A prominent Ramona accountant has been sentenced to nearly 24 years in prison for preparing fraudulent tax returns for clients and then plotting his clients’ murders in an effort to prevent them from testifying against him in court.
Former IRS agent-turned-accountant Steven Martinez, 51, once lived the high life in his multi-million dollar mansion in Ramona.
He became a successful accountant preparing taxes for high-end clients, but was eventually convicted of stealing more than $11 million in tax payments from those clients – and then, in a plot twist, plotting their murders.
According to the FBI and federal prosecutors, Martinez stole millions from his wealthy clients over the years by preparing phony tax returns from 2004 through 2007 and then pocketing the tax money.
Martinez admitted to using approximately $11 million in stolen taxpayer funds for his own personal benefit, using the cash to make home improvements, purchase a beach house in Mexico, pay for the use of a private plane and pay off his personal credit cards and loans.
But the tax fraud case grew much more complicated than the initial white collar crime.
Martinez was actually released, facing approximately 10 years in prison for fraud. However, while out on bail, court documents show he plotted the murder of four of his former tax clients who were set to testify against him about the theft.
According to prosecutors, in February 2012, Martinez hired a hitman and meticulously planned his clients’ murders by giving a would-be assassin detailed information about each of the targets. The details were contained in special “packets” that included photographs of the victims, their homes and other personal information.
Martinez was unaware that the would-be hitman was actually a cooperating witness for the FBI, and investigators recorded exchanges between Martinez and the hired hitman.
Court documents reveal Martinez told the would-be assassin he “could make him rich for the rest of his life.” He offered the man $100,000 in cash to kill a former female client in Rancho Santa Fe and a woman in La Jolla.
The hired hitman told investigators that Martinez had suggested he use “two different pistols for the murders and that he acquire a silencer.”
Martinez pleaded guilty on August 10, 2012, to charges including murder-for-hire, witness tampering involving attempted murder, solicitation of a crime of violence, mail fraud, filing false tax returns, Social Security fraud, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering.
On Friday, with more than 30 family members and friends watching in court, a judge sentenced Martinez to serve almost 24 years in prison and ordered him to pay more than $14 million in restitution to the victims, the IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board.
U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said she was pleased with the outcome of the prosecution on Friday.
“This is a case of greed so extreme that what began as serious – but not violent - white-collar crimes almost escalated to the murders of four people. Fortunately FBI intervention prevented the violence and today justice was served with a decades-long sentence,” said Duffy.
Martinez’s attorney, David Demergian, says Martinez’s crimes were fueled by a need to provide for his family.
“[This] had to do with finding thousands of dollars to diagnose his autistic son, and once having made that, it became so easy for him, I think it just fed on itself,” Demergian told NBC 7 on Friday.
The attorney says the fraud and murder-for-hire plot was triggered by Martinez’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.
“It was literally insane. There was no way he could have gotten away with it any more than he could have gotten away with a scheme to kill four people,” he added.
Still, Demergian maintains that Martinez never really wanted to hurt anyone.
“There's no question in my mind, he never believed anybody was going to get hurt. Of course, that's not the way it looks,” he said.
As Martinez heads to serve his long prison sentence, his mansion in Ramona awaits foreclosure. Federal prosecutors say the lavish home was part of the rich lifestyle that Martinez funded through his crimes.