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Woman guilty in elaborate fraud scheme

She gets two years in prison in a case that included a fake wedding and death, plus other twists and turns.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


She gets two years in prison in a case that included a fake wedding and death, plus other twists and turns.

LARGO -- How in the world could anyone be as gullible as Debra Dawson?

A prosecutor asked that question Friday just before Sherrie Lee Cannon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison for defrauding Dawson, ending one of the most bizarre criminal cases in recent Pinellas history.

Cannon, 47, is charged with duping Dawson, 41, into marrying a fictitious law enforcement agent in a telephone ceremony and then staging his funeral with an empty casket as a prop.

"How can anyone be so gullible?" prosecutor Fred Schaub said again later to a reporter. "It happens all the time. As long as there are con people, there will be victims."

In a plea deal with prosecutors, Cannon pleaded guilty to a scheme to defraud and two probation violations. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley sentenced her to slightly more than two years in prison, or the bottom of the state guideline range, and imposed a $250,000 restitution lien for money she got from Dawson in a variety of schemes.

A lien won't force any payment to the victim unless Cannon comes into some unexpected money, such as lottery winnings.

Cannon, whose trial was scheduled for next week, had faced up to 40 years in prison. With credit for time already served, she will be free in about a year.

Cannon's attorney, John Trevena, said Cannon wasn't acknowledging the truth of the charge against her but was simply taking a plea of convenience to avoid additional charges the state had been investigating against her.

"This was a deal she couldn't possibly refuse," Trevena said. "It was a gift from the state."

The reason for the gift, Trevena said, was a simple one -- and yet another of the strange twists the case had taken. The victim, Dawson, was having a sexual affair with Rick Narum, the Pinellas sheriff's detective who investigated the case against Cannon.

Narum, Dawson and prosecutors say the affair, revealed to Trevena last month, was irrelevant to the case. Schaub said the affair began in December, long after Narum had already concluded his investigation.

Prosecutors and Dawson's attorney, Robert Merkle, said published accounts of the affair in the St. Petersburg Times overshadowed the fact that Dawson was a victim who had lost everything.

"It's nobody's business," Merkle said of the affair. "If you want to write yellow journalism, that's up to you." Dawson would not comment.

But Trevena said the affair was relevant. The case, he said, hinged on Dawson's credibility. If Narum was having sex with her, his entire investigation is suspect, the lawyer said.

Last week, Narum was questioned about his affair with Dawson during a deposition. The Times obtained a transcript from a court reporting firm.

During testimony, Narum revealed that his uncle, Jimmy Weatherington, was a friend of Dawson's well before his investigation even began in late 1999.

Trevena points to that relationship as another reason that Narum should never have been the detective who investigated the case.

Narum also said in his deposition that he attended with Dawson the birthday party of her brother, William Dawson, at Pepe's restaurant in Clearwater.

But Mr. Dawson's birthday is March 28. Narum said he cut off all physical contact with Dawson by March 5 after his commanding officer told him to do so. He said he didn't know Dawson in 1999, meaning the birthday party had to take place in March 2000.

Trevena said that proves the affair was taking place when Narum's investigation was still active.

But prosecutors and Dawson, through her attorney, say Narum is mistaken. The event was her mother's birthday party in late January.

Narum began investigating in December 1999. He later said the scheme may have involved more than 30 fictitious characters -- roles detectives think Cannon played in hundreds of phone calls to Dawson. Most notable among them was Ronald Buria Jr., the man Dawson married via telephone.

Narum said Cannon "brainwashed" Dawson, persuading her to hand over money for a variety of cons, including money to protect Dawson's four children from a non-existent gang. Dawson, who owned an air-conditioning company, even gave Cannon signatory authority over company bank accounts, prosecutors said.

Not long after beginning his investigation, Narum said he gave another girlfriend a memo that provided a synopsis of the case.

"I wanted some feedback," Narum testified last week. "This is a case that is unique, to say the least, and I wanted an opinion from someone that wasn't in law enforcement."

His girlfriend's opinion: "She thought that Debra Dawson was crazy along with Sherrie Cannon."

Narum said the girlfriend, Shamsah Shidi, told him that Dawson was trying to seduce him.

Narum also acknowledged that he interviewed Cannon at the jail to persuade her to testify against Dawson's former husband, who Dawson believes was involved in the scheme with Cannon.

Since Cannon wasn't transferred to the Pinellas County Jail until December, that contact had to have occurred while Narum was dating Dawson.

"It's just one of the many ethical lapses by Detective Narum," Trevena said.

Narum said Dawson wanted her ex-husband prosecuted. But he said, "I told her I couldn't prove anything."

At Friday's hearing, Narum refused to speak to a reporter, referring questions to his attorney.

"It's our position that Detective Narum has done nothing improper," said attorney Rick Millian.

Schaub, the prosecutor, said he too believes that the sex is irrelevant and that prosecutors had plenty of evidence to convict Cannon.

"In my mind, the sad part of it is that Narum is an excellent cop," said Schaub. "He's always been a good cop. He's always been by the book and a straight arrow. And he was on this case. It's not like he misrepresented anything to this office."

When Narum was asked last month by prosecutors to list all his dates with Dawson in a memo, he failed to list numerous meetings.

In his deposition, Narum said he was using his best recollection. After a Times article noting additional dates he did not tell prosecutors about, Narum told lawyers he has since recalled other dates.

Schaub said prosecutors didn't offer the plea because of the affair. They said it was a fair disposition with Dawson's full consent.

"We stayed with this case," he said, "because the truth of it was that Debra Dawson was victimized. And she lost everything."

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