Prison time puts stop to scammer's schemes

When Terra Renee Taylor, going by the name Terra Garner, pleaded with the judge to give her a second chance earlier this month, the prosecutor jumped to his feet, pointing out that Ms. Taylor had already had two chances to change.

 

"The question is: When will it stop?" Assistant District Attorney Adam King asked.

For at least the next 10 years, or until Ms. Taylor is paroled, the string of victims should not grow any longer.

For Ms. Taylor's family and friends, the prison sentence was way too much. Her crime, supporters have contended, was only a series of bad checks. Most continue to cite Ms. Taylor's earlier excuse that she became a scapegoat because of a civil lawsuit against her former employer.

To those she victimized, however, "bad checks" didn't begin to describe what she did.

"I want restitution, but not at the expense of other victims who may come after me," Jerry Ashmore said at Ms. Taylor's sentencing hearing. He was her latest victim. After he hired Ms. Taylor as his executive secretary at Ashmore Concrete Contractors, she helped herself to cash and a company credit card.

According to court testimony, from June to September 2007, Ms. Taylor siphoned about $30,000. Much of the money paid for a lavish wedding and honeymoon with Gabe Garner, a Richmond County sheriff's deputy, who continues to stand by her.

"I do love her and support her," Deputy Garner said at the sentencing hearing. He said she needs to make amends and believes she will.

It wasn't just the company theft that upset her former co-workers and Mr. Ashmore. Ms. Taylor lied and told them she was suffering from cancer.

Ms. Taylor, her former boss said, is a master of deception.

ACCORDING TO INTERVIEWS and court and state records, Terra Taylor, 34, has led a complicated and deceitful life since graduating from Augusta's Westside High School in 1993, where she was in the ROTC and Patriettes.

She always has had a ready excuse and complicated tale to try to extract herself from trouble.

Over the past decade she has romanced public safety officers, stolen from employers and faked medical challenges -- usually telling people she has cancer.

According to court testimony, she has one ex-husband, a second husband she failed to divorce and a third suitor she married, although she wasn't legally eligible.

But this time, her family told the judge this month, Ms. Taylor has finally admitted she did wrong. They described her as super intelligent and very capable of being a success at any business. Her brother Tony Taylor has a job waiting for her.

Her critics also describe Ms. Taylor as extremely intelligent, beautiful and vivacious -- someone who definitely leaves an impression.

Ralph Saldana agrees with the sentiment. "She turned my life around and not in a good way," he said in telephone interview from Michigan.

Mr. Saldana is married to Ms. Taylor. He found out about her September 2007 marriage to Deputy Garner when Mr. Saldana called Ms. Taylor's Ashmore Concrete-issued cell phone two days after the wedding.

"Another employee called me back and told me she had just attended the (Taylor-Garner) wedding, which was a big surprise, considering we were still married."

They met over the Internet, Mr. Saldana said.

The movie You've Got Mail was out, and it became their inside joke. The first contact occurred one evening when he was online and an instant message popped up. Ms. Taylor had noticed he had MSP in his screen name, short for Michigan State Police. He was a trooper. She said her dad was a police officer.

Ms. Taylor was e-mailing Mr. Saldana from Alabama, where she was living and married to another man, Bill Ormes, a firefighter. Mr. Saldana didn't know about Mr. Ormes right away, or about her legal troubles in Alabama.

"The next thing I know she's visiting me in Michigan," Mr. Saldana said.

He said he believed her when she told him she had been falsely accused of a crime in Alabama. She told him she was acquitted. She claimed that she graduated from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech and that she had been an Army intelligence officer -- and she had the documents proving her claims, he said.

"Terra's very good on computers, forging documents," Mr. Saldana said. "Terra and a computer are very dangerous."

They married. And when she started getting into trouble in Michigan, he believed her excuses at first. His employer, however, didn't approve of a state trooper with a wife facing criminal charges. Mr. Saldana said he felt that his integrity was being questioned and took an early retirement.

MS. TAYLOR FACED CHARGES in five counties, Mr. Saldana said. Paul Walton, the chief assistant prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., said Ms. Taylor faced four counts of uttering and publishing false checks in his county. She was sentenced in April 2003 to 153 days in jail.

According to her file in Mr. Walton's office, Ms. Taylor tried to cash two fake checks to buy a vehicle and another to rent a house. Investigators found 15 aliases for Ms. Taylor. The restitution in his county was more than $15,000.

Ms. Taylor filed for divorce but never pursued the matter, Mr. Saldana said. With everything he thought was going on with his wife, he didn't think she was serious about divorce. When she left Michigan, she said she needed a break so she could get herself together, Mr. Saldana said.

Before she left, Ms. Taylor claimed to have developed cancer, suffered injuries in a car accident and attempted suicide. Ms. Taylor had been to a number of therapists, Mr. Saldana said. The last one told her she wasn't bipolar; she was selfish, he said. That's when she threw a fit and left for Georgia.

Before he married Ms. Taylor, Mr. Saldana found a voice message from her ex-husband in Alabama. "He warned me about Terra. I should have listened to him."

In an e-mail exchange with The Augusta Chronicle earlier this year, Mr. Ormes wrote that he wasn't surprised to hear that Ms. Taylor was in trouble again. It was, he wrote, typical.

Mr. Ormes divorced Ms. Taylor after discovering her deception in 1999, said Headland, Ala., Police Chief Mark Jones. He still remembers Ms. Taylor.

Chief Jones said he wasn't surprised Ms. Taylor was in trouble again, either. He was just relieved it wasn't his problem this time. Chief Jones was an investigator with the Henry County Sheriff's Department when he met Ms. Taylor in 1998-99.

She worked as a secretary at an aircraft-parts company, Chief Jones said. She claimed she was dying of cancer. Family and co-workers donated money and threw fundraisers for her, Chief Jones said. Meanwhile, Ms. Taylor was helping herself to the petty cash box and cashing company checks, he said.

"She shaved her head, but she still had eyebrows. She didn't appreciate it when I pointed out that hair loss caused by chemo wasn't restricted to just her scalp. She didn't like me much," Chief Jones said.

"(But) she could tell you some stories," he said.

He said he took out four or five warrants against Ms. Taylor but the charges were dropped to misdemeanors in exchange for restitution, Chief Jones said.

She never finished paying the restitution, however, and an arrest warrant has been outstanding for a nearly a decade.

AFTER THE LEGAL TROUBLE and marital discord in Alabama and Michigan, Ms. Taylor returned to Augusta. She answered an ad for a position as executive secretary at Ashmore Concrete, and Jerry Ashmore hired her on Halloween 2006.

In January 2007, Ms. Taylor told her boss she had cancer but would continue to work as much as possible during her treatments.

Mr. Ashmore and her co-workers worried about her as she often rushed to the bathroom. They could hear retching noises.

When asked to provide a doctor's statement, Ms. Taylor presented a letter dated March 15, 2007, from Augusta Oncology Associates. It listed a real type of cancer -- intermediate grade diffuse large B-cell, DC20 , (NHL) non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The letter also listed real chemotherapy drugs.

The letter, written by "John Hopkins, M.D.," also referenced Christopher Flowers of Emory University Hospital. (An Internet search shows a Dr. Flowers who teaches at Emory and specializes in hematology and oncology.) The letter also claimed that doctors believed her cancer was likely caused by "exposure to depleted uranium during deployment to Somalia while serving in the U.S. Army."

A prosecutor later contacted Augusta Oncology and found she had never been a patient there and there was no John Hopkins, M.D. Mr. King also learned that Ms. Taylor never made it through Army basic training. She certainly never served in Somalia or worked in Army intelligence, as she claimed.

The latest deceptions might have passed undetected except for Ms. Taylor's effort to pay for her elaborate wedding.

The wedding was a challenge because of its expense, said to be about $30,000, and the fact that legally she was still married to Mr. Saldana.

But the wedding took place on Sept. 9, 2007, at Warren Baptist with 10 bridesmaids and groomsmen.

But while she was on a honeymoon in Jamaica, her Ashmore co-workers discovered bank statements she had slipped out of the regular mail for several months. They also discovered the special e-mail account she set up to intercept the credit card statements for Mr. Ashmore's company.

When she got back, Ms. Taylor was out of a job and facing criminal charges.

She soon found work with a contractor at Savannah River Site.

When a background check revealed she faced criminal charges in Richmond and Columbia counties, Ms. Taylor presented a document that declared her a victim of identity theft and stated the real suspect was a cousin, Crystal Taylor. The document, it was soon discovered, was fake, and its signature of Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Michael N. Annis was a forgery.

Mr. King, who presented the prosecution case in Richmond and Columbia counties' Superior Courts, said the FBI and Department of Energy were advised of the fictitious document and forgery that Ms. Taylor gave her boss. No federal charges, however, have been filed against her.

In the Superior Courts, Ms. Taylor pleaded guilty to bigamy, 11 counts of forgery, three counts of credit card fraud, three counts of financial identity theft and a single count of theft. Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. sentenced her to 10 years in prison followed by 10 years' probation.

The judge will conduct a hearing to determine the exact amount of restitution Ms. Taylor owes her latest victims. If she pays it in full, Judge Brown will reconsider -- possibly reduce -- her sentence.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com