Suspects in counterfeit ring arrested

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After a three-month investigation into counterfeit money being passed in numerous Belen businesses, police have arrested and charged two suspects and hope to make more arrests soon.

Belen Police Detective Martin Benavidez, who has been working this case since the beginning, says he's relieved that they've been able to solve, what he believes, to be a major racketeering ring in the Hub City.

The suspects, Melissa Gonzales, 39, and Orlando Bernal, 30, were both arrested on Friday and are charged with racketeering, forgery, receiving stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.

They are both being held in the Valencia County Detention Center on $18,500 cash or surety bonds.

"Since November, we started receiving reports of counterfeit bills being passed at quite a few local businesses in Belen," Benavidez said. "A lot of times, it won't be caught until the deposits are made at the bank, so there could be other businesses affected that we just don't know about yet."

The detective said after conferring with other law enforcement agencies in the county, it looks like most of the funny money was being passed within the Belen city limits, which led Benavidez to believe that the bills were being manufactured within the city.

"Our patrol officers were able to detain some people who were trying to use the money," Benavidez said. "Businesses like Sonic and Dollar General, they educated their employees on spotting counterfeit money, and so when some people were trying to use counterfeit money, they called us.

"Through interviews with some of these people, they would first say that they got the money from change at a smoke shop in Albuquerque. But when we checked their story, they changed their story and told us they were getting the money from a girl by the name of Melissa Gonzales, who lived on Castillo Street here in Belen. About four or five people told us they got the money from her."

But after speaking with the district attorney's office and agents with the U.S. Secret Service, Benavidez said more investigation needed to be done.

At one point, the detective said Los Lunas police got a report that someone was trying to pass five counterfeit $20 bills at Walmart, but officers were unable to identify him. Other people told investigators that all they knew was that he goes by the name "Caco."

On Jan. 4, officers received a report of shoplifting at Walmart in Belen, but the suspect was able to leave before officers arrived. The female shoplifter was said to have been trying to steal a printer, X-Acto knives and printer ink. While she wasn't able to get away with the merchandise, Benavidez said an officer went to Gonzales's house and the suspected shoplifter's vehicle was there.

The officer waited, and when the suspects left the house and drove away in the car, the officer attempted to stop them, but was unsuccessful.

Benavidez said they received another shoplifting call at Walmart, where a woman was trying to shoplift printer ink. The woman was identified and was found to have been living with Gonzales.

"I was able to obtain a search warrant for Melissa Gonzales' house, and on Friday, we went to the house and were able to locate her, two other subjects who were not arrested and a male subject, who was identified as Orlando Bernal," Benavidez said.

The detective said when Bernal was taken into custody, he wasn't wearing a shirt and officers were able to see a tattoo with the name "Caco" on his stomach.

During the search, Benavidez said officers found eight counterfeit $100 bills within Bernal's wallet, all with the same serial numbers. They also found 10 counterfeit $20 bills, again with the same serial number.

The detective also said they found a small amount of methamphetamine in Gonzales' purse, a glass pipe in another room and a checkbook and a driver's license belonging to a burglary victim down the road.

While Gonzales denied being involved in the counterfeiting ring, Bernal eventually admitted to police his involvement and told them about a camper trailer in Solomon Estates where someone was making the counterfeit money. Benavidez said sheriff's deputies have seized the camper and will soon be searching it.

Benavidez said if the amount of counterfeit money exceeds $5,000, the Secret Service could get involved and charge the duo on a federal level.

"Hopefully we've shut this down, but we won't know until we no longer get reports of the counterfeit money," Benavidez said. "It's so detrimental to the local economy and the businesses who are victims won't get reimbursed. There could still be some of this 'money' still floating around, so we want local businesses to continue to be careful."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.