Amid the crowds and chaos of the Business Showcase Saturday, two alert retailers and the Payson Police Department nabbed a trio of Valley residents trying to pass counterfeit bills at nearby shops.
As the investigation progressed, police discovered the three had set up shop at a local hotel.
"It looked like they were planning to flood the town with counterfeit money," Payson Police Sgt. Rod Mamero said.
Police arrested Raymond Leyva, 31, Monique V. Ramirez, 23, and Jesus Ortiz, 32, all of the Phoenix metro area.
Payson police were alerted about 1 p.m. when the owner of a shop near the white big-top tent called to report a man attempting to pass a counterfeit $100 bill.
"The bill didn't feel right," the business owner, who preferred to remain anonymous said. "I held it up to the light and I didn't see a watermark."
When the retailer questioned the bill's authenticity, the man got angry.
"He (said he) had just cashed his check at Bashas' and was going back to straighten things out," the shop owner said.
The retailer copied the license plate and a description of the man's truck as he drove away.
Shortly after the first call to police dispatch, Wes Hathaway, owner of Payson Music Center called to report that a clerk at his store had received a counterfeit $100.
"I knew immediately when I handled it that it was fake," Hathaway said. "I called 911 immediately."
Both business owners described the suspect as an Hispanic male dressed in a yellow shirt. They also said he had a crew cut.
Mamero, who was working at the Business Showcase, spotted the truck parked in front of a check cashing store. While the vehicle matched the description given by the business owner, the two passengers in the truck did not resemble the two accounts of the suspect. Mamero still questioned the passengers.
"I went up and contacted (Leyva) and he was acting nervous. We spoke to the passenger identified as (Ramirez)," Mamero said. "In talking to them there were inconsistencies in what they said they were doing there and why they were there."
Upon checking Leyva's criminal history, dispatch reported that he was on probation for fraud, which made police even more suspicious.
Mamero said officers spotted a Holy Bible on the dash board stuffed with what appeared to be counterfeit bills. Also in the truck, within an arm's reach of the driver's seat, was a semi-automatic hand-held pistol, which could unload up to 25 bullets in seconds.
"In searching the vehicle we found several hundred dollars in counterfeit money and a Tech Nine knockoff with the serial number filed off," Mamero said. "We also found bolt cutters, prybars and files -- things commonly used to commit burglaries."
Leyva and Ramirez were arrested and booked into the Gila County Jail.
Officers believed the third suspect, the man who tried to pass the counterfeit bills, had left the scene.
"We found hotel room keys and were able to find the hotel where they were staying," Mamero said.
It was in the hotel room where officers found and arrested Ortiz.
"(Ortiz) matched the physical description reported by the store owners," Mamero said. "We took the original reporting party to the hotel where he positively identified him."
Ortiz, who had numerous aliases, was ultimately identified by a tattoo on his shoulder.
"A search warrant was executed on the hotel room where a large amount of counterfeit money was found along with computer equipment they were using to produce it," Mamero said. "The counterfeit was in various stages of completion and some of it had been thrown away because it didn't look good enough."
Mamero said officers also found several empty bindles that tested positive for methamphetamine residue.
"On Sunday, it was reported to me that these subjects were also seen at Walgreens Saturday trying to use counterfeit money to buy an ink jet printer cartridge," Mamero said. "I would say that the odds of getting them on the first business they went to are rather slim, so they probably did pass some money around town. This is still an ongoing investigation and we expect more victims will come forward."
Payson Police Commander Don Engler said all three were charged with forgery and possession of forgery instruments. Ortiz was also charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. Leyva was also charged with possession of a concealed weapon, possession of a defaced weapon, being a prohibited possessor of a firearm and possession of burglary tools. Ramirez was also charged with possession of burglary tools.
All three were transported to the Gila County Jail in Globe Monday.
Leyva is being held in lieu of $25,000. Ramirez and Ortiz remain in custody in lieu of $15,000 each.
"The citizens who reported the information were the key to getting the ball rolling," Engler said. "Good witnesses are so important and in this case, we had a license plate to work off of."
"I'm glad they are off the street," Hathaway said. "Business owners struggle as it is up here and with the court system you'll be lucky if you get restitution in 10 years."
"There may be more charges forthcoming," Engler said. "We are conducting background checks to see if they might have done this in another jurisdiction. When our investigation is concluded we will be forwarding the report to the Secret Service for possible federal charges."
Anyone with information on the case is asked to call Payson Police Det. Steve Johnson at (928) 474-5177.