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Montco woman, 82, sentenced for Social Security fraud

They don't get defendants like Evelyn Baptiste in federal court every day - or even every year.

Baptiste, a Montgomery County resident, was sentenced Thursday to six months' home confinement and five years probation for pocketing $186,000 in Social Security disability benefits she didn't deserve.

But it wasn't the crime that made her unique. It was her age: Baptiste is 82.

Of the 170,000 defendants sentenced nationwide for federal crimes in a recent two-year span, only a few dozen were over age 80, according to Justice Department data. Of them, only three were female octogenarians.

The unusual circumstances weren't lost on U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker, who agreed to depart from federal guidelines that recommended Baptiste, a first-time offender, serve at least a year in prison.

Even the prosecutor, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda R. Reinitz, agreed that Baptiste's age and declining health made her an unlikely inmate.

"That being said, this crime is a multi-decade offense in which she stole from a government program that everyone knows is in trouble," Reinitz told the judge, arguing for the home confinement.

It's because Social Security is in trouble that Baptiste likely got prosecuted.

In an internal audit earlier this year, officials discovered that two Social Security checks were being sent to her house in Royersford. One was the traditional Social Security payout that Baptiste began collecting when she retired in 1992 after a lifetime in the workforce.

The other was a check she had been receiving under another name since 1978 - when, because of her failing eyesight, she sought Supplemental Security Income, the government handout designed to help the unemployed poor, elderly or disabled citizens.

It amounted to a few hundreds of dollars a month, but over decades climbed to more than $186,000.

Baptiste was charged after an investigation by the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General. She pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud in May.

As her son and daughter sat behind her in court, Baptiste told the judge she was "very sorry" for the crime and the embarrassment for her family.

Because of her medical expenses, plus a cable bill, car insurance and housing costs, Baptiste could spare about $50 a month toward repaying the money, her public defender, Tracy Lee Frederick, told the judge.

In a brief interview after the hearing, Baptiste's son, Curtis Jenkins, said his mother deserved blame, but not all of it. She first got the supplemental check back in the 1970s when her failing eyesight made it tough to find work, according to Jenkins.

She called it "her blind pension," he said.

When his mother got a job offer at Byberry Hospital, Jenkins said, she used a different Social Security number because she was worried they would fire her if they discovered she was disabled.

She expected Social Security officials would regularly review her file case or contact her to make sure she still qualified. They didn't, her son said.

"What happened to all the follow-ups?" Jenkins said.

Reinitz, the prosecutor, said the crime amounted to more than a mistake or lapse in judgment, noting Baptiste took steps to get a second Social Security number.

It's also not that uncommon. Reinitz is one of two Philadelphia area assistant U.S. attorneys detailed to prosecute Social Security fraud as part of a national crackdown, she said.

As often as not, Reinitz said, the cheats tend to be older citizens who've been collecting undeserved benefits for years.

Tucker, the judge, noted that such crimes are "one of the reasons that Social Security is in the fix that it is at this point."