CLEARWATER — Working with U.S. Secret Service agents, investigators from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office have uncovered a criminal operation that has pumped at least $100,000 in counterfeit money into businesses throughout the state of Florida, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Monday.
At an afternoon news conference, Gualtieri announced the arrests of Clearwater resident Christopher DiPasquale, 46, and Robert Kowalczyk, a 35-year-old from southern California. Both men played central roles in an intricate scheme that involved washing the ink from $1 bills and reprinting them as $100 bills, Gualtieri said.
The fake $100 bills were either sold at discounted value — the going rate was $50 to $60 — or used to buy merchandise that was returned, effectively laundering the money, according to the Sheriff's Office investigation. The appearance of the bills was unusually convincing, in part because they were printed on genuine U.S. currency paper.
"Usually, they look terrible," Gualtieri said of counterfeit bills typically encountered by law enforcement.
"This is a very sophisticated operation," he added, "but not foolproof."
Gualtieri said he expects Sheriff's Office detectives to uncover more counterfeit money, and perhaps additional suspects, as the investigation continues. According to the Sheriff's Office, DiPasquale was active over two years in 16 Florida counties from Jacksonville in the north to Miami-Dade in the south.
"This investigation is really at this point in its infancy," Gualtieri said. "It's going to be going on for a long time. We've been able to establish $100,000 (in fake currency), but we believe there was much more than that."
John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Tampa field office, said in a statement that the scheme "affected citizens throughout the state of Florida as well as the state of California." The Florida Attorney General's Office also took part in the investigation.
Kowalczyk was being held in the Pinellas County Jail without bond on charges of money laundering, bringing counterfeit money into the states, possessing instruments for producing counterfeit money, methamphetamine possession, and violation of probation for possessing uncurrent bills.
DiPasquale was released on $2,500 bail on a single count of money laundering.
DiPasquale declined to comment Monday when approached at his Clearwater home, which sits across the street from a golf course on Haines Bayshore Road east of U.S. 19. He referred questions to his defense lawyer, Lori Palmieri of Tampa. Palmieri did not return calls Monday.
Gualtieri said DiPasquale and Kowalczyk created the fake $100 bills by washing $1 bills in a solution created from auto degreasing liquid. After soaking the bills in a bucket for three days, they were able to scrub off their previous markings, leaving a blank piece of U.S. Treasury-issued paper, he said.
They then marked the blank bills with a $100 denomination using a laser printer and design software they had created, Gualtieri said. The result was a convincing simulation of real cash that even looked authentic when held against the light to check for the special threads in the paper used to print money, he said.
Not all were fooled. Gualtieri said the scheme came to light in October when a receptionist at a St. Petersburg doctor's office reported a seemingly counterfeit $100 bill to law enforcement.
The Sheriff's Office retraced the money to DiPasquale and Kowalczyk, and began performing surveillance on DiPasquale as, investigators say, he used the counterfeits at Walmart, Macy's and Home Depot.
A search of DiPasquale's house last month revealed counterfeit bills and sales receipts from purchases made with the fake money, according to a Sheriff's Office search warrant. Kowalczyk was arrested at DiPasquale's home last week in possession of 41 washed bills and counterfeiting tools, Gualtieri said.
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.