Swindle, Then Letdown

Harriette Walters offered her full cooperation in exchange for a sentence of 15 to 18 years.
Harriette Walters offered her full cooperation in exchange for a sentence of 15 to 18 years. (Sketch By William J. Hennessy Jr.)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

About 30 people showed up at a federal courtroom yesterday morning to get a glimpse of the woman once known around the D.C. tax office as "Mother Harriette." She was due in court any minute to plead guilty to one of the most stunning but strangely banal frauds ever committed in Washington. There was plenty of seating left.

Harriette Walters's story lacked sex or violence, but it had a fabulously sinful amount of greed and high-end retail shopping. So where is Halle Berry's option for the movie rights? Where were the civic cranks in the courtroom peanut gallery, waiting for a chance to glare at her with the indignation unique to angry taxpayers? Where are her friends and family who are not facing charges, or curious former co-workers, or general lookie-loos? How come only one TV station showed up?

Why did the story of Mother Harriette never quite catch on?

Because the main character, in the end, might as well be invisible. She looked like a hundred women you'd know in everyday Washington. Still, a few of us wanted a closer look at this person, this legendary thief.

In the 10 months since she was arrested and ultimately charged with heading a decades-long scheme to quietly help herself to nearly $50 million from the city's tax office, we seem to know more and more about how she did it, and what sorts of bling, trips and real estate she blew the taxpayers' money on. There were facts, but no full portrait of the main character. Who, in the end, is or was this Harriette Walters?

Here, at last: A side door opened into U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's courtroom yesterday at a nearly a quarter to noon, and Walters gently glided in on dingy canvas prison slippers, in faded navy blue scrubs and a white crew-neck undershirt -- a solid-looking woman, resigned to her fate.

The only picture of Walters we've seen until now was taken at the tax office when she was the manager, and it showed a woman in a snug houndstooth blazer, with a stern face and elaborate golden bleach-blond braids. In the picture, she looks like just the sort of District employee who can either make things simple for you (too simple, with a wink) or make them very, very hard.

One could look at her and know the eternal truth: Criminal masterminds never look like criminal masterminds.

She has cut her hair short now, into the nubby beginnings of dreads, flecked with the frosty hints of whatever gold she has left. She will turn 52 on Saturday. Her brother and her nephew have already pleaded guilty, as have seven of her friends, one of whom was once her personal shopper, one who was her banker and one who was once her hairstylist. Her niece awaits trial. Mother Harriette came to plead guilty to the entire scheme, offering her full cooperation in exchange for a recommended sentence of 15 to 18 years.

Mother Harriette sat and silently waited for her attorney and prosecutors to arrive. All she brought with her was a case for her amber-framed eyeglasses. She laced her fingers and rested her chin on her hands. She idly wiped faint smudges off the defense table. She pointed to a man in the jury box and asked a question of the female officer who escorted her; the officer appeared to tell Walters that the man was a courtroom sketch artist, and Walters's face stretched into a lovely smile.

She stopped smiling when the judge arrived.

With her attorney, Steven Tabackman, by her side, Walters stood and answered questions in her soft Caribbean accent: She confirmed her signature on the plea agreement and said she understood what was going on. She gave her DOB and her place of birth ("St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands") and said she attended Georgetown to study nursing and the University of the District of Columbia to study "computer accounting," but after six years total did not earn a degree from either.

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