Counterfeiters leave trail of wrappers, fake bills, police say

Largo police say alert clerks led them to two men with homemade $20s who ate and ran in a money-laundering restaurant binge.

By JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007

The scheme came to an end in a parking lot near a McDonald's, Largo police say.

Fast-food takeout bags littered the car's interior.

Fake $20-bills - 85 of them - were stashed under the dashboard.

Police arrested Justin Gustafson, 21, and Kenneth Rankin, 20, both of Largo, charging that they spent Sunday afternoon passing fake bills at a string of fast-food restaurants, then pocketing the change.

According to police, the two struck McDonald's, KFC-A&W, Wendy's and Checkers, moving steadily along East Bay Drive in a Happy Meal approach to money-laundering.

"It's a really small way to launder," said Largo police Sgt. John Trebino. "You put fake in; you get clean out."

But alert workers at the restaurants realized the bills were fake and called the police. That gave officers an opportunity to catch up to the counterfeiters.

"I give kudos to the folks at the fast-food restaurants," Trebino said. "We had two of these in a row. Obviously, the officers said, 'We pretty much know which direction they were heading.'"

There is a possibility, Trebino said, that the pair had done similar ripoffs in Clearwater.

As for the money, he said it was not an example of high-quality forgery. The two bought resume-type paper at an Office Depot, then manufactured the bills on a home printer.

"This was not money that was going to be looked at by anyone that has a tremendous amount of experience with money and not know that it was fake," Trebino said.

The U.S. Secret Service also is involved in the investigation.

Gustafson was charged with one count of forgery, four counts of uttering a counterfeit note and one count of possessing 10 or more fake bills. He was also arrested on a criminal contempt warrant related to a charge of driving without a valid license. Rankin faced the same counterfeiting charges plus an additional one for possession of marijuana.

Gustafson was being held at the Pinellas County Jail on Monday in lieu of $30,367 bail and Rankin was being held in lieu of $30,150 bail.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 727 445-4157.