It all seemed innocent enough.
Someone walks into a supermarket to cash a check. The clerk smiles at the customer, cashes the check and tells that person to have a nice day.
But when supermarkets try to get reimbursed for some of those cashed checks, they discover the checks aren't real and they are out nearly $500 per check.
This wasn't so innocent. It was criminal.
Clearwater police say this scenario occurred about 179 times in supermarkets across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties during the past six weeks, costing chains such as Albertsons, Kash n' Karry, Publix and Winn-Dixie close to $90,000.
Acting on a tip, investigators went to the Regal Motel at 1320 Cleveland St. on Monday evening and found the two men they think are at the center of the scheme. The men, Kerry Dean Shotsberger, 37, and Dennis Stokes, 34, both of whom were staying at the motel, were charged with forging checks, a scheme to defraud, possession of forged checks, possession of forging instruments and grand theft.
Shotsberger was held in maximum security at the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $28,500 bail. Stokes, who has an outstanding warrant in Hillsborough County, was held without bail at the Pinellas jail. If convicted, both could receive a maximum sentence of five years in jail.
The charges are nothing new to both men.
Shotsberger and Stokes have long histories of convictions on similar charges.
Investigators said they get hundreds of similar cases each year.
"This is becoming extremely popular right now," said H.C. Klyse Jr., an investigator for the Largo police. "This is happening all over the country."
The two drifters had planned to leave the motel Tuesday to travel to Georgia to renew their scam, fearing they would be caught soon, Clearwater Detective Mark Weaver said.
"The systems were catching up," he said. "You've got three or four weeks before the system starts to catch up with you."
Police said the men used a Brother typewriter to print one check that appeared authentic and sent it to a printing company with an order for 200 checks.
Shotsberger and Stokes typed the name of a defunct company on the checks and signed the same name on each check, investigators said. They then went to area drug hangouts and recruited users to go to the stores, apply for a check cashing card and then cash the checks.
Some of the runners used their high school ID or phone cards to obtain check cashing cards.
Weaver said the men knew that supermarkets do not cash checks over $500 and made sure that each check was never more than $500. Most of the checks were between $490 and $497.
Weaver said the runners would return to Stokes and Shotsberger with the money and get paid $100 and $150 for their services.
Why would the runners return the cash?
"Honor among thieves," Clearwater police public information officer Wayne Shelor answered sardonically.
Clearwater police believe at least eight runners cashed the checks. The investigation into runners is ongoing, said Weaver, and several arrests are expected by the weekend.
It is not clear how many supermarkets were targeted.
Weaver said there are several ways for a supermarket to avoid being taken.
One would have been a check verification machine. Another way would have been to check photo identification of the check casher. A third way would have been to alert other supermarkets within a chain that certain people are attempting to cash fraudulent checks.
Weaver said one chain alerted some of its stores while neglecting to notify others.