BREA — Two men allegedly caught with almost $8 million in counterfeit traveler's checks were arrested Wednesday by Brea police, hours before they were scheduled to board a flight to Vietnam.
Robert Michael Wann, 39, of Corona and Arde George Damos, 40, of Placentia, were arrested at their homes without incident at 7 a.m. by officers who had executed search warrants at the residences. Investigators recovered $7.8 million in counterfeit Visa traveler's checks wrapped in bundles at the suspects' homes, Sgt. Tom G. Flenniken said.
The bundles contained phony checks in $1,000 denominations, Flenniken said. Officers also recovered $25,000 in bogus checks in $100 denominations at another location, he added. In addition, investigators seized two handguns belonging to the suspects and unidentified property allegedly purchased by the men with the counterfeit checks, Flenniken said.
Wann and Damos were booked into La Habra City Jail and were being held in lieu of $250,000 bail each. Police said that Wann had an export-import business in Riverside County. Damos' occupation was unknown, officials said.
When investigators searched the men's homes, they discovered two airline tickets for a flight to Vietnam that was scheduled to depart later in the day. Investigators also determined that the suspects had traveled to Vietnam in October, Flenniken said.
"We were fortunate that our timing was good. We believe they were going to fly out [Wednesday]," said Flenniken. "It looks like they were going to take the bundled checks to Vietnam and put them in circulation."
Police had had Wann and Damos under surveillance for three months. The investigation began after one of the suspects passed a counterfeit $100 traveler's check at a supermarket in Yorba Linda, Flenniken said. Yorba Linda contracts with Brea for police services.
"We began a surveillance on Wann shortly after that, and we followed him to several places, including San Diego and a place near the Mexican border," said Flenniken. "We think that they circulated these phony checks through Mexico to the rest of the world."
Investigators have determined that counterfeit checks allegedly passed by Wann and Damos ended up in China, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, Flenniken said.
He said that police still do not know where the counterfeit checks were printed, or how long Wann and Damos have allegedly circulated them. Flenniken said the printing quality was "fairly good."
"On some checks, the printing was not the best, but it was good enough that some people accepted them," said Flenniken. "The investigation is continuing, and we have no idea how much these people circulated" in counterfeit checks.
Flenniken declined to say whether Wann and Damos were part of a larger ring of counterfeiters or whether they had ties to a Little Saigon counterfeiting operation broken up by federal agents last month.
The Little Saigon ring was also suspected of printing phony Visa traveler's checks, along with American Express checks, payroll checks and credit cards. Authorities arrested 23 people following a two-year investigation.
Some of the bogus checks allegedly manufactured by the Little Saigon ring were similar to the printed checks found by California Highway Patrol Officer Don Burt in the trunk of a car moments before he was shot July 13 during a traffic stop, authorities said.
Hung Thanh Mai was later arrested and charged with Burt's murder.
Flenniken said that more arrests are expected as the investigation by Brea police continues. He said that "investigators have some very solid leads on other suspects based on our surveillance."
Brea police were assisted by the FBI in their investigation.