A South Side woman was sentenced Friday to just over five years in federal prison for a macabre scheme to fraudulently obtain death certificates of dozens of young Chicago murder victims and use their stolen identities to collect thousands of dollars in tax refunds and COVID-19 stimulus payments.
Among the identities used by Katrina Pierce, a serial fraudster with 12 prior convictions, was that of Amari Brown, the 7-year-old boy fatally shot in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on July 4, 2015, court records show.
In sentencing Pierce to 61 months behind bars, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall noted that virtually the only time in her adult life Pierce was not actively engaging in fraud was when she was locked up.
“There have been so many opportunities for you to turn away from a life of crime, and you’ve been unable to do so,” Kendall said.
Before she was sentenced, Pierce issued a brief statement taking responsibility for her crimes, but saying they were a product being born into a life of “poverty and violence,” including suffering mental and physical abuse as a child and bouts of homelessness as an adult.
“Some people, when you drop them, they break like glass,” Pierce said, seated at the defense table in blue jail clothes and glasses. “Your honor, I am on a journey of piecing myself back together again.”
Pierce, 51, pleaded guilty in August to a single count of wire fraud. Prosecutors had requested a sentence of six years in prison, while Pierce’s attorney asked for 2 1/2 years behind bars.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Havey told the judge that when Pierce was arrested in 2021, agents found more than 35 death certificates in her home from across the country, including Illinois, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and North Carolina.
At the time, Pierce was still on supervised release after serving an 11-year federal sentence for a strikingly similar scheme, using stolen identities and other fraudulent documents to steal more than $200,000 in federal tax refunds and state child care benefits, court records show.
Her latest scheme was first detected in November 2019 by an employee at the Cook County Vital Records Bureau, who noticed that Pierce had submitted requests for four death certificates in one day, claiming to be the sister of each of the decedents even though they had different last names, according to a 34-page complaint.
A check of the bureau’s database revealed that Pierce had requested a total of 37 death certificates in 2019 alone, and succeeded in obtaining 26 of them, according to the complaint. All of them were for homicide victims ranging in age from 2 to 22 years old, mostly from Chicago’s South and West sides, the complaint stated.
According them, according to the complaint, was Amari. Pierce had posed as Amari’s aunt when requesting his death certificate in 2019, then used the stolen information to file a fraudulent tax return that garnered a $4,400 refund check from the IRS.
In January 2020, IRS agents went to the two-flat listed as the return address in Pierce’s applications. In a trash can behind the building, they found “discarded handwritten notes listing the names of deceased persons” as well as the manner in which they died, such as “shot,” “stabbed,” or “fall,” the complaint alleged.
Images of some of the notes included in the charges showed the words “try to rob” scribbled next to the name of one 19-year-old murder victim.
The charges alleged Pierce used death certificate information to qualify for earned income or child tax credits on false tax returns she later filed under fictitious names and businesses. She also used the information to illegally collect thousands of dollars in stimulus payments related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the complaint.
In one such instance, Pierce filed a bogus tax return for a 22-year-old man who was fatally shot in St. Louis in 2019 listing $1 in income even though he’d been dead for more than a year, the charges alleged.
Based on that return, the IRS then issued several COVID-19 stimulus payments to LS: two for $1,200, one for $600, and another for $1,400, according to the complaint. The checks were sent to Pierce’s mailing address, which she had included on the tax return for 2020, according to the complaint.
In April 2020, the IRS received a tax return for a woman named “Rajona Pierce,’’ which was an alias Pierce had used in her prior criminal case. The bogus taxpayer reported only $1 in income from a fake beauty salon so that she could claim eligibility for pandemic stimulus payments, according to the complaint.
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Investigators searched IRS records and found multiple stimulus payments totaling $3,200 had been issued to a Rajona Pierce in 2020 and 2021, the complaint said.
On the signature page of the return, Pierce listed the salon’s address as 4946 S. State St., which was an address at the former Robert Taylor Homes, a residential housing project torn down years before the filing, according to the charges.
Investigators believe Pierce was using multiple bank accounts under various names to launder any ill-gotten gains, the complaint alleged. Over a six-month period in 2020, for example, Pierce deposited nearly $84,000 into just one of the accounts, which was more than double the income she listed for whole year in her 2020 tax return.
In that return, the charges alleged, Pierce listed her occupation as “quality assurance.”
In court Friday, Havey told the judge that no matter what sentence she imposed, “I think we will both see her (in court) again.”
“Basically everywhere she’s been, she’s picked up convictions,” Havey said. “It just keeps going and going and going.”