By the time a Secret Service agent dove into the cold water at Liberty Dam on Thanksgiving weekend, most of the suspects in a $1.2 million counterfeiting case had been arrested and charged.
The diver found $90,000 in counterfeit $20 bills in a plastic bag weighted down with rocks in the deep water next to the dam, and retrieved another bag containing the printing plates used to make the bogus bills.
That evidence, which corroborated the stories cooperators had told, was icing on the cake.
"There were high-fives all around," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Maury Epner.
Four of the five "core conspirators" accused of concocting the counterfeiting scheme and three other men who tried to pass the bogus money have since pleaded guilty to criminal charges in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Three other defendants are awaiting court appearances in related cases.
Epner said the investigation "was a classic bottom-to-top" probe by the Secret Service.
The counterfeiting scheme, which began last July, started to crumble in September when a couple of the buyers tried to pass bogus $20 bills in local bars, hardware stores and lumber yards.
"The money looked funny," Epner said, "so the store owners did what they were supposed to do: They called the Secret Service."
One retailer gave agents the license tag number of a car driven by a man who had passed a couple of bogus $20s in his store. The Secret Service found the man and arrested him. He talked, named others, and agents chased them down, one by one.
Epner said the scheme began when Steven Todd Lesser, Jon Lefko, Frederick Yankellow and Eric Pathi, all in their 20s and all from the Baltimore area, got together at Lesser's house in Lutherville with convicted counterfeiter Michael Lee Frampton, 21.
Frampton laid out step-by-step counterfeiting techniques to the group, and said he would print the $20s. Lesser, Lefko and Yankellow agreed to invest $24,000 in equipment and supplies.
First, the conspirators bought photo and graphic arts equipment, and made negatives of real $20 bills in the basement of a house in Baltimore. Then they "discarded the equipment in pieces, in trash bins all over the city, to avoid detection," Epner said.
Next, they bought a printing press and related equipment, and set it up in a garage off Dolfield Road in the Owings Mills area.
Over three days in late August, they printed sheets of $20 bills, worth $1.2 million, boxed the uncut sheets and took them to Lefko's apartment. They bought a paper cutter and began trimming the printed sheets into $20 bills.
Using a rented truck, they took the printing press and other equipment to a Baltimore salvage yard, where it was crushed. The salvage value of the equipment, which apparently had cost thousands of dollars, was $11, Epner said.
By then, the counterfeiters had begun to sell some of the bogus cash, but had "mixed results" finding willing buyers, Epner said.
Some of the counterfeit money went to Perry Petrosillo, a buyer who kept some and sold some to a man named Jeffrey Beall. Mark Knaggs, another buyer, took some of the $20s to sell or pass as real.
But in September, when a couple of unnamed buyers were arrested, the counterfeiters began to get nervous. Knaggs was arrested soon after that, then Beall, then Petrosillo.
About that same time, Lesser, who hadn't yet profited from the scheme, got $50,000 of the bogus cash, Epner said.
But Lefko and Yankellow took the rest of what they had cut and dumped it at the dam with the printing plates.
They also took what court papers described as "a large quantity" of uncut counterfeit $20 bills to a remote area in Carroll County, doused them with gasoline and set them afire.
In the ensuing weeks, Secret Service agents arrested the "core conspirators" and the rest of the defendants. Lefko, Yankellow and Frampton agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and testify against Lesser, who chose to go to trial.