News

IRS arrests Wesley Snipes for tax fraud

Pedro Ruz Gutierrez
The Orlando Sentinel
Actor Wesley Snipes, accompanied by his attorney, Billy Martin, speaks to the media outside the federal courthouse in Ocala, Florida, Friday, December 8, 2006. (Tom Benitez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

OCALA, Fla. - Real-life drama seems to hound Wesley Snipes.

Four years ago, a former prostitute and crack addict falsely accused him of fathering her child.

The next year, in 2003, the Hollywood action star claimed someone forged his signature on a $700,000 mortgage loan on his foreclosed Isleworth, Fla., home.

This year, the talent company that represented him in blockbuster films sued for unpaid movie commissions.

Two months ago, the Orlando, Fla., native was indicted on charges of conspiring to defraud the IRS out of millions and failing to file income-tax returns.

And Friday, the jet-setting Snipes arrived in Orlando from Namibia - the site of his latest film, "Gallow Walker" - and was arrested by IRS agents. Then the Jones High School graduate was whisked off to Ocala's federal courthouse to answer the charges.

Attorneys for Snipes, 44, blame his latest round of woes on past ties with a group that advocates the nonpayment of taxes and questions the IRS' powers to collect them.

"We believe the evidence in this case will show that he has been the victim of unscrupulous tax advice," said Billy Martin, one of Snipes' three high-profile attorneys who accompanied the actor to the federal-court hearing Friday. A federal judge later released him on $1 million bail and said he could return to Namibia in southwest Africa to wrap up the movie. But Snipes must return to the country by Jan. 10, the judge said.

Snipes - indicted by a federal grand jury in October along with Venice, Fla., accountant Doug Rosile and former Lake County anti-tax crusader Eddie Ray Kahn - is accused of seeking tax refunds worth more than $11 million by amending past IRS returns.

He also is charged with sending $14 million in bogus checks to the IRS to settle his tax liability and failing to file income-tax returns from 1999 to 2004.

Snipes' chartered Learjet landed at Orlando International Airport after a 27-hour flight from Namibia that also stopped in the Bahamas. Federal authorities negotiated Snipes' surrender with his attorneys for nearly two months after an Oct. 12 indictment.

Snipes, sporting a goatee with strands of gray hair, wore his signature sunglasses, a black suit, blue shirt and matching tie.

At his arraignment, the actor's attorneys told U.S. Magistrate Gary Jones that Snipes pleaded not guilty to the eight tax-related charges. Standing with his hands cuffed in front of him, Snipes did not speak in court but later thanked fans for their support and said he would be exonerated.

"I look forward to clearing my name," said the former Isleworth resident.

During the 40-minute hearing, Jones heard about Snipes' work in Namibia and his efforts to develop the film industry there. Snipes' attorney Daniel Meachum said the actor's work in that country had employed 180 people and pumped $6 million into the local economy. Prosecutors later noted Snipes' request to return to Africa was unusual, but "we don't think it's a great risk because we worked closely with his attorneys," First Assistant U.S. Attorney James Klindt said after the hearing.

Jones also ordered Snipes to surrender his U.S passport after his return, report to the federal pretrial-services office in Orlando and live with his family in Marina Del Rey, Calif. The conspiracy and false-claim charges each carry a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison. Snipes also faces up to a year in prison on each of the six charges of failing to file income-tax returns.

Federal agents escorted Snipes through the back entrance to the Golden-Collum Memorial Federal Building at about 9:30 a.m. Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Snipes was upbeat as a handful of bystanders stopped to gawk and cheer.

Speaking at OIA later Friday, Snipes said it was "kind of ironic" to return to his hometown and deal with criminal charges.

"I've had some interesting experiences here in Florida," Snipes said. "Most of them great. Some of them not so great."

Snipes, who has made a living for two decades playing action heroes, villains and comic-book heroes, has made news on and off the big screen.

In 2003, he lost the $1.7 million home to a foreclosure auction. That same year, he successfully fended off a paternity suit filed against him in Indiana. And in August, his former agents at United Talent Agency filed a $1.5 million lawsuit in Los Angeles, claiming the star failed to pay commissions on Blade: Trinity and three other films.

How Snipes got involved with Kahn, the tax-shelter promoter, and Rosile, the accountant, is not publicly known. But court records show Snipes in 2000 hosted one of Kahn's tax workshops at his California home. David Wilson, an Ocala attorney representing Rosile, said his client never gave Snipes any advice and the two never met in person.

Kahn surrendered Nov. 1 and is being held without bail at the Marion County Jail. Rosile was released without posting bail Oct. 17. Both have pleaded not guilty. A tentative trial date for all three has been set for March.

Prosecutors say Kahn ran two tax-protest organizations in Mount Dora - American Rights Litigators and Guiding Light of God Ministries - that offered clients and members ways to avoid paying taxes. After a raid in 2004, Kahn moved to Panama with his wife. The Department of Justice filed civil suits in 2002 and 2003 against Kahn and Rosile to stop them from offering the tax packages they promoted online and at seminars.

By 2002, Rosile and the group were responsible for more than $36 million nationwide in underreported taxes, according to court records.

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