Investigates: Prop money on the rise in East Texas
LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - A new form of counterfeit money is on the rise across the Pineywoods.
Police in three different areas have taken reports of fake money being used at businesses that have markings saying "For Motion Picture Use Only." In Lufkin, 10 businesses have been hit with 11 different reports filed. The first occurrence took place on June 6 at the Taco Bell on South Timberland. According to the police report, a woman paid for a burrito that cost $1.72 with a prop $100 bill. The worker did not notice the markings until the bank drop was made.
Lufkin Police Sgt. Stephen Abbott said that example shows how easy it is for people to get scammed by the bills.
"Until you actually open it up and see that is says for motion picture use only, it looks real," Abbott said.
In the month that has followed, Lufkin police have responded to reports at Video Latino, HEB, Chevron on North Timberland (2 reports), M.B. Food Store, Big S, McDonald's, Pilot, Dollar General, and Buffalo Wild Wings.
Just south in Diboll, police have also been working on cases involving the money. Their cases started back in March.
Preston Nathaniel Lee Brown, 20, of Highlands, is currently being held in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison. Jamarcus Denundre Berry, 21, of Diboll was already being held in the Angelina County Jail, and Samantha Nicole Earley, 19, and Andriana Nicole Sanches, 18, both of Lufkin, were arrested by the Diboll Police Department in early June.
According to the arrest affidavits for Earley and Sanchez, a Diboll police officer was dispatched to the town's Dairy Queen, which is located at 202 N. Temple Drive, on March 24 in reference to counterfeit money. The restaurant's manager told the officer than two women came into the business, ordered some food, and paid for it with a fake $100 bill, the affidavit stated.
The phony bill had "For Motion Picture Use only" printed on it, the affidavit stated.
Earlier that day, Diboll PD officers had responded to a similar call at the town's Church's Chicken. According to the affidavit, someone attempted to pass a fake bill that also had "For Motion Picture Use only" printed on it.
The Diboll PD investigator who obtained the arrest warrant got copies of video surveillance footage from Dairy Queen and Church's Chicken. The footage shows that one woman tried to pass a phony bill at Church's Chicken while the other was at Dairy Queen, the affidavit stated.
The affidavit stated that although the woman who went to Church's Chicken wasn't successful in passing the bogus bill, the second woman managed to use the counterfeit money to pay for her food.
When authorities questioned Earley, she allegedly admitted to passing the fake bill at Dairy Queen, but she said the bogus money came from Brown. She said that Sanchez went into Dairy Queen with her, and that earlier in the day, Sanchez tried and failed to pass a counterfeit bill at Church's Chicken. Further investigation revealed that Berry also tried to pass a fake bill at Church's Chicken, the affidavit stated.
When investigators talked to Brown at the Angelina County Jail, the suspect told them that the counterfeit money was his and that he and Berry stayed in the vehicle when Earley and Sanchez went into Dairy Queen and Church's Chicken, the affidavit stated.
"[Brown] stated that they all discussed it beforehand and decided it would be best for the females to pass the fake bills," the affidavit stated.
According to the affidavit, the charge would have been third-degree felony forgery. However, the charge was upgraded to a second-degree felony engaging in organized criminal activity charge.
Abbott does not believe these four suspects are the only ones involved.
"I don't think it's an isolated person," Abbott said. "I think there's multiple persons. Copycats, I guess you would say, off the original."
The crimes have even stretched south into Jasper. According to Jasper Police Detective Garrett Foster, a $100 prop bill had been passed at a thrift store in Jasper. Foster said it is just one case in a growing counterfeit problem in the area.
The problem is not just in Deep East Texas, prop bills have also been reported by Paris Police in North East Texas. According to the department, they are only seeing prop $20 bills being used at this time, but they are warning of other denominations out there.
Video Latino was one of the early stores in Lufkin hit.
"Someone put the bill in between some others and our cashier did not notice the markings until she dropped the money in the safe later," owner Teresa Segura said. " We have a machine that we run our bills through that can detect a fake. We did not know what some of the buttons were and one the detected the magnetic strip was not selected so we missed it."
Segura said she was bothered that this type of money made it's way into her store.
"You wouldn't think that it would leave the movie, which is what they have it for," Segura said. "They are stealing from us."
Abbott said the spread of the money is happening because of how easy it is to get it.
"You can go online and order it," Segura. "I've seen it in packs of $2,000 but I'm sure there are more and less."
Abbott said while it is not a crime to have the prop money, it could help police if they find someone with it.
"Just having it by itself is not enough but what it does do though is when we find someone with a large amount of it gives us an investigative lead on where to look," Abbott said.
The scam appears to be nation-wide. Abbott said a quick search of online articles will show it is happening all over America.
"With the availability and the internet spread, it is pretty easy now days," Abbott said
M.B. Food Store Owner Nima Patel said her store was hit by a man trying to buy a 99-cent cigar with a $100 prop bill.
"He came in and tried to use it, but my husband saw that it said for motion picture use only and told the guy he could not use it and was not giving it back to him," Patel said. "It hurts my business."
"If I take it, it hurts lots of our business because our profit margin is only 20 to 25 percent," Patel said.
When we showed Abbott a prop bill, he was able to point out the differences but said he knows others could be fooled.
"It's best to just pay attention and make sure everything is correct on the bill," Abbott said.
The 11 cases in Lufkin are still open and no arrests have been made. Diboll Police are still investigating their cases and more arrests could be made.
Segura is warning others to be aware of any bills they take right now.
"When it is mixed up with the $100 bills you don't notice the difference because you are not paying attention to it," Segura said.
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