Monday, Nov 24, 2014

Sheriff: Two men arrested in counterfeiting scheme in Clearwater

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CLEARWATER With a combination of counterfeit $100 bills and real money, Christopher DiPasquale would approach an elderly cashier in the garden section of a Walmart or Lowe’s department store.

He would buy some merchandise, and get some real money in change, according to court documents. Then he would drive to a different Walmart or Lowe’s, exchange what he had just purchased at the previous store, and acquire more real cash.

DiPasquale, 46, of 1800 Bayshore Way, Clearwater, and his alleged accomplice, Rob Kowalczyk, 35, 29021 Bouquet Canyon, Santa Clarita, Calif., were arrested last week on charges they ran a counterfeit money scheme during which, over a six-month period, bogus $100 bills were passed in 14 Florida counties – including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Volusia, Charlotte, Citrus and Lee.

According to arrest papers filed by the statewide prosecutor’s office, the charges against the two men are money laundering, dealing in stolen property, uttering forged counterfeit notes, bringing counterfeit notes to the state, possession of an instrument for counterfeit notes, and possession of methamphetamine.

Though the total amount of money stolen is relatively small – the money laundering charge is for an amount less than $20,000 – investigators used many techniques, at including confidential informants and a mobile tracking device placed on DiPasquale’s Dodge Durango, court documents say.

At one point, DiPasquale, who was the first target of the investigation, led investigators to Kowalczk, and helped lure him from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay before Kowalczk’s arrest, the documents say.

The case began in October, when a woman tried to use a bogus $100 bill at a doctor’s office, documents say. The woman, Nina Cruse, and her boyfriend, said they knew the man who gave them the fake money only as “Chris,” the owner of a business called “Trash Caddy,” which turned out to be bogus, too.

After figuring out the suspect was DiPasquale, Pinellas detectives went to their confidential informants and inmates at the Pinellas County Jail before talking with inmate Patricia Serrano. She knew where he lived and that he made counterfeit $100 bills from “washed” one-dollar bills, and, she said, he passed them along the East Coast.

Investigators put DiPasquale under surveillance and found him frequently using binoculars and driving in erratic patterns, apparently in an attempt to avoid any law enforcement agents who might be on to him, the court records say.

Investigators got permission to use a mobile tracking device three times on DiPasquale’s 2003 Dodge Durango, and they kept him under watch a few times themselves, the court documents say. It was during this combination of electronic and live surveillance that detectives learned DiPasquale went to the garden section of home improvement stores and picked elderly cashiers, documents state.

By Feb. 6, investigators verified he passed about 62 counterfeit $100 bills, buying $4,691.45 worth of merchandise, and receiving $5,559.66 in change after buying merchandise or returning it, the documents state.

On Feb. 20, he was seen leaving his Clearwater home at 1800 Bayshore Way with a woman, and made 12 purchases and five returns at eight stores that day, the documents say.

He went to Walmarts in Spring Hill, Brooksville, Inverness, Lecanto and Ocala, and Lowe’s in Inverness, Ocala, the documents state.

Among the items purchased at one store – then exchanged at another – were a water filter, Chewy candy, chlorine tablets and a Cobalt tool set.

Authorities then got a warrant and searched DiPasquale’s Clearwater home. He admitted to bleaching one-dollar bills; and some Purple Power, which is used to bleach currency paper, was found during the search, court documents state. Some scrubbers were also found, along with the merchandise he stole on Feb. 20.

DiPasquale said that while he knew how to wash one-dollar bills, he did not have the expertise to superimpose fake $100 bills on top of them, the documents said. He said Kowalczyk had the knowledge and the equipment for that task.

Kowalczyk was already on probation in a separate case where he was charged with possession of uncurrent bills, and in California, where he was now living, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had charged him with possession of a controlled substance and possession of counterfeit bills.

DiPasquale, in the hope of obtaining “favorable consideration” in his own criminal case, offered to help authorities arrest Kowalczyk, the documents state. There was already a plan started for Kowalczyk to come to Florida to make more bogus bills.

On March 3, Kowalczyk flew to Tampa with a backpack, shipping box and duffel bag. Investigators followed his taxi to DiPasquale’s home, and they arrested him the next day.

Shortly after DiPasquale’s minor daughter left for school, DiPasquale came outside and told investigators Kowalcyzk was inside lying down in the den. He had already set up a printer, and on top of the printer was some paper with faint images of one-dollar bills. There were also paint, paint brushes, acrylics, a razor blade and two air brushes nearby.

There were also four counterfeit $100 bills in Kowalczyk’s wallet, documents state.

In his backpack, Kowalczyk had a false bottom, and underneath were two removable hard drives containing the program to print counterfeit money, the documents say. Like DiPasquale, Kowalczyk tried to help his situation by cooperating, and he agreed to be interrogated at the sheriff’s office.

During the interview he asked to use the bathroom in an apparent attempt to get rid of some crystal methamphetamine in his pocket. He tried leaving it on the floor.

sthompson@tampatrib.com. (727) 215-6504.

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