Five men — four Georgia “gangsters” and a transient from Lame Deer — appeared Thursday in Yellowstone County Justice Court on charges that they cashed about $25,000 in forged payroll checks at area banks.
Elijah Bearing, 33, of Lame Deer; Chaney Sibley, 27, from Cottage Park, Ga.; Fernando Allison Jr., 20, of Decatur, Ga.; Justin Phillips, 23, from Riverdale, Ga.; and Demario Brooks, 20, of Atlanta were each charged with five felony counts of forgery.
Brooks also faces a felony count of assault on a peace officer and a misdemeanor count of resisting arrest.
Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Paul Chaon called the four Georgia men “gangsters” and said they came to Billings for the “sole purpose of perpetuating fraud” on local businesses and banks.
Chaon said that when police tried to arrest Brooks, he resisted, kicking an officer in the face and breaking a policeman’s finger.
Judge Pedro R. Hernandez set Brooks’ bond at $100,000. Bond for the other defendants, who are all being held at the county jail, ranges from $25,000 up to $100,000. Hernandez ordered them not to have any contact with each other.
The men started cashing checks Monday and by the time they were arrested Wednesday they had passed at least $24,500 in forged checks, according to charging documents. The men would steal payroll checks from mail drop boxes and then use the information to forge checks, the documents state. The defendants would then recruit homeless or transient men and offer them money to cash the checks at Billings banks.
Police arrested the men after they tried to cash checks at a Billings bank Wednesday while officers were there on another matter, Lt. Mark Cady said Wednesday.
Bearing, a Lame Deer transient whom Chaon, the prosecutor, called a “willing pawn,” fled on foot and was arrested nearby.
A chase ensued and the men eventually were arrested while trying to check in at a motel, Cady said.
Chaon said the defendants appeared to be connected to two other Georgia men recently charged with forgery in Billings.
In November, charges were filed against Ryan Vincent Hill, 25, and Xavier Cornelius Shields, 21. Prosecutors say they were involved in a similar check-cashing scheme in which bad checks totaling as much as $60,000 were cashed in Montana and another $150,000 in South Dakota.
Both men have pleaded not guilty to accusations that they paid homeless men to cash forged checks.
The investigation into the check-cashing scheme has been dubbed “Operation Homeless,” according to charging documents.
Sibley, Phillips, Brooks, Allison and Bearing are scheduled to appear for arraignment before District Judge Russell C. Fagg on Jan. 21.