Juan Garcia, who is serving a 23-year sentence for terrorizing and robbing several Hispanic families
Frank Bessire and his granddaughter Misty Aguilar, who both discovered questionable tax payments mailed to Bessire's home
Jerry Lester, director of internal affairs for the Tennessee Department of Correction
"NewsChannel 5 Investigates" has uncovered what state investigators think may be a tax scam.
But what makes this scam so unusual is that it's being run by inmates from behind prison walls.
Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams first discovered the questionable tax payments.
In just one case, we're talking about an inmate who drew a prison salary of less than $300.
But get this: the Internal Revenue Service may have refunded him three, even four, times as much as he earned.
For months now, millions of American taxpayers have eagerly awaited mail from the IRS -- first for their tax refunds, then for their stimulus checks.
But when Frank Bessire opened his mailbox last April, he was puzzled to find an IRS check for someone else.
"Had my address on it," Bessire said.
"But he doesn't live here?" Williams asked.
"No, he doesn't live here."
"Has never lived here?"
"Never lived here."
The check was for $903 -- made out to a "Juan Garcia."
And when Bessire and his granddaughter Misty Aguilar realized who Garcia was, they had even more questions.
"How did he get the check -- when he's in prison and been there for eight years?" Aguilar asked.
That's right: Juan Garcia is a state convict.
Sentenced in 2003, he's currently serving a 23-year sentence for terrorizing and robbing several Hispanic families.
At the time, he declared that he was indigent -- with no money to his name.
Add to that, according to parole records, he's also an illegal immigrant.
"Three days after we got that check, it was cashed," Aguilar said.
And, it turns out, Garcia fathered a child with another of Frank's granddaughters -- Misty's sister. They say she picked up the check -- and cashed it.
"She never did tell me nothing what was going on," Bessire said. She "said something about he could do that. I said, 'Well, I don't know how he could do that when he ain't worked.'"
Aguilar echoed what her grandfather said.
"She said somebody in there showed them how to fill out the income tax and a bunch of them did it," she explained
"A bunch of them?" Williams asked.
"And a bunch of them got checks."
So how does an income tax check -- your tax dollars -- end up being sent to an indigent, illegal immigrant who's been locked up in prison for years?
The IRS has estimated that as much as 15 percent of all tax fraud in the country is committed by prisoners -- prisoners who feel they have little to lose if they get caught ripping off taxpayers.
"Many inmates may actually believe that since they are already incarcerated, nobody is going to fool with prosecuting them and give them more time," said Jerry Lester, director of internal affairs for the Tennessee Department of Correction.
Lester added that his investigators have uncovered several prison tax schemes -- which usually involve helpers on the outside, plus an experienced ring leader on the inside.
"His role in it on the inside is to gain names, social security numbers and dates of birth from inmates who are willing to participate in the scams by providing that information for a cut of the return once it comes in," he said.
Misty Aguilar noted that "they say a prisoner's wife sends the income tax forms in."
And, in Garcia's case, just days after his ex-girlfriend picked up the tax check, prison records show she deposited a hundred dollars into his prison bank account.
"I told her, 'How does he get a check if he's in prison. He don't work. And that's coming out of our money.' She said, 'Well, it ain't nobody's business.'"
Frank Bessire said, "You've got poor people who don't get a dime back, which needs the money."
Even if their relative may have got involved with some sort of tax scheme, these folks say the IRS still shouldn't be sending your money to hardened criminals.
"Do you blame the IRS?" Williams asked Aguilar.
"Yeah," she answered, "cause they should catch that."
The family says they have reason to suspect Garcia may have also received a $300 stimulus check.
Now, as a result of what we discovered, the Department of Correction's internal affairs division has opened its own investigation.
Garcia refused our interview request.
Phil also tried -- without success -- to find the girlfriend to get her side of the story.
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