Six Hispanic men who were arrested last week for forging thousands of dollars of stolen checks in Sharp County and the surrounding area have been linked to numerous other cases in Arkansas in a scheme authorities think is linked to a nationwide check cashing scam that could total millions of dollars.
Law enforcement officers with agencies in Arkansas and Missouri, as well as agents with the U.S. Secret Service, met Oct. 11 in Cherokee Village to compare notes and information regarding the scam. As a result of the meeting, cases were cleared in Mountain View, West Plains, Branson, Springdale and Jonesboro, according to authorities.
Special Agent Mack Thompson with the Arkansas State Police said he called the meeting after he was barraged with calls from all over the nation following the arrests of the men last week. He said apparently the scam has been going on for at least two years and involves numerous states. He said the arrest of the six men in Sharp County is the first big break in the scam, and authorities hope to build on that.
According to Thompson, the six men -- Jesus Palacidos Melgosa, 20; Alver Soso Rian, 25; Edy Benites Mendosa, 30; Marco Antonio Correa Esparsa, 36; David Benites, 29; and Carlos Villa Aguilar, 33, have been positively linked to forgeries across the state. It is expected the men will be charged with more than $250,000 in forgeries in Arkansas, with the possibility of additional charges in other states.
Thompson said authorities hope to use banks across the nation to help gather intelligence into the scam. He said any bank that has numerous branches and construction companies as customers should be on alert.
Thompson said banking institutions have the ability to communicate with one another whereas other groups, such as construction companies, do not. He said he hopes once banking institutions across the nation become aware of the situation and know what to look for, additional leads will develop.
All of the forgeries thus far have occurred with stolen checks from construction companies. The burglaries into the construction companies have all been unobtrusive and the victims haven't been aware of the theft until after the checks were cashed.
Hispanic men, and in some cases women, have then cashed the checks at numerous branch offices of the bank the checks were written on. The checks have all been in the $800 range and had legitimate looking signatures on them, Thompson said.
The investigator said the scam shows a high level of sophistication. He speculated documents containing signatures were stolen along with the checks because the signatures on the checks have been extremely realistic. "It's some of the best forgeries I've seen," said Thompson.
The six men in custody were apprehended Oct. 4 after Thompson and his wife, Ella Van, observed them at the First National Bank of Sharp County branch office at Wal-Mart in Ash Flat. Thompson recognized one of the men from surveillance video obtained in Independence County following 42 forgeries from M&A Jones Construction Company in Batesville in September; the forgeries totaled more than $35,000.
Ella Van Thompson assisted her husband and was able to get a description of the vehicle the men were in, along with their direction of travel. The men were stopped in Hardy and taken to the Sharp County jail where they were charged with one count each of second-degree forgery, a class C felony. They appeared before Judge Kevin King Oct. 11 for their first appearance hearings where bond was set at $50,000 each.
The FNB forgeries involved checks stolen from Cowart Construction in Salem; they totaled over $32,000. Approximately $16,000 was recovered and returned to FNB.
All six men were transported to Independence County last week where they were charged with forgery. Bond was set at $200,000 each in Independence County, and they remain in custody there.
Thompson said he is unsure where the men will next face charges. "Whoever wants them," he said, referring to the other cities that have identified the men in their cases.
Thompson said the men have all admitted to being illegal aliens and had numerous forged identifications among them. It is expected the FBI will take control of the case and coordinate the investigation.