierce in October or November 2019, when a staffer downloaded electronic applications for death certificates submitted by currency exchanges within one day.
READ THE FULL COMPLAINT:
Pierce had filled out four different applications from four different currency exchanges in one day – claiming to be the rightful decedent of four people who all had different last names, the complaint said.
It turned out that Pierce had filed to obtain 37 death certificates in 2019 alone, and had succeeded in getting at least 26. All were homicide victims ranging in age from 2 to 22 who had been killed on the Chicago’s South and West sides, the complaint said.
Requests for death certificates had also come in from a “Tracy Scott” and a “Tammy Jones” using the same West Englewood neighborhood address on Winchester Avenue that Pierce herself had used, the complaint said. Both names are suspected to be aliases for Pierce. The applications claimed “Scott” worked for “Pierce Auto” and Jones for “Pierce Inc.” at the West Englewood building, the complaint said.
In January 2020, IRS agents went to the West Englewood building, which turned out to be a residential two-flat, the complaint said. They went to the garbage cans out back and took four trash bags – in which they found discarded handwritten notes about all different people who had died – with names, dates of birth, and other information, and with manners of death such as “shot,” “stabbed,” or “fall” scribbled in the margins, the complaint said.
Pierce sought to steal the identities of homicide victims in St. Louis, and at least one St. Louis shooting victim’s name was used by Pierce to file false tax returns in both 2020 and 2021 for false COVID stimulus checks and prepaid debit cards, the complaint said.
Investigators later determined that Pierce had filed more than a dozen false tax returns in 2020 and 2021 – using her own name, an alias, or a stolen ID.
The first was a Form 1040 filed in February 2020 on behalf of a homicide victim whose identity Pierce had stolen after getting his death certificate fraudulently from the county, the complaint said. The form claimed a refund of $1,923 to be deposited in an account at Green Dot Bank, which issues prepaid debit cards, the complaint said.
The man whose name Pierce is accused of using in this case was shot and killed in a backyard in 2013, and Pierce claimed to be his sister, the complaint said.
There were numerous other tax returns Pierce filed that followed a similar pattern, according to the complaint. In one, she claimed as a dependent child a 7-year-old boy who had been shot and killed on a Chicago sidewalk in 2015, and claimed she was entitled to a Child Tax Credit and an Earned Income Tax Credit, the complaint said.
Another return filed in April 2020 used the name “Rajona Pierce” – an alias that Pierce had admitted to using before, the complaint said. This return reported $1 in income and did not claim a refund, and claimed it represented receipts from a beauty salon at 4946 S. State St. – where a Robert Taylor Homes high-rise used to stand and where there is now nothing at all, the complaint said.
Pierce filed false returns using the name of a man shot and killed in St. Louis twice – in both 2020 and 2021, the complaint said. She used her own home address in Grand Crossing for the return and listed a checking account for prepaid debit card provided Stride Bank, the complaint said.
Stride Bank records showed the U.S. Treasury deposited a $10 refund on a claim of $100 income, and a $1,400 COVID-19 stimulus payment, into the account Pierce had set up, the complaint said.
Pierce also filed a tax return claiming the murdered 7-year-old boy – again believed to be Amari – as her dependent again in 2019, claiming she was entitled to a Child Tax Credit and an Earned Income Tax Credit, the complaint said.
Charging documents indicate that Pierce could not keep the lie straight when it came to Amari.
The complaint said, “(W)hen Pierce requested (Amari Brown)’s death certificate in 2019, she claimed that she was A.B.’s aunt – contrary to the above tax return in which she claimed that A.B. was her son.”
The IRS agent reported the use of accounts with various banks that issue prepaid debit cards was an attempt at money laundering.
Pierce also applied for multiple Economic Injury Disaster Loans on behalf of small businesses that either weren’t real or were located elsewhere in Illinois or in other states – including Iowa, Montana, and Idaho – the complaint alleged. None of these applications were approved due to suspected fraud.
In one instance, Pierce is suspected of applying for a loan on behalf of a manufacturing business called “Katrina D. Pierce LLC” at the West Englewood address, which purported to have 106 employees and $670,000 in gross revenue, the complaint said.
She also filed for loans using the name of an agriculture business in southern Illinois, a small business owner from Idaho, and one farmer in Montana and two in Iowa, the complaint said.
The IRS agent talked with the boyfriend of Pierce’s niece, who admitted that he and his girlfriend lived on the second floor of the West Englewood building that was used as the address on many of the tax return filings and loan applications, the complaint said. He said Pierce had gone to jail for 11 years for fraud before, and said Pierce had had a falling out with his girlfriend, the complaint said.
The niece’s boyfriend said Pierce had moved in with them after getting out of prison in April 2019, and had moved out around spring 2020, the complaint said. He told the agent that Pierce did not like him because he stood in the way of Pierce defrauding her niece, the complaint said.
He also said he kept getting mail in other people’s names – including death certificates and prepaid debit cards to which authorities have now linked Pierce, the complaint said.
Pierce’s niece herself corroborated this story, the complaint said.
In 2012, Pierce was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for a similar scheme. She apparently served seven, having been released in 2019.
Pierce already had 10 previous fraud or theft convictions at that point, federal prosecutors said at the time.
In the 2012 case, Pierce pleaded guilty to fraud and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo that she “engaged in expansive and all-consuming schemes to steal identities from the dead, misappropriate funds from the coffers of her country, cheat programs designed to benefit children and working parents, and swindle governments across the nation — all to enrich herself. Stealing was [her] full time occupation and she was good at it.”
In the earlier case, Pierce obtained driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and Social Security cards using the names and identifying information of people who had died – and the ID cards she obtained had her picture alongside the dead people’s names, prosecutors said. This went on from January 2007 to July 2008.
She also obtained fraudulent documents for “Rajona Pierce” – the alias she is also accused of using in this latest case, prosecutors said. Pierce even had what purported to be a birth certificate and Social Security card for the fictitious “Rajona Pierce,” prosecutors said at the time.
In the 2012 case, Pierce caused about 180 fraudulent federal income tax returns to be filed for the tax years 2006 and 2007 – once again claiming to be representing someone who had died. She falsely claimed more than half a million dollars in tax refunds and got more than $60,000 before the IRS caught on, prosecutors said at the time.
Pierce also defrauded an Illinois Department of Human Services program that provided funding to child care providers – in which she used stolen identities and fraudulent documents to make up a fictitious child care provider, fictitious children, and fictitious parents, prosecutors said. All told, she collected more than $146,000 from the state on behalf of 13 made-up child care providers, prosecutors said.
She also obtained $3,800 in food stamp benefits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of “Rajona Pierce,” and got more than $21,000 through filing false state tax returns in Kansas, Maryland, New York, and other states, prosecutors said.
She also paid people to lie to federal agents in the 2012 case, prosecutors said.
In this latest case, a judge has ordered Pierce held in federal custody. She is due back for a video court hearing at 1 p.m. on Tuesday of next week.
Nobody came to the door listed for Pierce on East 74th Street when De Mar came by on Thursday.