Two Florida women arrested in Billings and accused of being involved in a “very meticulous” coast-to-coast check-fraud scheme — possibly involving hundreds of thousands of dollars — appeared in court Thursday, where a judge set their bonds at $500,000 each.
Police arrested the two women, 29-year-old Tiffany Denise Dale and 39-year-old Catherine Linn Tucker, on Wednesday after the two of them allegedly tried to pass a forged check for $2,350 at Stockman Bank, 1450 Shiloh Road, according to charging documents.
Their mugshots were not immediately available Thursday.
“The amount of these forgeries is, to date, unknown in total value. In Yellowstone County alone it is believed (to be) about $30,000,” said Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Margaret R. Gallagher, noting that investigators believe banks in Bozeman, Belgrade and Great Falls have been hit by the same scheme.
A Stockman Bank employee became suspicious Wednesday and alerted police to the two women, who drove away from the bank’s drive-through in a gray Hyundai, records say.
A responding officer spotted the car and followed it until the driver of the car, identified as Tucker, stopped at another business on Shiloh Road.
Court records say the women gave police detailed statements, outlining a complicated check-fraud scheme that, based on what Dale told police, could have ties to organized crime in multiple cities.
Gallagher said the two Florida women were part of “very organized, very meticulous criminal enterprise” that stretches from Florida to Oregon and back and probably involved hundreds of thousands in stolen money.
Charging documents indicate that Dale was recruited in Florida by three black males to “run checks” on road trip from Florida to Portland, Ore., and back.
Dale, Tucker and their significant others, identified as Thomas Freel and Rob Cappelletti, made the trip in rental cars while the three black males and two black females drove in a red Chrysler minivan, court records say.
After her arrest, Dale reportedly told police that the others involved in the scheme — who she identified only as Chris, Jonathan, Jit, Dot and Crystal — had hidden $50,000-$70,000 in cash, stolen checks and stolen identification cards in various places inside the minivan.
Dale told police that she believed “Jonathan was running a much larger criminal enterprise encompassing at least a dozen cites,” charging documents state. She described him as age 22-27, about 5-feet, 8-inches tall and stocky with a “pot belly.” She said Jit has 16 permanent gold teeth and described Dot as Jonathan’s aunt.
The true identities and whereabouts of the five are unclear. Dale told police all five of them live in Dania Beach, Fla.
Tucker told police that Freel was arrested on a warrant in Wyoming along the way, court records say. It is unclear where Cappelletti is.
The minivan is described as a red 2010-2013 Chrysler, with tinted windows, possibly Minnesota plates and a silver “baby Jesus” sticker and three American flag stickers on the rear window.
Along the way, Tucker and Dale were given forged checks, fake identification and wigs and then were coached over the phone as they passed forged checks — only in drive-throughs — at specific banks along the route, court records say.
In exchange, the women were to be given 10 percent of the value of each of the successfully passed checks when they returned to Florida.
Gallagher cited the nature of the offenses, the women’s lack of ties to the community and their criminal histories as the reason for the high bond requests.
The prosecutor said both women have criminal histories in Florida, including a prostitution conviction for Dale and felony shoplifting for Tucker.
“As far as we’re concerned, this was her employment,” Gallagher said of Tucker. “With all of those considerations, we ask that the court hold her on $500,000 bond.”
Both defendants were represented by Assistant Public Defender Casey Moore, who requested that each of the women be given bonds of $10,000.
He said that Tucker told him she didn’t have any criminal history, and that Dale had told him she had a 19-day-old baby she is breastfeeding.
“Her husband and the baby are staying here in a motel,” Moore said.
“Your honor, there is absolutely no mention in the investigation of any relatives whatsoever in this county, nor any child ... ,” Gallagher said. “I think these claims are not substantiated in anything that I have seen.”
Expressing concern the women may abscond, Hernandez set bond $500,000 and said they can
argue for lower amounts in District Court.
The women each face counts of felony forgery, common scheme, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years prison.
They are scheduled to appear for arraignment in District Court on July 25.