Payson Police detectives and investigators throughout the state are trying to catch a ring of thieves who are cashing in on stolen checks.
To date, police think $1 million has been stolen statewide.
"We think they first hit Payson late at night Dec. 10, when they broke into Intermountain West," Det. Steve Johnson said. "The burglary itself was not outstanding. In fact, it didn't appear that anything was missing."
The following day, however, officers discovered the burglars' true target a sheet of computer checks and a signature stamp that belonged to the company's president, Reese Randall. Six of the checks were later cashed at Wells Fargo.
The same motive seems to be behind burglaries throughout the state, Johnson said. Police think the band of burglars is manned by Mexican nationals who normally target construction-related businesses. They break into businesses, steal payroll checks and flee. The checks are duplicated, typed out and distributed to others in the group and cashed at local banks.
"I contacted agencies in Show Low, Camp Verde, Cottonwood, Prescott, Prescott Valley ... they were all being hit with the same thing," Johnson said. "Apparently it's well organized. And, for whatever reason, the checks are always written for $977 or $987 always under $1,000."
Cory Thomas, vice president of Wells Fargo Bank in Payson, couldn't offer any theories about why the thieves write the bogus checks for less than $1,000.
"I can't speak for other banks, but Wells Fargo doesn't have any specific policies regarding check cashing limits," Thomas said. "But they're right; the checks are always between $960 and $980 always under $1,000."
Thomas said Wells Fargo is conducting a statewide internal investigation into 100 different instances of check-cashing crimes.
Randall said six of those crimes involved the checks that were stolen from his firm. A few days after Intermountain West was burglarized, six of his checks were cashed all bearing his signature stamp. Each check was written for an amount less than $1,000, but they totaled $5,600.
While the Intermountain West case continued, and Johnson was trying to get photos of the suspect from the Wells Fargo surveillance cameras, another burglary was reported at Payson Fence Company. On Jan. 23, thieves broke in and stole several company checks. That same day, the suspects cashed a Payson Fence check with Randall's signature stamp in Phoenix.
"We were in contact with (Bank One) the very next morning, and so was (Payson Fence owner Ty Chilson)," Johnson said. "That same morning, someone showed up and attempted to cash one of the Payson Fence checks ... (but the suspect) was able to get away."
Bank One, however, was able to supply police with a photo of the suspect the same day, Johnson said.
"We never did get photos from Wells Fargo," he said. Wells Fargo refused to cooperate with the police investigation and the police department has not yet required the bank to turn over the tape.
A third local burglary was reported Jan. 26, this time at Shelli Accounting of Payson.
Initially, the crime seemed unrelated, Johnson said, even though the burglars bypassed the accountant's petty cash and went straight for computer checks from the Creekside Restaurant in Christopher Creek.
Later that day, however, a Creekside check was cashed in Phoenix, also bearing Randall's signature.
While the investigation continues, Randall said he's not thrilled that his signature is appearing on checks around the state.
"It sounds weird, but I feel violated," he said. "Every time they use my stamp, my rights are being violated. This is one of those things that is just so connected. If the departments in Show Low, Thatcher, Buckeye anywhere this is happening if they could all get together and come up with a common denominator, then maybe they could solve this ring."
Anyone with information about these or any other crimes can call Payson police at (520) 474-5177.