A suspect in the largest counterfeiting scheme in U.S. history taught himself to make bogus currency from a book he studied as a hobby, investigators said Monday.
"The printing technique is excellent," Secret Service agent Steve Lords said, standing beside a huge stack of $12.5 million in bogus bills seized in Salmon, Ida. "Had it gotten into circulation it would have done serious damage," he said.
Lords and other agents investigating the alleged counterfeiting scheme of Wick A. Helmandollar, 40, of Salmon and former Salmon resident Harold C. Cooper, 56, now of Buena Park, invited reporters to his office to show off stacks of crisp pages of uncut bills, which came four to a page.
Helmandollar and Cooper were being held in a Los Angles County jail on $25,000 bail after their arrest Thursday.
The seizure was the largest counterfeiting bust in the Secret Service's more than 100-year history, Lords said.
Helmandollar and Cooper were arrested in a Los Angeles parking lot after allegedly delivering $3.7 million in counterfeit $100 bills to undercover Secret Service agents. A subsequent investigation led agents to an Orange County storage locker where $4 million of the $100 bills were found and to the Salmon house where $12.5 million was buried in six metal ammunition cases, Lords said.
Lords said the bills were slightly thicker than genuine currency and lacked the tiny red and blue fibers discernible in real money but otherwise were nearly impossible to detect as fake.
"It had been an ongoing hobby of his (Helmandollar) for 16 years before he reached this level of competency," Lords said.
Helmandollar and Cooper were operating a Christmas tree business in Southern California when they started spending the money, agents said. Twenty-five of the fake bills they spent at department stores turned up at a California bank.
"Our guess is they risked spending that much of the money to finance their operation in California," Lords said.
Residents of Salmon, a town of 4,000, described Helmandollar and Cooper as "nice guys" but said they were not surprised by the arrests. Helmandollar worked as a construction laborer and owned a bar. Cooper owned a bar and restaurant before moving to California in 1983.