very week, in a different California bar, a counterfeit $100 bill is passed. The bogus bill is a true work of art, fraud worthy of an Elmyr De Hory or a Clifford Irving. The bill is hand-drawn — pen and ink meticulously set down on paper. The mysterious artful dodger has been at his craft for years, despite the best work of the Secret Service. He only makes $100 a week, and the painstaking effort can hardly be worth the monetary gain. The source of his satisfaction must be more complex. Perhaps it’s the laugh on the government. Perhaps he only needs $100 a week. Whatever the motivation, I can appreciate the skill. My own career in counterfeiting started the same way; I hand-drew my first funny money. But my motivation was more basic: I wanted lots of money. I was 8 years old.
It was 1948, when even a $1 bill was considered valuable. A Cadillac in those days cost less than $4,000; a good bicycle less than $50. A dime could get you into a Saturday movie; a little bottle of Grapette soda cost a nickel; and a single penny bought a piece of bubble gum with a picture card of a big-league baseball player. Girls had just become a big attraction for me, which made me even more aware of how important it was to have money. Everything, at age 8, began to register in my mind as dollar signs.
It didn’t take me long to reason that making my own dollars would be the best way to get all the things I wanted. I knew nothing yet of the printing business, but I had energy and youthful imagination. I collected a number of colored pencils and a ruler and attempted to draw a good copy of a dollar bill.
I worked for a month on that single, but the only thing that came out right was the size. I was discouraged, but I still believed I would someday make my own money. All I had to do, I knew, was learn how. I read books on counterfeiting, printing, and photography, and never told a soul what I had in mind. And when it came to getting money — real money — I was industrious. I mowed summer lawns, threw paper routes, and worked as an usher in a theater during my mid-teens — and longed for great wealth.
ut the event that probably had the biggest impact on my desire to be a counterfeiter was my arrival in Dallas at age 11 in 1951. That summer I pedaled my bicycle all over North Dallas, visiting airports, car dealerships, and stores. In the showroom of Clarence Talley Auto sat a stunning black Jaguar XK120 roadster with red leather interior and a polished wood dash. There were two Sunbeam-Talbots — one a gorgeous, metallic-blue convertible, the other a metallic-tan four-door. Both had real, English-smelling leather interiors. They were exotic, sexy machines, machines to fire a boy’s desire. And I wanted them all. I realized I would need great amounts of money — sums that I could see no way of earning by conventional means. My dedication to accumulating wealth became so complete while I was growing up that I religiously refused to waste my money or my health on smoking or drinking.
I was 16 when I first saw an advertisement for a machine that would copy any color. It was exactly what I was looking for. At last, I was going to make some money and get a new 1956 Lincoln Premiere Coupe in solid black, with a continental spare-tire kit on the back, flipper hubcaps and chrome side pipes. I was going to have a big Beechcraft Model SO Twin Bonanza in three-tone aqua blue.
The copying machine eventually arrived. I set it up that night in my bedroom with illicit anticipation, a feeling I would know often in the years ahead. But too quickly, I learned some glaring truths. The machine indeed would copy any color — in black and white. The chemicals were wet and very nasty. And copies could be made only on one side of the special paper. It wouldn’t work for copying money.
Once my disappointment wore off, my imagination and resilient nature took over. I cranked off numerous black-and-white copies of both sides of a $ 10 bill, and went to work with colored pencils again. Compared to my previous hand-drawn bill, the finished products looked good to my young eyes. But now came the problem of trying to stick the front and back copies together. No matter what kind of glue I used, the result was the same-a fat 10. I made only 30 or 40 of them and carried them with me for a long time. They never felt right enough to pass, but a couple of times I brought them out while friends were around. I could tell my friends thought the 10s were real, but I knew the copies were just not good enough.
My interest in the copy machine died, but my desire to counterfeit grew stronger. Five years later, motivated by the desire to own a new airplane, I began to teach myself offset printing. I knew photosensitive plates were used in offset printing, so I concentrated first on learning to develop the negatives from which they are made. I purchased a package of photosensitive plates for less than $20. I acquired a portrait camera and some graphic arts instruction books from Kodak.
By this time I was married. My wife worked days, and I worked nights for the Air Force. I had several hours each day free from interference. I took pictures of money and developed the negatives in the little bathroom in our apartment. The ironing board was my worktable. The work area was hot and cramped. At one point, while I was trying to warm some cold water to the proper developing temperature, one of my precious — and hot — sunlamps touched liquid and exploded. The blast scared the dickens out of me, but it didn’t stop me.
had learned from one of my Kodak booklets that a halftone screening process was necessary to print a picture. The process would turn an image into dots of varying sizes, which produced the range of shades. I reasoned that since the faces on currency were pictures, I would have to make halftones of them before I could reprint them on an offset press. So I did.
Normally, a printer takes a negative, places it flat against a light-sensitive plate and "burns" an impression with a carbon-arc lamp. I didn’t have a carbon-arc and couldn’t afford a vacuum frame (which printers use to hold the negative tight against the plate during the burn), so I improvised. On the floor of my bathroom lab, I placed a big piece of foam rubber, two inches thick. On top of that went the unexposed plate, then the negative of a $10 bill and finally a heavy piece of plate glass. I would stand on this stack very carefully and use my weight to hold the negative flush against the plate. That was my vacuum frame. My carbon-arc lamp was a common sunlamp bulb on an extension cord. It was not a perfect arrangement by any means, but it worked.
I used a cotton ball and a sponge to apply the developing chemical to the plate, and up came the prettiest photoengraving any beginning counterfeiter ever saw. All I needed now was a press.
An offset press was the magic I had sought since age 8. But since I couldn’t buy one, I’d have to improvise again. This time, I built a press on the kitchen table.
My immediate goal was to accumulate enough homemade capital to buy an Addressograph-Multigraph offset press. But it cost nearly $3,000 — a distant fortune at the rate that I was making 10-spots in the kitchen. I also wanted a real graphic arts camera with a good quality lens — a necessity in this line of work. Before I had printed enough handmade bills, however, I managed to borrow an Addressograph-Multigraph. A buddy and I set it up in a hot-rod group’s unused clubhouse. And when we put my improvised plates to the test, we found that they worked very well indeed. At last I was in business. Or so I thought.
One day early in this counterfeiting operation, while I had plates, negatives, ink, and uncut sheets of freshly printed bills scattered all over the clubhouse, my hot-rod buddy came running into the pressroom. "There’s two cop cars full of police out in front!" he shouted. I looked out the front window, and sure enough, there sat two cars and two officers. It was useless at this point to put things away, but we jammed everything into a closet and covered the press. Then we sneaked back to the front window. Soon it became apparent that the two policemen were simply conferring on matters unrelated to us. They drove off without a single glance in our direction. I realized then that it would be very easy, under the pressure of paranoia, to get overly excited and make a mistake that could get us caught. I made a mental note to be very cautious, especially in moments of stress.
At the clubhouse, we made a few thousand dollars in poor-quality but passable bills. The operation would have moved into higher gear, but suddenly I received Air Force orders to go to France.
Unthinkingly, after I dismantled the printing operation, I left the plates, negatives, and a few thousand uncut sheets of dollars at my father’s house in Grand Junction, Colorado. I worried about their discovery all during my time in France. It kept my mind on counterfeiting while I was overseas, but that was all. The only work I could do was search out additional information on printing processes.
y early 1969 I was an offset printer again (no longer in the Air Force) and an expert with Kodak Autoscreen film. I met a businessman who not only had a few spare real dollars to invest, but who shared my desire to acquire limitless amounts of tax-free dollars. Within days we had rented an office and set up the sweetest print shop one could ask for. We acquired a new A.B. Dick 360 offset press, an Agfa-Gaevert vertical graphic arts camera, a Nu Arc vacuum frame, a full-sized layout table, a light table, a fully equipped darkroom and assorted drafting tools. We even had a front: a complete business-sales operation. We were ready to go.
But a new press requires adjustment before it will run correctly, and Tom (my counterfeiting partner) and I were not experienced enough to make them. We tried anyway, and soon had the machine running so badly that Tom started throwing tools in frustration. Finally, I decided we had no choice but to call in an A.B. Dick repairman. There was a risk, of course, because we had green ink everywhere — any bright person could see we were running a pretty specialized printing operation. So we cleaned the machine and put away all of the incriminating evidence — we thought — before we made the call.
We watched with great interest as the repairman removed the many covers and plates. Suddenly I could see a sheet of our $20 bills at the bottom of the press. Luckily, the serviceman had his back to me when I noticed it. I kept his attention focused in the other direction while I reached into the machine and swept the counterfeit bills into an unidentifiable wad of trash. Tom was silent — and white-faced. I could only hope that the repairman had seen nothing; he gave no indication that he had. But after he left, Tom said: "We’ve got a choice: kill the guy or assume that he didn’t see anything and act accordingly. I’m no killer, so let’s just forget it."
I agreed — with enthusiasm. Fortunately, the machine now ran perfectly. We printed approximately $1,000,000 on our first run, then decided the bills were too light. I made a startling discovery while inspecting a real $20 bill beneath a magnifying glass. I called Tom over to my light table and said, "Look at Uncle’s 20 and tell me what you see." Tom squinted through the tiny magnifier, then gave me a questioning look. "What the hell am I supposed to see?" he asked. "All I see here is that Uncle Sam can’t print any better than we can."
I told him to look again, this time with both bills together under the magnifier.
"The only difference," Tom said, "is that ours is made up of halftone dots."
"That’s right. If you’ll look again at the good 20, you’ll see that it’s just a bunch of lines of varying sizes — a line print. The various lines are different sizes, and that’s what creates the shading. We don’t have to halftone these danged things to get a print that will work."
"I think you’re wrong, Jim," Tom replied. "Are you intending to redo all our negatives and plates just to find out? Hell, we’re making good money."
"I want perfect money," I said. "This will only set us back a day and could improve our money so much that even a bank won’t know it’s not real."
Over Tom’s objections I made new negatives without using screened film. The results were a bit beyond what I expected: Instead of making simply acceptable counterfeit, we now were producing outstanding reproductions — so good, in fact, that we elected to burn the original "million" in Tom’s basement fireplace with emotion-filled ceremony.
Tom’s wife cried. "Do we really have to burn all of this money?" she asked. "It looks so good."
Aging the paper just right is a real problem in counterfeiting. In the past, I had used a weak mixture of coffee and water, but it wasn’t a perfect solution by any stretch of the imagination. Suddenly, I had a brainstorm as the "million" burned. "Tom," I said, "dipping that paper in an aging solution is a pain in the ass. Why can’t we just run all of it through the press before we begin printing, and make it the color we want?
We ran some paper through the press on a plate tinted almost exactly the same shade as real money. Then we printed on it. Now we could set a real 20 beside our counterfeit gems, and there was no discernible difference. Beside ourselves with joy, we danced and sang like two children as the copies came off our rhythmically beating press at the rate of 6,000 sheets per hour.
We watched the bills stack up. Millions of dollars. We were brought back to reality rapidly, though, when we began to have to cut those bills apart, one at a time, with a hand cutter. This definitely was not the way to do it for mass production, but it was all we had. I developed strong arm and hand muscles. It was the only way to be a counterfeit millionaire.
We had one really big laugh during our printing effort. The owner of the building, Lynn Gamber, had his photographic studio next door. Our press wasn’t terribly noisy, but Tom was a nervous sort. One day, he told me: "I think I’ll go next door to Gamber’s and see if the machine is too loud or is bothering anyone." He walked into Gambers’ reception area while Mrs. Gamber was talking to a woman customer. "Excuse me," he said. "I just came over to see if the press is too loud for you because we’ll be running it for several hours this week."
"We can hear it," Mrs. Gamber replied. "But our piped-in music overrides it, and it isn’t at all offensive."
Just then, the woman customer asked, "What are you printing, money?"
Tom choked out a little laugh. But Mrs. Gamber chimed in as if on cue, "If they are, I hope they’ll print us up a batch."
ow we were ready to spend our beautiful homemade money. The easiest way to convert counterfeit into real currency is to go out into the marketplace, buy something cheap and pocket the change as profit. But you can’t do that too many times a day. Tom and I figured we could average one bill-passing every five minutes. You can do especially well passing counterfeit 20s in big shopping centers. But even there, you run into problems: You end up with pocketfuls of dimes, nickels and quarters, and your wallet gets thick with real ones, fives, and 10s. Soon you’re loaded with sacks, and you have to go back out to your car and dump your purchases. Then you have to drive to the next shopping center, which takes more time. One bill-passing every five minutes, we found out, is really busting your butt. There are 12 five-minute periods in every hour. That means 12 stops per hour in a normal shopping day of about 10 hours. Therefore, if we worked like crazy, Tom and I could only pass $2,400 a day, or roughly $7,000 on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday away from home.
We went out on the road and passed our money from California to New York, from Canada to Mexico. We experienced moments that a counterfeiter never forgets. One of the first occurred as we drove north out of Albuquerque. We had just exchanged a large number of bills with the local merchants, but we had not converted all that we had brought with us. Tom, in the passenger’s seat, was snoozing with the front seat fully reclined. Suddenly, up ahead I saw a roadblock with four New Mexico Highway Patrol cars, red lights flashing. A long line of cars was stopped. My first panicky impulse was to make a U-turn across the median and head back toward Albuquerque.
With great effort, however, I slowed the car and made myself remain calm as we eased toward the roadblock. "Tom," I managed to say, "get up and look at this."
Tom sat up sleepily, and suddenly, his eyes popped open. "Oh my God, they’ve got us!" he exclaimed.
By now, my confidence was almost working again. "Let’s stick the remaining counterfeit in the air-conditioner vents," I said. Tom worked so fast that he forgot to raise his seat. He looked so funny sitting erect with the back still down that I laughed. He didn’t share my amusement.
At the inspection point, I pulled out my driver’s license and registration and handed them to the officer as we rolled to a stop. He glanced at them quickly, handed them back, and said simply, "Have a nice day, James."
"Thank you," I replied. We drove away with great relief. Tom lay back down without comment and fell asleep. I wondered how he could sleep now, but he did, through two more roadblocks. To this day, I don’t know why they were there, but I doubt they had anything to do with our crime spree.
After we returned home, Tom decided he had had enough of passing one bill at a time. "I’m a nervous wreck," he said. "We need to get ourselves lined up with someone who can handle a few hundred thousand at a time. As good as our stuff is, we ought to get 50 cents on the dollar."
I remembered one guy, a boat-stealing crook I’d met years before, who I thought might have a contact if he couldn’t handle all the counterfeit himself.
"Can he be trusted?" Tom asked.
"I don’t know," I replied.
My boat-stealing friend told us to take our counterfeit to a man in Phoenix who was supposed to be the leader of a dope ring. Tom and I carried $750,000 to him, and he and his ring converted several thousand dollars for us before we returned home.
Less than three days later, however, we were all arrested — including the members of the dope ring. My boat-stealing buddy was an FBI informer. The Secret Service recovered almost $650,000 in counterfeit currency — and gloated.
Tom and I posted bond immediately — with real money — and sat down to decide what we should do. I felt that we were hopelessly incriminated. Tom agreed. "I’m going to run. You’d better come with us."
"I can’t," I answered. We shook hands for the last time, and many unspoken thoughts and memories spun through my mind. Tom went to South America with our plates and his wife. I haven’t heard from him since.
I pleaded guilty and went to La Tuna Federal Prison near El Paso for 27 months. During that time, I had long talks with many criminals, and I repeatedly considered where I had gone wrong in my counterfeiting efforts. But I never gave serious thought to the fact that I had committed a crime, not even after I was paroled in July 1973.
hree years later, on July 12 at about 11:15 a.m., a retired bank robber dropped 20 cents into a pay phone in North Dallas and called the FBI. He told them I was a parole fugitive and that in my possession they would find an undetermined amount of counterfeit U.S. currency. Less than 45 minutes later, the FBI knocked on my apartment door.
The Secret Service found the money when it searched my office. It was neatly collected in denominations of $10 and $100, and stacked in shoe boxes in a file cabinet. The Secret Service also confiscated my offset printing press, my plates, and my negatives. After my arrest, Walter Coughlin, special agent in charge of the Dallas Secret Service office, said to reporters: "This is the largest seizure ever made in the northern district of Texas. This much money, if released in Dallas, would have caused havoc in the economy."
I never did find out who was responsible for the failure of my final counterfeiting effort. My cohorts and I had planned to print up to $300 million and exchange the bills in foreign countries, mostly in South America, for genuine currencies, gold, platinum and silver. These currencies and commodities then were going to be deposited in vaulted accounts in the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and other free ports and then borrowed against, tax-free.
Since my final arrest, I’ve occasionally read news reports that large amounts of counterfeit U.S. currency have been moving from South America to Europe. Did my last counterfeiting partners go on with the project while I was safe in prison again? Or have Tom, his wife, and my plates been busy as bees without me?
I have no regrets after more than 30 years of counterfeiting. I’ve retired. But I still love it. It is the most beautiful of crimes — if you feel you must commit a crime to obtain money. A counterfeiting operation is terribly expensive to set up, but you aren’t hurting anyone physically, and there’s little risk of getting caught. Of course I did get caught — twice. And advice from a failure is hardly a guarantee of success.
I still wonder what might have happened if I had operated by myself. I might be a real millionaire today, not just a counterfeit one.
I would like to meet the California counterfeiter who draws his bills. As long as it took me to draw my first bill, I can’t imagine that the guy could have much time left over each week after he finishes. Perhaps if I had kept practicing when I was 8, my drawings, too, would now pass for money. But a hundred a week would never be enough for me. There is a 308 GTSi Ferrari, $56,000, sitting in the Classic BMW-Ferrari Motors showroom. I lust for it badly. And there’s a lovely Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz at Rodger Meier’s, not to mention a half-million-dollar Beechcraft Duke from Chaparral Aviation at Addison Airport. And it sure would be nice to live in a million-dollar house.
But I won’t counterfeit again. My reward is simply knowing that I had the talent and drive to do it, and I did. Counterfeiting took me places few people will ever go — including prison, unfortunately. It wasn’t free money by any means. But it brought — and bought — priceless experiences to relate and relive in my old age. I think I can even lay claim to having printed more counterfeit currency than any one person in U.S. history. The Secret Service and the FBI have accounted for nearly $7 million. I, naturally, think there was more. If you have some of it, keep it — don’t spend it. It’s the best there was. And there won’t be any more.
James Brockman is a convicted counterfeiter living in Dallas.