Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: How my ex-dentist ended up in federal prison

Not long ago, I got a letter in the mail explaining that my longtime dentist had closed up shop on West Jones Street – no explanation offered.

So I found a new tooth doctor, whom I like very much. But then I got curious. What became of Dr. Susan Lee, who tended my molars for nearly a decade, who pinned a picture of my son, Sam, on the wall after his first reluctant visit, whose subscription to Highlights magazine helped me keep up with the antics of Goofus and Gallant?

A Google search almost knocked me over:

Dr. Lee is serving a three-year sentence in federal prison, convicted of tax crimes.

Stunned, I dug through court files and learned that she owed more than $1 million in back taxes in 2010. The government had accused her not only of filing false returns, but of setting up sham enterprises to hide her assets.

Those documents described her as aggressive in her nonpayment: a “tax defier.” Twice, under oath, she declined to acknowledge that she is a citizen of the United States. At least once, she tried to pay an employee in silver doubloons to avoid tax liability.

In 20 years of newspaper work, I’ve knocked on the doors of at least a hundred people who lived next door to a prominent criminal, and every one of them expressed total shock, never guessing that their lawn-mowing, burger-grilling acquaintance might commit a felony.

But let me tell you: I would have gambled my incisors that Dr. Lee lived the squeakiest, cleanest existence of any dentist on the planet. To me, she looked like the model from Family Circle’s 100 tips for busy moms. I couldn’t picture her in prison garb – even if she is pulling time at Alderson in West Virginia, the same penitentiary that once housed Martha Stewart and earned the name “Camp Cupcake” for sheer cushiness.

So I called Susan Menzer, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Dr. Lee’s case, and asked what the government means by the term “tax defier.” She wouldn’t comment or explain, and she told me to look it up online.

Here goes, from the U.S. Justice Department:

“The tax defier is not someone who has a legitimate or factual dispute about the amount of tax due. The tax defier is someone who rejects the legal foundation of the tax system, despite decades of legal precedent upholding the system’s constitutional and statutory validity, and who takes specific and concrete action to violate the law.”

So according to the feds, my ex-dentist didn’t merely dislike paying taxes. She didn’t think she had to.

Her court files detail a failure to file returns or pay payroll taxes for employees going back as far as 1996. They describe her setting up limited liability corporations in Nevada to control, manage and disburse her money.

‘Member of mankind’

The craziest moment for me came when I looked up Dr. Lee’s 2004 charge in Wake County court. Those documents explained that she physically resisted arrest and attempted to flee when confronted by an investigator with the state Department of Revenue.

She received probation in that case, but her file contains a nine-page letter Lee signed on every page, in which she called herself both a sovereign and a “member of mankind,” accusing various court agents of carrying out a criminal conspiracy against her.

I found it to be an incomprehensible read, even for a legal document. But it bears all the hallmarks of the sovereignty movement, a belief system that holds that the original U.S. government was secretly supplanted by a new legal system based on admiralty law, designed to enslave people. A common tactic of the sovereigns, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is to file documents in nonsensical language and swamp the courts.

Unwilling to talk

I felt dizzy. Is this really my old dentist? I reached out to Dr. Lee through prison officials, who told me she is unwilling to talk. I tried to speak with her family, leaving a card at the only address I could find. Somebody took the card but hasn’t been home either time I knocked. I tried two of her lawyers, one of whom said he couldn’t comment and the other of whom didn’t call back.

All I can pull from this episode is reinforcement to my long-held belief that ours is a very strange world and that so many people who inhabit it lead secret and unknowable lives.

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