Ring Blamed for $2M in Bogus Checks

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A counterfeiting ring stole U.S. Treasury checks from cargo at Newark Liberty International Airport, created sophisticated copies and cashed $2 million worth of bogus paper, federal authorities said Wednesday.

The suspects paid airport baggage handlers to steal the mail from the holds of airliners, outfoxing airport inspectors by hiding stolen mail in their clothing and backpacks as they were unloading luggage, authorities said.

Two Newark baggage handlers and a woman from the Dominican Republic have already pleaded guilty in the scheme, which ran from June 2003 to November 2007, authorities said. Another suspect remains at large.

According to an indictment unsealed Wednesday, the ring used real Treasury checks to create counterfeits by copying five complicated security features. The 14 counterfeit checks cited in the indictment ranged from $5,120 to $340,184.27.

Prosecutors said one of the organizers, Merlinhg Alcantara, a legal U.S. resident from the Dominican Republic, was aided by his brother, Luis Alcantara, who fled to their native country just before he was to plead guilty.

"There are other individuals under investigation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Erez Leibermann said.

He declined to specify how the plot unraveled, but said, "As you can imagine, when checks don't reach their recipients, the government gets word of this and investigations begin."

Merlinhg Alcantara, 32, was charged with conspiracy, which carries up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and 14 counts of passing counterfeit federal checks, each of which carries up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Alcantara, of Bethlehem, Pa., is free on $250,000 bail.

"We pleaded not guilty in court, and he feels strongly on moving in that direction," said his lawyer, Marc A. Calello.

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