ST. PETERSBURG — Tim Willner didn't notice anything unusual at first about the trio who shopped at the Bargain Basement more than a week ago.
Nothing seemed amiss when the two men, one right after the other, bought small items with $20 bills, or when the woman right behind them did the same thing.
"They were like normal customers," said Willner, 22, whose family owns the discount store at 2890 34th St. N. "Just kind of wandering around."
Then the woman bought a second item. But instead of using the change Willner just gave her, she reached for another $20 bill.
"What made me a little suspicious," he said, "was she used a $20 for like a $3 item."
Willner took the money. But after the woman left he took out a counterfeit-detecting pen. As he marked the bill to see if it was fake, another man walked in — then promptly walked out.
"He started hollerin' for them to get away," Willner said.
The man hopped into a black Dodge Durango with the rest of the group. Willner jotted down a tag number as they sped away.
And that, police say, is how the counterfeiting scheme started to unravel.
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Police say the scam had been working for days.
Using handfuls of phony $20 bills created on a home printer, police say, a group of four men and two women worked their way around Pinellas County, perpetrating one of society's oldest crimes.
They burned at least 30 stores with about $1,000 worth of fake money, according to police.
"This is one of the largest (schemes) we've seen as it relates to amount of businesses hit," said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Kevin Smith, who heads the department's economic crimes division. "They were definitely on a five-, six-day crime spree. They weren't shy."
The scheme, he said, was simple: use a fake bill to buy a small item, usually only worth a few dollars, and pocket the real change.
It worked at a Publix in St. Petersburg. It worked at convenience stores in Treasure Island. It worked at a McDonald's in Seminole.
But when the group of friends arrived at a CVS Pharmacy in Pinellas Park on the morning of May 18, police say they had no idea their alleged counterfeit spree was about to be end.
St. Petersburg detectives, using the tag number Willner jotted down the day before, were on their trail.
And officers were waiting when the group emerged from the pharmacy at 7101 Park Blvd. Arrested were Shane Adams, 33; Cody Hanick, 28; Christopher Blanchard, 31; Nicholas McKown, 28; Constance Painter, 26; and Ashley Wells, 22; all of St. Petersburg.
Some told investigators they were doing it to support a prescription pill habit.
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According to the Secret Service, an average of $10,000 to $12,000 fake currency passes through Tampa Bay each week.
Sometimes criminals go so far as bleaching a real $1 or $5 bill and reprinting it as a $50 or $100 bill.
The St. Petersburg group's technique was much less sophisticated. Police say they used a common household office machine to copy real $20 bills onto fancy paper.
A search of Wells' apartment turned up a cutting board, ivory stock paper, folders of fake $20 bills that all had the same serial number and a Lexmark 3-in-1 printer, according to court records.
"It's very common," said John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service Tampa Bay Field Office. "Domestically speaking, the $20 bill is reproduced most often."
It's also more likely to go unnoticed.
Joyce said that's because store clerks usually look more closely at a $100 or $50 bill than smaller ones. It's easy to let a fake bill slip by, the special agent said, if it's nestled in a wad of real bills.
That's what happened in the St. Petersburg case, Sgt. Smith said. A few clerks turned the group away. But more often than not, the fakes passed without being detected until later.
"It ran the gamut from McDonald's to gas stations to little pet stores," Smith said. "Anything that was open 24 hours a day was popular."
Even after the Bargain Basement incident the group continued on, according to St. Petersburg police: They went to a Publix on 66th Street, where Painter got an $810 money order using at least one fake $20. They stopped by a Bealls store. They went to a Dollar Tree in Largo, and a Walmart on Tyrone Boulevard.
Detectives also learned that other police agencies were looking for a group who had been passing fake money in other cities. The agencies compared surveillance videos and said it was the same group.
St. Petersburg police suspect that more than a dozen other businesses were also victimized. Joyce said the incident is a reminder that cashiers are the "frontline" of the counterfeit battle.
Willner said he just acted on instinct.
"It felt like real money," he said. "Even the cop said they were the best $20 he'd seen."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.