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Student Arrested in Counterfeiting Case


CERRITOS — A Gahr High School student faces criminal charges and seven others are under investigation for allegedly passing counterfeit $20 bills in the school lunch line last month.

School officials estimated that the counterfeit money cost the ABC Unified School District as much as $1,000.

Francisco Martinez, an 18-year-old senior, faces arraignment Monday on a charge of possessing counterfeit bills, officials said. Investigators have not released the names of the other students because they are younger than 18. The juveniles, all from the Artesia area, have not been charged but could still be prosecuted, said Detective Linda Schermerhorn of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Authorities have linked the bogus twenties to a counterfeiting operation that has passed about $300,000 worth of fake currency throughout Southern California. But the students are not thought to belong to the larger counterfeiting organization, said David Cahill, a Secret Service administrator. The federal agency has jurisdiction over counterfeiting investigations.

The counterfeit bills came to light at the school March 11 when an alert cafeteria worker noticed 13 suspicious notes in a cash register. She was not sure which students had passed the bills.

Another school employee, however, later told a school security guard of seeing Martinez selling the bills to other students. The security guard confronted Martinez and found two counterfeit bills in his possession, investigators said.

Seven other boys admitted that they passed the bills in the lunch line. Agents said they are not certain how long students had been using the fake currency. The students--one junior and six seniors--told investigators that they bought the bills from Martinez for $5 apiece, Cahill said.

School administrators told agents that some of the students have ties to an Artesia gang, an allegation denied by the students. Investigators said they have no evidence linking the Artesia gang to the larger counterfeiting operation.

"Martinez said that someone gave the notes to him," Schermerhorn said. "He said he thought they were real."

Officers arrested Martinez March 11 on a charge of possessing counterfeit bills. He was released on his own recognizance pending a court appearance scheduled for Monday at the Los Cerritos Municipal Court in Bellflower.

Investigators said the teen-agers probably did not realize how much trouble they could bring on themselves by passing counterfeit money.

"The kids that I've had contact with, they're pretty shook up and worried because they don't realize how serious this is until they get arrested," Schermerhorn said.

Juveniles charged with counterfeiting can spend as much as a year in a juvenile detention facility, Schermerhorn said.

For adults, formal charges range from misdemeanors, carrying a maximum sentence of one year in county jail, to felonies, with a maximum sentence of $5,000 and 15 years in prison.

Schermerhorn characterized Martinez as an unlikely ringleader for passing bogus money.

"He's really a clean-looking kid and a good student," she said. "I don't know how he got messed up with whomever he's involved with."

The school district plans no disciplinary action of its own, spokeswoman Helen Fried said.

Secret Service agents said they hope that the Gahr High incident will help lead them to the people who printed the bills. This counterfeit operation has cost Southern California merchants, vendors and banks more money than any other over the last 18 months, Cahill said.

Experts can spot the counterfeit bills because the paper lacks the randomly distributed red and blue fibers that real notes contain, and the Treasury seal to the right of the portrait is not as sharp as on genuine currency.

"They were made from a printing press," Cahill said. "We would classify them as poor. But they are good enough to pass."

Officials said that anyone who finds a suspicious note should call the Secret Service at (213) 894-0318 during business hours or at (213) 894-4830 at nights or on weekends.

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