Fresno police say a woman arrested as she tried to buy clothes with a counterfeit check at a Gottschalks store is the ringleader of a gang responsible for up to 500 identity theft cases in the past two years.
Police said the case involved at least 850 counterfeit checks, 319 illegally accessed accounts at the Educational Employees Credit Union and conservatively netted $125,000 in cash and goods from several Valley merchants.
That figure could exceed $250,000 as the investigation continues, Chief Jerry Dyer said.
The March 29 arrest of Aida Hernandez, 34, of Fresno at the Fashion Fair Gottschalks capped a six-month investigation by the police financial crimes unit, police announced at a news conference Tuesday.
"She's probably our most active counterfeiter," said Heather Ground, detective with the financial crimes unit who led the investigation.
Financial crimes detective David Passmore was on duty at Fashion Fair on March 29 when he saw Hernandez trying to buy merchandise.
She was booked into Fresno County Jail on 151 felony counts of passing counterfeit checks, commercial burglary, identity theft and related charges. Bail was set at $661,000. She remained in custody Tuesday.
Also arrested in the investigation was Erika Castillo, 33, of Fresno, on six felony counts of passing bad checks, commercial burglary, possession of stolen property and access card fraud. Castillo was later released on $39,000 bail.
Police are seeking two more suspects: Christopher Michael Brown, 33, and Johnny Joe Morales, 22, both of Fresno.
"This is a very complex case. It's incredible what [detectives] were able to determine," Dyer said.
The investigation began in November when Save Mart officials reported receiving several counterfeit checks that appeared to have been written by the same person.
Police said the suspects made counterfeit gift cards for stores including PetSmart, Michaels, Babies R Us and Mervyns, which they sold on the street.
The suspects also printed counterfeit checks for existing bank accounts and used the checks to buy merchandise and get cash.
They made fake ID cards, which were used to pass counterfeit checks at chain stores up and down the Valley, including Gottschalks, Save Mart, J.C. Penney, Home Depot, Target, Mervyns, Kohl's, Rite Aid and Wal-Mart.
Javier Prado, loss prevention manager at J.C. Penney in Fashion Fair, said the suspects spent "several hundred dollars" at the store.
Police in Clovis, Sanger, Selma, Kingsburg, Visalia, Reedley and Corcoran and the Fresno County Sheriff's Department assisted in the investigation, Dyer said.
Officers served search warrants at several locations.
Packets of fake checks, several ID cards, credit cards, gift cards, jewelry -- including a $199 silver and diamond bracelet -- were on display at the news conference.
A Gottschalks return slip for $96 was also displayed. Ground said the suspects bought merchandise with counterfeit checks, then returned the items to the stores for cash or store credit.
Ground said that personal identity information was obtained in a variety of ways, some of which she declined to discuss, but some was stolen from mailboxes, garbage cans and vehicles.
"It's important not to leave anything in your car," Ground said, and to follow identity theft precautions, like shredding credit card applications and other documents containing personal information.