ATHENS, Ga. -- A year after authorities broke up a ring that flooded the Athens area with counterfeit money smuggled from Peru, bogus bills from South America continued to make their way into the local economy.
That’s what was revealed when a man pleaded guilty last week in U.S. District Court in Athens on a charge of possession of counterfeit currency.
Quinn Michael Gibson, 24, admitted during a hearing Wednesday that he smuggled more than $14,000 in counterfeit $20 and $50 bills he obtained in Ecuador.
A U.S. Secret Service agent stated in a court document that the bills were “examples of a counterfeit FRN (federal reserve note) that the Secret Service has identified as coming from Peru.
“The FRN has been passed in the United States hundreds of times,” the agent stated in an affidavit used to obtain a federal arrest warrant for Gibson.
Last year, a group of people flooded the area with counterfeit $100 bills during the Fourth of July weekend, a time when police said cashiers were too busy to closely examine cash from customers.
They fanned out across Athens-Clarke County making small purchases with the counterfeit money to convert them into genuine currency, authorities said.
Soon after, local police obtained a warrant to search a home off Tallassee Road where the alleged ringleader lived.
In an affidavit supporting the warrant application, an Athens-Clarke detective wrote, “Currently, there are at least seven different types of counterfeit bills that the group is passing.
“According to (a Secret Service agent), the bills are originating out of Peru and are being printed by the organized crime families in that area, basically the drug cartels.”
The bills entered the country through a New York airport before making their way to Georgia, the detective said.
Peru in recent years has become the world’s counterfeiting capital. Peruvian counterfeiters produce about 17-percent of all fake currency circulating in the U.S.
People who buy from manufacturers pay about half the face value of the counterfeit bills then pass them off at full value.
The problem became so great that the Secret Service joined with Peruvian authorities to form the Peruvian Counterfeit Task Force.
The agency’s director earlier this year talked about the agency’s successes when appearing before a congressional subcommittee.
“To date, PCTF operations have led to 92 arrests, 11 counterfeit plant suppressions, and the seizure of over $37.4 million in counterfeit currency,” Mark Sullivan told subcommittee members.
It’s unclear how Gibson made his way to South America, but from his arrest history it’s clear he progressed to bigger things.
At age 17, he was arrested for shoplifting wallets from a Georgia Square Mall department store, according to Clarke County Superior Court records. The next year, he was charged with stealing three laptop computers from United Parcel Service, and in 2007 was convicted of financial transaction card theft.
Gibson lived in Bogart at the time, according to court records.
His trouble with the federal government began on May 29.
That’s the day he checked into the Hilton Garden Inn on East Washington Street and gave a clerk 10 counterfeit $50 bills when registering for a room, according to federal court records.
After Gibson went to his room, hotel managers examined the bills and suspected they were counterfeit. They then called Gibson to the lobby, where he grabbed all but one of the bills, according to records.
Gibson returned to his room to collect his luggage, but a hotel manager called police and officers arrested him as he tried to leave, according to records.
The officers brought Gibson to police headquarters, where they searched his luggage and found more than 500 counterfeit $20 bills and more than 30 additional counterfeit $50 bills, according to court records.
Local police initially charged him on state forgery charges, but federal authorities later took the case.
Three days after Gibson’s arrest, a Secret Service agent examined the seized bills and verified they were counterfeits and were of the same type made in Peru.
Gibson then confessed to having obtained the fake money in South America and hiding the bills inside a videocassette recorder for the flight back home, according to court records.
“(Gibson) admitted that he had received the counterfeit(s) in Ecuador, South America, and intended to pass it in the United States,” according to his plea agreement.
A federal grand jury in June indicted Gibson on two criminal charges, possession and passing counterfeit currency, but as part of a bargain with prosecutors he pleaded guilty Wednesday to just the possession charge.
Gibson faces up to 20 years in prison, but U.S. District Court Judge C. Ashley Royal did not immediately impose a sentence.