By Tim Eberly
Monte Reichelt walked into McLean's Grocery store on Sept. 19 as a customer. An off-duty Hill County sheriff's chief deputy, Reichelt inadvertently stumbled upon a suspected crime that led to the discovery of what local law enforcement officers say was a local forgery ring.
Investigators say a group of unemployed acquaintances were cashing altered money orders and making large profits.
It was one of two cases of forgery in the recent months that resulted in the loss of more than $3,000 to Hill County businesses, according to the sheriff's office. The cases culminated in a total loss exceeding $7,800.
Joseph Neal, the suspected ringleader of the money order operation, was arrested on Sept. 20 and has been charged with forgery, said sheriff's deputy Dottie Dwyer. Rita Orlinda Bandiera, 30, who lives south of Havre, was arrested on Oct. 9 and faces theft and forgery charges in Chippewa Cree Tribal Court. A 17-year-old Havre boy was also charged with misdemeanor forgery in the Hill County Youth Court. Charges are pending for at least four other individuals, Dwyer said.
"I was just in there to make a purchase and that's it," Reichelt said.
The previous day, Reichelt had been contacted by Stan Gardipee, a criminal investigator with Rocky Boy police.
Gardipee told Reichelt he had received two money orders from a nearby casino that were returned because they had been altered. Gardipee informed Reichelt the money orders were purchased at a Havre store and faxed the forged documents to the sheriff's office, Dwyer said.
Dwyer added that the sheriff's office contacted the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, which informed local businesses of the scam.
So when Reichelt stood behind two women in line in McLean's, he recognized the handiwork.
"It looked similar to the one I saw the day before," said Reichelt, who asked the clerk if he could look at the money order. "I told the clerk, This money order is forged and altered. It's no good.' "
Reichelt detained the two women and told the clerk to call the sheriff's office.
With the cooperation of the women, Reichelt and Dwyer, along with Havre police, uncovered Neal, Dwyer said. Neal, 37, moved to Havre more than a year ago and works part time as an underground tattoo artist. One of the women was Neal's girlfriend, Dwyer said.
Investigators believe that Neal, on probation for a forgery conviction in Idaho, first began forging money orders in Havre in September, Dwyer said. Of the 10 money orders that were altered, Neal purchased "75 percent of them," Dwyer said.
He enlisted others to purchase the rest, and would have different individuals cash them, Dwyer added.
But the task of altering, Dwyer said, rested squarely on Neal's shoulders. Usually, it would take a day for Neal to alter the money orders before he sent one of his acquaintances to cash them, Dwyer said. The detailed alterations were made in purple ink and instantly increased the value of the money order by $300 or $400, Dwyer said. They resembled the result of a check-stamping machine.
"I think that was the effect they were trying to create," Dwyer said. "To somebody who probably isn't used to them if they weren't looking I don't know if they could distinguish it as easily."
Four of the money orders were cashed in area casinos. "People aren't going to pay as close attention at those kind of places because they're dark and dimly lit," Dwyer said.
The second instance of forgery was also unearthed in late September, when a local bank notified a man that a suspicious number of his checks had been written and cashed during the last two months, said the sheriff's office. The man's signature, it was later discovered, was forged on at least 45 checks, resulting in a $4,800 theft from his bank account, according to the sheriff's office.
An investigation pointed to the man's daughter, Shannon Hayward, as a suspect, Dwyer said. Hayward, 24, was unemployed and supporting a small child.
On Sept. 20, law enforcement interviewed Hayward, a Havre resident. Hayward said the money was used to purchase food and clothes for her child, Dwyer said. The majority of the checks $2,700 were cashed at Kmart, and a good portion was spent at Albertson's, Dwyer said.
Hayward also had an outstanding warrant for issuing a bad check in Phillips County. The check was for approximately $65, Dwyer said.
In addition to her summons to appear in Phillips County on Sept. 24, Hayward was issued a notice to appear on the charge of felony forgery in Hill County Justice Court on Monday. Hayward was not arrested and detained because she has a small child and is not a flight risk, Dwyer said.