Fake ASL interpreter at Tampa police news conference served prison time for stealing from special needs kids

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The enigmatic woman who invited herself to be the sign language interpreter at last week’s dramatic Tampa police news conference announcing the arrest of a Seminole Heights murder suspect once stole a fortune from special needs kids and taxpayers in a Tampa private school fraud case.

Back in 2004, Derlyn Roberts ran the Sago Palm Educational Academy which later became the Academy of Dreams at 3411 N. 29th St. in Tampa’s College Hill neighborhood.  It was a private school for kids with special needs and disabilities.

“I thought the purpose of the school was to help children who were at a disadvantage,” said Angela Darien, a psychologist and social worker who quit the school after just a few weeks when Roberts failed to pay her.

According to court records 8 On Your Side obtained Tuesday, Roberts misappropriated a fortune in education funds from Florida’s MacKay Scholarship fund and used most of that money for her own personal benefit in a scheme that stretched from 2004 until 2009.

One court record spells out $350,000 in stolen money and another one references restitution amounting to $230,000.

Hillsborough court records show that for most that time, Roberts assumed the identity and impersonated Angela Darien in order to continue receiving state education money. In 2004, authorities investigated Sago Palm Educational Academy and revoked funding due to Roberts’ criminal past.

That’s when Roberts started using Darien’s name to run the Academy of Dreams and the money kept flowing year after year.

By that time, Darien had long ago moved to New York. Darien had had no idea that Roberts was using her name to defraud the Florida Department of Education and steal money from the special needs students attending her school until a state fraud investigator contacted her.

“It was something out of a fairy tale book you know, not even a fairy tale book, something out of a horror book,” Darien said.

In 2009, with investigators on her heels for impersonating Darien, Roberts traveled to Tallahassee where she posed as Anitress Thornton in yet another ploy to keep the school funding scheme going.  Investigators compared security camera footage of “Thornton” and a YouTube video recorded by Roberts to determine they were the same individual and the ruse the fell apart. Thornton is actually Roberts’ own daughter.

RELATED: Unqualified ASL poser with criminal past dupes police at Seminole Heights killer news conference

When the scheme finally unraveled with organized fraud and grand theft charges, Roberts ended up going to prison for five years prior to her release in 2016. Darien believes she deserved much stiffer punishment for the harm she did.

“They should just throw the key away on her,” Darien said. “Five years is not enough for what she did to these children, what she did to the community, what she did to the parents and what she did to me. Five years is not enough.”

After that school fraud case—along with a 24 year history of arrests ranging from aggravated battery to burglary, false imprisonment, grand theft, fraud, witness tampering, petit theft  and worthless checks—it seems unlikely that Roberts would have any motivation to talk herself into Tampa police headquarters last week to take center stage as a sign language interpreter, a job she was ill-prepared to do.

Robert attended HCC and took some sign language courses but left without earning any certifications or a degree 16 years ago, according to HCC spokeswoman Ashley Carl.

Sign Language experts at USF describe Roberts performance at the police news conference as mostly “gibberish.”

Darien has a theory—it was a resume builder.

“It puts her back in the limelight to give her credibility to do whatever she needs to do,” Darien said. “She’s legit because she’s on TV and she’s interpreting and blah blah blah, ‘so if they trust her, we can trust her,’ so she might have been looking for credibility.”

After her failed limelight experience at Tampa police headquarters last week, Roberts is now keeping a low profile. She hasn’t responded to reporters’ cards left at her home or repeated phone calls.

Rumors were flying that she was related to one of the Seminole Heights victims but the victim’s brother insists that’s false.

Someone anonymously called 8 On Your Side claiming Roberts is an official interpreter from Hillsborough County Courts. Roberts, who has 41 aliases listed in state prison records, is certainly no stranger to the courthouse, but as far as we can tell, only as a defendant.

She’s never worked as a sign language interpreter, according to court spokesman Mike Moore. Roberts’ criminal record would rule that out even if her skill level would not.

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