Casey and Sandy Parsons, the adoptive parents of missing Rowan County teen Erica Parsons, were arrested on federal fraud charges Wednesday – exactly one year after Erica was reported missing.
FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents arrested the couple before dawn at their home in Fayetteville, where they moved in August to avoid intense media attention, public scrutiny and death threats.
The federal case against the Parsonses doesn’t address what happened to Erica, who was 13 when she disappeared. Instead, the 76-charge indictment accuses her parents of continuing to collect benefits after Erica disappeared, including monthly checks of $634 for adoption assistance.
The Parsonses also received federal and state funds for Medicaid, Social Security, and food and nutrition for Erica, who was home-schooled, had hearing problems and a learning disability, according to the indictment.
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Erica was last seen in November 2011, but her disappearance was not reported until July 30, 2013. Erica’s adoptive brother went to authorities after a fight with the Parsonses and said no one had seen Erica for 20 months.
Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said Wednesday that the charges and arrests were “an important step” in solving the case, but added that the search for Erica continues. The reward for information about Erica’s whereabouts has climbed to $50,000.
Carolyn Parsons, Erica’s biological mother who gave her up for adoption as a baby, received a call about the arrest shortly after it happened. She says she walked outside and started screaming in joy.
“Hopefully, this teaches them that they’re not untouchable,” Carolyn Parsons said, adding that she hopes the arrest puts pressure on the Parsonses to say what happened to Erica.
Carlyle Sherrill, an attorney who has represented the Parsonses, said Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t spoken to them since they were arrested, and couldn’t talk about their response to the indictment. But he said they’ve denied defrauding the government in the past.
“They thought they were behaving legally because they were still legally responsible for her,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill said Wednesday that he was recommending they seek new legal representation.
“Both of them have talked to me and have confided in me as their attorney,” he said. “And there may be some issues there, where they have conflicting interests. In that case, (continuing as attorney for both) would be inappropriate.”
Sandy and Casey Parsons were released from jail on $25,000 bond, according to WBTV. They will also be required to wear electronic monitoring bracelets. They declined to speak with reporters outside the courthouse, and didn’t return a telephone message seeking comment.
Warrants: Erica abused
In search warrants, investigators said they believe Erica was abused. For several months in 2004, she lived with Casey Parsons’ sister as the Cabarrus Department of Social Services conducted an abuse investigation.
Erica was withdrawn from public school in 2008 and the Parsonses began home schooling her, according to the indictment.
The Parsonses have contended that they are innocent of any wrongdoing. They say Erica went to live with her biological grandmother, a woman they identified as Irene “Nan” Goodman, in November 2011. They claim “Nan” contacted Casey Parsons on Facebook and knew a lot about the family.
But investigators say “Nan” never existed and that both of Erica’s biological grandmothers are dead. Investigators searched several times at the property on Miller Chapel Road near Salisbury, where the family lived from April 2011 until last year. They also searched a storage shed used by the Parsonses at Sandy’s father’s house.
Meanwhile, the case gained national attention. Nancy Grace, of the cable network HLN, featured Erica’s disappearance on her show, and the Parsonses appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show.
On “Dr. Phil,” Sandy Parsons took a lie detector test, which showed he was “deceptive” when talking about Erica’s disappearance. Polygraph tests are not admissible as evidence in N.C. courts.
As the case reached the one-year mark, leads appeared to dry up. Sherrill, the Parsonses attorney, said investigators hadn’t interviewed them in months.
On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Office scheduled a news conference to answer questions on the anniversary of Erica’s reported disappearance. But a few hours before it was scheduled to begin, the Sheriff’s Office canceled.
The indictment against Casey and Sandy Parsons, which was unsealed by a federal judge in Greensboro on Wednesday, alleges that the couple committed tax fraud, mail fraud, theft of government funds and identity theft.
Federal prosecutors allege the couple received adoption assistance, Medicaid, Social Security, and Food and Nutrition Services benefits for a dependent – Erica Parsons – who did not live with them.
The indictment also accuses Casey Parsons of using the identities of other people as dependents and using false information when preparing income tax returns.
Federal prosecutors accuse the couple of accepting checks each month from January 2012 through last August for adoption assistance.
Investigators said those checks were issued by the Cabarrus County social services department, where Casey and Sandy Parsons resided when Erica started living with them in March 1998.
According to the indictment, the Parsonses received a total of $12,680 from Cabarrus. The indictment also indicates the Parsonses had financial trouble. It alleges Casey Parsons owed $23,141.99 in student loans and didn’t file a tax return in 2010 so she could avoid collection against her.
Both Sandy Parsons, 40, and Casey Parsons, 39, are charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the government; 20 counts of theft of government funds; and 20 counts of mail fraud.
Each of those 41 counts carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Among Casey Parsons’ additional charges: social security fraud, aggravated identity theft, wire fraud and making false claims against the government.
She could face up to 183 years in prison on those charges, according to prosecutors. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.