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From Prosecutor to Prosecuted

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 17, 2004
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From Prosecutor to Prosecuted

A former prosecutor and Stetson student bar president tried shortcuts to financial success, including the theft of a client's identity.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

It was just 13 years ago that Iric Vonn Spears received his law degree. A job as an apprentice prosecutor at the state attorney's office in Tampa awaited his passage of the bar exam. Life looked good for Spears, then 26, president of the student bar association at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

What appeared to be his charmed existence has since taken a jarring turn. Today, Spears is divorced, disbarred and deeply in debt. He sits in the Calhoun Correctional Institution, west of Tallahassee. He isn't expected to be freed from prison before 2014.

What happened?

How could Spears, a dapper African-American attorney in a region with few lawyers of color, trash a promising legal career in a relatively short period of time?

A review of law enforcement and other public records by GCBR, tracing his mere six years of licensed law practice, help a bit with the how-did-he-do-it question. A definitive answer as to why is more elusive.

The easiest moral to the Iric Spears story is this one: If you're thinking about lying, cheating and stealing to get ahead, you should consider doing it outside of the legal profession.

Investigators for The Florida Bar were relentless when it became apparent that Spears had branched out from the law into a completely different line of work and become a one-man, white-collar crime wave. Investigators and prosecutors for Bernie McCabe, the state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, joined the chase to stop Spears and locate a source of compensation for his victims.

It wasn't long before the Florida Supreme Court kicked Spears out of the business. Finally, earlier this year, a Pinellas judge sent Spears away.

Stint with state attorney

Born in Austin, Texas, on May 28, 1965, Spears graduated from Chamberlain High School in Tampa. He bounced around for his post-secondary education. Spears spent time at the University of Florida, California State University at Fullerton and the University of California at Los Angeles, before taking a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of California at San Diego in 1988.

Most summers during the 1980s, Spears tested aluminum products as a quality-control inspector at a San Francisco factory.

After college, Spears came back to Florida to attend law school at Stetson. He joined the Trial Advocacy Society. Spears clerked in the consumer fraud section of the state attorney general's Tampa office and researched right-to-die issues for Rebecca C. Morgan, a Stetson professor who teaches elder law.

Spears presided over the Stetson Student Bar Association for the 1990-91 academic year.

A Stetson classmate praised his initiative for a sentencing judge years later as the attorney sought mercy for Spears in a criminal proceeding. "Iric worked very hard in law school to achieve his goals," wrote Clearwater lawyer Douglas M. deVlaming, "which makes this case all the more tragic."

During his final year of law school, Spears interned with the Hillsborough County state attorney's office. An office photograph of Spears from that period shows a confident and relaxed young man, a handkerchief protruding smartly from the breast pocket of his business suit.

After his 1991 Stetson commencement, Spears was hired as a $24,000-a-year legal trainee with the office of then-Hillsborough State Attorney Bill James.

Spears displayed an upbeat attitude at work. "His personality and attitude are terrific," wrote a supervisor, Henry W. Lavandera, in an early 1992 evaluation.

Once, after attending an autopsy, Spears returned to the office to compose a slice-by-slice account. "Absolutely fascinating," Spears wrote Lavandera. "Once I got used to the smell it was great, something everyone in the office should go through."

When the corpse was stitched back up, Spears playfully wrote, the deceased took on a striking resemblance to an assistant prosecutor who worked for James.

But "personal problems," unspecified in his personnel file, and taking three tries to pass the bar made James assistants hesitant to reciprocate with enthusiasm for Spears.

"Iric needs to buckle down and gain control over the caseload, pay attention to his files and mature in his ability to handle a big docket effectively," Lavandera, now an associate general counsel at the University of South Florida, wrote in the fall of 1992.

Spears disagreed. The newly minted lawyer argued that his year of studying for the bar and gaining familiarity with courtroom procedures warranted praise. "I might not have been able to say that back at my last evaluation," Spears wrote, "but I assure you I have improved substantially."

Within three months of writing those words, Spears was gone. From making routine court appearances as a law student on behalf of the office to his 1993 departure, Spears was a prosecutor fewer than 18 months.

Rocky start

The reasons for his exit are unclear. Rather than going with an established law firm, however, Spears formed his own with a pair of Stetson classmates. Jeeves, Spears & Roe PA was open for clients by 1994.

Despite their inexperience, Spears, Scott R. Jeeves and Gregory S. Roe went first cabin. They rented space for their main place of business in the upscale Feather Sound area of Clearwater. They also maintained satellite offices in Tampa's tony Hyde Park neighborhood and downtown Sarasota.

The partners tried for a big splash, too, with large outlays for advertising on the covers of telephone directories and the sides of transit buses. "They entered into expensive leases, and created an organization that was not only difficult to manage but almost impossible to fund," deVlaming commented in a 1999 letter to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer.

The undercapitalized enterprise suffered a critical setback when a water main broke underneath their 1,100-square-foot Feather Sound office. The floor collapsed and, as Spears recounted in a 1998 deposition, all of the firm's files got soaked.

The partners added almost 4,000 more square feet to their space. Their intention was to rent out a portion of the space to other lawyers who would help them pay off a big note that they had pledged to start the firm.

But one partner left. "You have one of the cards being taken out of the house of cards," is how Spears described it. Then another departed. The firm dissolved. Spears did a little work as a sole practitioner and later handled insurance cases stemming from automobile accidents for another firm.

On Aug. 2, 1997, Spears married Nicole M. Bowens, an event manager at the Marriott hotel inside Tampa International Airport's main terminal. Age 28 when she married, Bowens was a Queens, N.Y., native with a degree in hotel administration from the University of New Haven. She later managed the restaurant operation at a Westshore District jazz nightclub owned by then-Tampa Bay Buccaneer Chidi Ahanotu.

But there was already trouble brewing for her new husband.

Months earlier, in April of 1997, Florida Bar auditor Debra J. Davis had visited Iric Spears at his law office in St. Petersburg. Spears had failed to answer a subpoena from Davis, although she had given him two extensions.

Davis was responding to a complaint against Spears by a physician. She found Spears had placed more than $3,000 from an $8,500 auto-accident settlement he had negotiated into a personal account that should have gone to the physician to cover a client's medical bills. After two of three partial payments to the doctor were late, Spears bounced a check for the final installment.

The trust account records, loosely maintained by Spears, were in a shambles and Davis cited him for numerous violations of Bar rules.

A suspension

In January of 1998, Spears consented to a three-year suspension from the practice of law after agreeing to reimburse the clients whose settlement proceeds he had pocketed. McCabe's office opened a criminal investigation.

In March of that year, McCabe investigator Robert D. Ulmer discovered that Spears had misled bar officials into thinking the clients were made whole. Spears had provided the lawyer regulators with copies of letters and checks he claimed to have mailed to his client victims.

Yet, when Ulmer asked the guardian for a Bradenton woman about a $5,849 check due from Spears, the investigator wrote: "She was quite surprised when I posed this question and she indicated that she had not received this check nor the letter." Another would-be recipient of a Spears reimbursement reported being without check as well.

A month later, after chagrined bar officials opened a fresh probe of Spears, his two ex-clients finally had their money.

"The state attorney investigation has caused a great deal of stress," Spears wrote to Davis in May 1998, by way of an apology. "I can assure you that any delay was neither intentional nor deceitful on my behalf."

That didn't wash with McCabe. On March 15, 1999, Spears entered a guilty plea to grand theft and was sentenced to two years of probation. Judge Greer withheld a felony conviction and none appeared on the defendant's criminal record at that time.

"It is my hope that Iric has learned from his mistakes and that others can learn from them as well," defense lawyer deVlaming told Greer.

That was not to be. On the day of sentencing, McCabe investigator Ulmer reported new allegations to the bar that Spears had tried to swipe another settlement from a client.

Back in 1997, Spears received a $15,000 insurance check that he was expected to split with a client to settle a personal-injury claim that arose from an auto crash. After subpoenaing bank records, Ulmer concluded Spears had used the money for personal use.

Ulmer attempted to contact Spears client Michael Carey as early as May of 1998. But he wasn't able to talk to Carey until just before Christmas of that year. Carey admitted to Ulmer that he had been ducking the investigator - on instructions from Spears. While doing the dodge, Carey finally received two checks for a total of $11,000 from Spears.

During his investigation, Ulmer came across an Oct. 15, 1997, letter from Spears to Carey. "It is clear from this letter, Spears had no intention of paying his client the funds he was due from the insurance settlement and further attempted to dissuade Carey from following up his claim due to a statute of limitations exclusion," Ulmer wrote the bar. "In my opinion, the only reason why Carey was paid the $11,000 by Spears was a direct result of this office's investigation of Spears' activity."

Yet the two-year probation for Spears was cut in half after a motion by deVlaming in 2000. Plus, a referee recommended that the Florida Supreme Court take no further action against Spears for attempting to stiff Carey.


The state's highest court wasn't as accommodating.

"Spears deposited the settlement check into his general account, then terminated his representation of Carey by letter one month later without informing Carey of the settlement," the Supreme Court wrote in an opinion dated April 12, 2001. "From our perspective, there cannot be a clearer example of the deceptive and intentional misappropriation of client funds than the conduct at issue in this case."

The justices were especially galled that Spears carried out his "criminal and dishonest conduct" while negotiating the earlier three-year suspension. They ordered his disbarment.

But Spears was slow to act like he wasn't allowed to practice law anymore. The complaints kept coming into the bar.

A Michigan woman told bar investigators in May of 2002 that Spears was her lawyer and had recently informed her that she would get a "couple million dollars" to compensate her and her mother for heart damage suffered by their use of a once-popular diet drug.

But even more disturbing information came from a Lutz food salesman. Reginald O. Dalton told bar investigators that Spears had obtained an American Express credit card in his name and accumulated $5,000 in charges.

Dalton claimed Spears was his attorney, too. Not until he contacted former Spears law partner Greg Roe did Dalton learn that Spears was disbarred.

That wasn't the only revelation about Spears. Citibank called Dalton to say his credit card had been "red flagged." Somebody named Iric Vonn Spears was using the card with Dalton's Social Security number.

Then it dawned on Dalton: His supposed attorney had stolen his identity.

The news only got worse for Dalton. Spears somehow managed to take out two mortgages for $250,000 in Dalton's name to buy a house in an Atlanta neighborhood. The property almost immediately went into foreclosure. The closing statement for the real estate sale showed Spears collecting $30,000 in legal fees.

Around the time of the Georgia deal, Spears filed for bankruptcy in Tampa. Spears claimed to have earned an average of $45,000 a year between 1998 and 2000. His main occupations were real estate investor, pharmaceutical consultant and paralegal. Yet a $194,000 foreclosure judgment already had been entered against him and his wife in Pinellas.

Nicole Bowens-Spears became her husband's chief nemesis after the couple separated in early 2002. According to bar records, Spears had his wife arrested on a trumped-up charge after a domestic incident on Jan. 10, 2002. He recanted the next day.

That was too late for his wife. Nicole Bowens-Spears filed for divorce in Clearwater and filled the ears of investigators.

Although the husband and wife each owned Mercedes Benz autos, Iric Spears was charged with forgery after Nicole Bowens-Spears told Hillsborough sheriff's detectives that he had forged her signature on an application for a $33,000 loan to buy a sports car in Georgia.

Spears claimed he purchased the vehicle for his wife after she was told the couple couldn't have children. A year later, Nicole Bowens-Spears gave birth to a son, who became a pawn in their antagonistic breakup.

Forgery had become a specialty of Iric Spears. Another law school chum, Christopher Laing Clark, told investigators that Spears had obtained his notary public stamp while working out of his Tampa office.

Bar investigators determined that Clark's notary stamp was used to seal the Atlanta land deal by Spears, who also forged his classmate's signature to a few of the closing documents.

Another arrest

On the morning of Dec. 4, 2002, Pinellas sheriff's deputies came knocking at a Clearwater house Spears shared with a girlfriend, Melony Dennis, a recent law school graduate. Spears was arrested on 16 counts of grand theft, mortgage fraud and forgery.

Dennis, 37, a military veteran, reluctantly admitted signing documents indicating she made $114,000 a year at a company operated by Spears. The documents were to be used by Spears to obtain additional mortgages on properties in Tennessee, she told Ulmer. Dennis says she later disavowed the documents because she wasn't getting the $114,000 salary. She was studying for the bar exam.

The parents of Spears put up two of their houses to secure a $150,000 bond for their son's release from the Pinellas County Jail. The charges mostly concerned the Atlanta home purchase.

Dalton, 57, told investigators that he met Spears at a wedding during the summer of 1999. Spears introduced himself as a lawyer. Later, Dalton hired Spears to represent him in an employment dispute.

Acting as if he was still licensed to be a lawyer, Spears gathered up reams of personal information from Dalton, including copies of the purported client's driver's license, Social Security number and employee tax statements. It was that data Spears used to pass himself off as Dalton's lawyer in Atlanta so he could borrow the money and sign the papers to close the home purchase, Dalton told investigators.

Spears further betrayed Dalton by persuading him to buy a house in Avila, an exclusive golf community north of Tampa, as a favor for a friend who couldn't qualify for financing. Instead of quitclaiming the house from Dalton to his friend, Spears moved in himself during 2001 and let the mortgage go into default.

Facing prison, Spears made an elaborate attempt to wiggle out of his fix. Spears, using a real lawyer, filed a proffer with the court that included a lengthy statement claiming Dalton and Chris Clark were in on the scheme with him.

Dalton and Clark were livid when told of the Spears proffer by McCabe investigators.

Dalton pointed out that he never signs a legal document with anything but his full and formal name. Whoever was signing the papers for the house sale in Atlanta signed his name, variously, "Reggie Dalton" or "Reg Dalton."

Clark, 44, who had moved his law practice to Fort Lauderdale in 2001, "vehemently denied" to investigators that he had prepared any fraudulent documents for Spears.

Two sentences in one day

His contentious divorce didn't go well for Spears, either.

Spears ignored two orders to pay back child support in 2003, according to court records. By April, an attorney for his by then ex-wife moved for a contempt citation. The former husband's appearance at the court hearing didn't help his cause with Circuit Judge Mark I. Shames.

"There are serious issues regarding the credibility of the testimony of the former husband," Shames wrote in an April 22 order. "The former husband appeared in court wearing nice clothes and acknowledged that he drives a Mercedes. The former husband acknowledges that he has a place to live. Further, the former husband does not appear to be malnourished.

"Based upon the court's observations and the lack of credibility of the testimony of the former husband, the court is not persuaded that the former husband has no income and/or ability to pay child support."

For blowing off $7,706 in child-support payments, Spears was sentenced to 90 days in the Pinellas County Jail.

The incarceration was extended by 10 years that same day by another circuit judge, W. Douglas Baird. Following a no-contest plea, Spears got 10 years in state prison on a grand theft charge, followed by 10 years of probation.

He was also ordered to make restitution of $136,328 to a Virginia bank for the Atlanta mortgage fraud and another $8,530 to Citibank for the credit card debt he'd run up under Dalton's name.

Family court Judge Shames is allowing Spears to maintain contact by telephone and mail with his son over the next decade. The boy will be 13 years old when Spears is slated to be a free man again.


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