To the folks in the neighborhood, the boarded-up warehouse in the 1100 block of East Lombard Street seemed like nothing more than just another vacant building on an East Baltimore block that had seen better days.
But to agents of the U.S. Secret Service, the warehouse was a television studio of sorts. And the "program" being filmed there starred three men who were being secretly monitored as they set up a scheme to counterfeit more than $50 million in$50 and $100 bills.
On Wednesday night, the program was canceled.
Secret Service agents and Baltimore police officers arrested three men -- two Egyptians and a Baltimore man with a previous conviction for counterfeiting -- and seized what were described as "high-quality" plates and negatives that would have been used in the counterfeiting scheme had the plotters been able to keep their activities a secret.
"This is the largest counterfeiting ring we have seen in Baltimore," said Joseph R. Coppola, the head of the
Secret Service office here. "Baltimore is usually not a hotbed of counterfeiting like New York or Los Angeles."
Arrested Wednesday were Mustafa Mohamed Salama, 34, of the 6900 block of German Hill Road; Mohamed Sedky Mohamed, 30, of the 700 block of Ponca Street; and Richard M. Gore, 59, of the 1200 block of Carroll Street. Mr. Salama and Mr. Mohamed are being held at the Baltimore City Detention Center awaiting a detention hearing. Mr. Gore was hospitalized for alcohol detoxification, Mr. Coppola said.
In the raid on the Lombard Streetwarehouse Wednesday, federal agents seized printing plates, negatives and some partially printed $50 and $100 bills. They also seized sophisticated equipment -- a printing press, a platemaking machine, a large, industrial-quality camera and a numbering machine.
If the ring been able to print the counterfeit money, Mr. Coppola said, it planned to spread the bogus bills outside the United States. He also said the three men were preparing to print fake foreign currencies.
"This was not a slipshod operation," said Mr. Coppola. "They produced a good note. It wouldn't deceive a Secret Service agent, but if it got out on the streets of Baltimore, we would have a problem."
But judging from affidavits filed by federal authorities, the gang never really had a chance. Almost from the beginning, they were being tracked by agents of the Secret Service, who posed as the salesmen who sold them the equipment and then, again undercover, helped them set up shop.
Secret Service agents were firstalerted to a possible counterfeiting scheme by a salesman of John H. Burke & Co., a Baltimore printing supply company. The salesman told them that a man, who was later identified as Mr. Gore, inquired three times during the spring about purchasing green ink, according to papers filed in federal court yesterday.
Mr. Gore allegedly told the Burke employees he wanted the color to match the shade of the green serial numbers on U.S. currency. To illustrate his point, he pulled out a $50 bill and said, "This is the color I need," according to the affidavit.
The Secret Service then learned that Mr. Gore and Mr. Mustafa had earlier ordered graphic arts supplies from two local suppliers. Federal agents posing as salesmen then waited for Mr. Mustafa to return to one of the suppliers to arrange delivery. Another agent helped Mr. Mustafa deliver and set up the printing equipment in the warehouse on East Lombard Street, which the ring had rented earlier in the year.
The Secret Service estimated the ring had spent about $20,000 to purchase equipment and a supply of high-quality paper and ink.
At the end of May, convinced that the three men were serious about trying to print their own money, Secret Service agents got court approval to install closed-circuit television cameras inside the warehouse. The first camera they installed did not work, so they installed a second and later went back to install another that would give them a better camera angle.
According to federal officials, the counterfeiting ring spent the past two months producing printing plates for the bills and experimenting with the printing.
They printed red and blue lines in their paper so it resembled the paper used in genuine currency. Mr. Coppola said they seemed to be unhappy with some of their initial efforts and were adjusting their printing to improve the images they were getting.
"These guys were willing to go the extra mile," Mr. Coppola said.
Federal officials said they decided to break up the ring because theydetermined through surveillance efforts that they knew who the "main players" were. Mr. Coppola said the investigation was continuing and two additional people are likely to be arrested. In addition, the Secret Service is exploring the foreign connections of the three men.