FROM STAFF REPORTS
BERTRAM — Authorities have arrested a suspect and turned over a number of cases to federal investigators as they unravel a possible counterfeit money operation spanning several cities across the Highland Lakes.
“We know that several were passed in Granite Shoals; from Granite Shoals to Llano to Marble Falls and even Killeen,” Bertram Police Chief J.J. Wilson said.
In December, several reports surfaced in connection with counterfeit bills in small denominations.
“We started receiving $20 bills that were counterfeit being passed to various businesses, and, at first, the quality wasn’t that good, but we noticed over the next few weeks, the quality seemed to get better,” Wilson said.
In February, investigators closed in on a suspicious male, matching a suspect’s description and vehicle, at a tavern in Bertram.
“The suspect, we could tell, was a tall white male who wore a baseball cap (bill) over his face,” Wilson said of surveillance images they used to try to track the suspect. “He had work clothes, work boots.”
At the time, the officer arrested the man for an unrelated misdemeanor warrant.
However, a subsequent search of the suspect’s vehicle uncovered two counterfeit $100 bills.
“He was claiming it was a friend’s truck and a friend’s money,” Wilson said. “We feel like these guys are connected with either the passing or the printing of these counterfeit bills around our community.”
Counterfeiting practices turned unwitting victims into possible suspects, prompting investigations to prove otherwise.
In the Bertram agency’s initial case, which unfolded at Big’s Shell Station, 555 Texas 29 East, a victim received counterfeit $20 bills, which had been offered to the store clerk as change by a counterfeiter, the report stated.
He traveled to Killeen, where a restaurant flagged the funny money, compelling the victim to defend himself and prompting police to trace the bills to the store in Bertram, Wilson said.
Another case involved a woman who used a Bertram ATM and received counterfeit $20 bills.
“She went to Marble Falls with it,” Wilson said of the money reported by Dairy Queen, 915 RR 1431.
“In both these cases, (employees) had inadvertently handed them out to customers,” Wilson said. “As the people got out into the community in other stores where they were checking (the bills), they were able to find out they were in possession of counterfeit bills, which they had received in change from Bertram.”
Local authorities say they are exploring the possibility the cases in Bertram have ties to reports in Granite Shoals and Llano as well.
On March 8, a case developed at the Llano Sonic Drive-In, 505 Texas 29 West, when a customer offered a suspicious bill to a staff member.
“They recognized the lady. She had tried to pass another counterfeit $20 the week prior,” Llano Police Chief Kevin Ratliff said. “The employees were paying attention and luckily called us when she was there.”
Authorities say they investigated and found the woman in possession of a number of other $20 bills.
The suspect might have been circulating counterfeit bills in Llano for about two weeks, Ratliff said.
Sonja Haliburton of Llano was charged with third-degree felony forgery of a governmental instrument.
Counterfeiting of a monetary note can be prosecuted as a federal crime as well, hastening Bertram investigators to hand their cases to federal law enforcement.
“We’re working to figure out who’s printing and who’s passing these counterfeit bills,” Wilson said. “When someone comes in and makes a small purchase, they’d get $18, $15 in change for their fake money. They’re trying to launder the money.”
Investigators believe counterfeiters carefully pick their targets and have offered advice to merchants to intervene before the money goes into circulation.
“The Shell store (in Bertram) there is very busy, high volume,” Wilson said. “The employees would watch for the $50s and the $100 bills, but they weren’t paying attention to the $20s.”
At least one store has invested in counterfeit pen markers.
Prevention includes added diligence among employees.
“They were trying to find a high-volume store where nobody would really notice,” Wilson said of the perpetrators. “To confiscate all these counterfeit bills, all of these (victims) are out this money. It’s a loss for them.”