A former Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy on Friday was allowed to recant his guilty pleas and will get a chance to persuade a jury that he didn’t use his access to law enforcement databases to propel a $250,000 identity theft scam.
U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks agreed to let former deputy Frantz Felisma withdraw his guilty pleas to charges of unauthorized use of credit cards and aggravated identity theft, and instead go to trial. In granting Felisma’s unusual request, Middlebrooks recalled the confusion that erupted in March when Felisma pleaded guilty to the two charges.
“He had difficulty admitting, perhaps to himself, that he intended to cause harm to others,” Middlebrooks wrote. But the judge warned that Felisma could face tougher punishment if he is found guilty by a jury.
Felisma, who was to be sentenced June 7, faced a mandatory two-year term in prison in addition to a possible 2½-year sentence.
Since the plea deal is off, he will face trial on charges of conspiracy to commit credit card fraud, unauthorized use of credit cards and four counts of aggravated identity theft. The charges are punishable by a maximum 23 years in prison.
During the March hearing, Felisma vacillated about his role in the identity theft scam. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Jorgensen said Felisma used law enforcement databases to get personal information about the owners of high-end cars. He provided the information to convicted swindler Kesner Joaseus, who used it to get credit cards in the owners’ names, she said.
Felisma, who in December was named Deputy of the Year of the Delray Beach district, repeatedly said he knew Joaseus was “a crook.” But he insisted he didn’t get any money. He wasn’t clear about how much he knew about the scheme.
Middlebrooks repeatedly told the conflicted former deputy that he shouldn’t plead guilty if he didn’t do anything wrong.
“Now, if you think you didn’t know that he was doing this and you were just doing it — I don’t know why you would do it, but if that’s your position — I’m not going to accept your plea and you ought to go to trial,” Middlebrooks said. “So you need to figure out what you did and what you didn’t do.”
After the judge gave Felisma time to talk privately with his attorney, Jason Kreiss, the seven-year deputy pleaded guilty to both charges. “I believe I did something wrong when I, when I gave him those information,” he told Middlebrooks.
Since then, Kreiss said, Felisma has had time to reflect. He insists he is innocent, Kreiss wrote in court papers. People are allowed to withdraw pleas before they are sentenced, he wrote.
Joaseus told agents Felisma gave him the information he needed to get the phony credit cards. Expected to be called to testify against Felisma, the 47-year-old Wellington man in March was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the identity theft scheme and an unrelated rental scam.