For nearly two decades, D’Ann Elizabeth Wagner had been a regarded as a loyal and dependable employee of Fort Worth’s Stockyards Rodeo.
A wife and mother, Wagner had worked her way up to the position of bookkeeper. That came with duties that included managing online ticket sales from local, national and international customers who wanted to experience live, authentic rodeo action.
With access to the rodeo’s finances and its website server, a “fluke” occurrence positioned her to steal from the organization’s coffers without being detected. PayPal had contacted her to see whether she wanted a debit card to manage the rodeo’s ticket sales.
“She said ‘yes,’ ” said Tarrant County prosecutor Brooke Panuthos. She quickly linked the card to her personal accounts and used the card to swipe small amounts of cash equal to the purchase price of a ticket order.
She got away with it for years, making her one of the most egregious white-collar criminals in Tarrant County’s recent history.
Wagner admitted stealing $1.3 million from her unsuspecting employer. Tarrant County criminal investigators were able to document more than 11,000 incidents of theft between January 2014 and March 2017.
In April, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to theft of property over $200,000. She received only 15 years because she had no criminal record.
Wagner spent the money on vacations, gambling at WinStar and two Harley Davidson motorcycles. She spent nearly $400,000 on game packages from iTunes.
“She was the middleman between both operations and accounting so she was able to stay in front of it,” Panuthos said. “Customers got their tickets so no one complained.
“She admitted it had been going on since 2008 or 2009,” Panuthos said. “She didn’t worry about getting caught until the rodeo hired a new general manager.”
When Tim Lanier arrived as the rodeo’s new general manager in 2016, it didn’t take him long to realize something was amiss. Among the telltale signs, Wagner sidestepped requests for the PayPal password to complete a redesign of the rodeo website.
“Right after I got here, I realized something didn’t add up,” Lanier said.
Lanier and others approached the District Attorney’s office, which launched a full investigation, including a forensic audit.
District Attorney Sharen Wilson has promoted awareness of white-collar crime and elevated prosecution of white-collar criminals to a high priority as a hallmark of her tenure.
As the Wagner case illustrates, “white collar crimes are not victimless,” Wilson said.
“White collar criminals are more sophisticated than ever and there should not be any embarrassment if it happens to you,” she said. “Our white collar team is in place because of how prolific these crimes have become.”
Wilson’s battle against white-collar crime is central to her mission of putting victims first.
To achieve that goal, she has established a multi-pronged approach that involves raising awareness through community outreach, procedural changes in her department and new initiatives such as the Elder Financial Fraud unit.
As a former state district judge, Wilson was familiar with the long trek to justice in these cases so she instituted a procedural change to expedite the process.
“It used to be that when someone was indicted it would about a year and a half after that to get to trial because most of the investigating was done after the indictment,” she said.
Now, much of the investigative work is done in advance of the indictment, which helps cases move through the system faster, she said.
The white collar crime unit is an annual $1.2 million operation staffed with attorneys, investigators, forensic analysts and other staffers. She has prevailed at increasing the budget to add extra staff.
The unit tackles a wide range of cases: theft, insurance fraud, mortgage fraud, money laundering, tampering with government records, security fraud, identity fraud, theft of intellectual property and any crime involving use of technology.
Wilson did not create the White Collar unit but she has nearly doubled the disposition of cases after being elected in November 2014. Between 2011 and 2014, a total of 243 white collar cases were handled by the district attorney’s office: 68 in 2011; 76 in 2012; 44 in 2013; and 55 in 2014.
From 2015 through this year, the unit has handled 477 cases. There were 18 cases in 2015, 106 in 2016, 120 in 2017 and 159 in 2018. Already this year, the unit has tackled 74 cases.
Establishing the Elder Financial Fraud unit, under the umbrella of white collar crime, was especially important to her because seniors “are our most vulnerable victims.”
“If someone steals from a 20-year-old, that person can recover,” she said. “Seniors don’t have that opportunity. Their lifetime savings could be wiped out.”
Among the goals of this unit are to protect seniors from “scam artists” and anyone exploiting seniors, including caregivers and relatives. Staffers support and educate law enforcement, businesses and community organizations in how to prevent and report elder financial abuse.
Wilson said the growth in white collar cases in Tarrant County is the result of increased reporting as well as population growth. As more people move in, these types of cases rise.
White collar criminals are also becoming more adept and creative in carrying out their ploys, she said.
“It’s amazing what people will do,” she said. As the Wagner case illustrates, “people will steal what they can.”
Noteworthy white collar crime cases handled by Wilson’s administration include:
• Chad Cappiello was sentenced in May to 47 years in prison for stealing more than $50,000 from Tarrant County residents, including some seniors, as part of a remodeling scheme. He took money from his victims but never performed the work.
• Michael Oguin was sentenced in May to seven years in prison for posing as an oil and gas investment expert and conning more than $1 million from wealthy would-be investors.
• Patrick Jenkins was sentenced to eight years in prison in January for absconding with down payments for roof repairs from multiple Tarrant County residents.
• As an instructor at a real estate training center, Bobby Vise convinced his 10 students to more than $1.2 million with him. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison last November for running a Ponzi scheme with the money.
• Nancy Carroll, a former attorney, pled guilty in 2018 to stealing more than $8.6 million from many victims of her Southlake title company. She was ordered to pay restitution and is serving 10 years in prison.
• Attorney R. Kent Livesay pled guilty in 2018 and was sentenced to five years in prison for insurance fraud connected to a scheme of suing insurance companies over roof claims after hail storms without the knowledge or consent of homeowners.
• Desiree Boltos was sentenced to 85 years in prison last year for theft of $1.7 million from elderly victims. She was dubbed the “Sweetheart Swindler” for entrapping through romantic overtures.
Wilson said victims should contact local police or the district attorney’s office to report these types of crimes.