Anybody can write a bad check. Len Cotney and his associates refined it to an art form.
They stole business checks out of company mailboxes — not to cash them, but to scan and copy them.
Then they found drug addicts, homeless people or anyone desperate enough to sell their ID cards for $50 or so.
Putting the two together, the Cotney group created authentic-looking payroll checks in the names of real people. The checks had special touches such as bank logos and carefully reproduced signatures of company executives.
A group of "runners" would carry the bogus checks into banks, cashing them one by one, using the ID cards to make it all seem real.
"It was organized crime at its best," said Pinellas sheriff's Detective Robert Somers, who investigated the case.
In all, the web of counterfeiters included 100 people and cost banks across Florida more than $1 million, Somers said.
But this week, Cotney pleaded no contest to racketeering and got an 11-year prison sentence. Another eight people in his organization have pleaded in Pinellas and other counties to various charges, most of them cooperating with authorities. Three were sentenced to varying prison terms Friday.
Somers and Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Cathy McKyton said Cotney's operation grew out of a web of counterfeiters who began in Tampa in the 1990s and refined their craft over the years, gradually evolving into spinoff groups that operated throughout the state.
Cotney's was the second of the intertwining groups to be prosecuted. Another faction is awaiting prosecution, and Somers said he is actively investigating another group whose members have not yet been arrested.
The investigation started at ground level — banks would catch individuals here and there cashing counterfeit checks. It was akin to arresting drug dealers on the street corner — the lowest rung on the ladder — without ever touching the kingpins.
But in 2007 the Sheriff's Office and other agencies decided to go higher — to find who was at the top.
The Sheriff's Office put Cotney's group and the others under surveillance during "Operation Checkmate" for a year. Postal inspectors assisted as well. When people were arrested, detectives tried to get them to explain the scam.
Authorities say they learned Shelly and Shannon Watts of Tampa led one group accused in the scam. Both are awaiting trial in Pinellas. Another group was led by Alexander Jackson Sr., 56, who was sentenced in Hillsborough County to 12 years in prison, alongside two sons who were sentenced to 10 and six years.
McKyton and Somers said they began to see how the different factions, like different families, had their own personalities. The Jackson group gave its associates money and praise, like benevolent bosses at a family business. The Watts group, on the other hand, hired homeless people or others down on their luck and sent them directly into banks — only to abandon them if they were arrested, Somers said.
Cotney was a harsh and distrustful boss, McKyton and Somers said. That made it easier to convince his associates to talk, they said.
Somers said he isn't finished. His message to those he's still investigating: "We're going after the top people."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.