published Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Man claims he was patsy in cash-checking scheme

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A man charged with five counts of bank fraud was as much a victim of a counterfeiting ring as the banks where the fake checks were cashed, his attorney said.

Herschel Hargett is accused of recruiting homeless people in Atlanta and bringing them to Tennessee to cash fake checks at Regions Bank on Gunbarrel Road and at GreenBank in Athens, Tenn.

His trial started Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, and the prosecution finished its case.

Hargett’s attorney, Lee Ortwein, said his client wasn’t aware of exactly what was going on within the counterfeiting scheme. The ring was overseen by two men, the defense said, and Hargett was set up as an easy target for police when the fragile scheme fell apart.

But according to Assistant U.S. Attorney James Brooks and witness testimonies on Monday, Hargett was part of a counterfeiting ring that picked up the homeless in Atlanta between January and September 2010 and drove them to the Chattanooga area to cash the checks.

In a statement to federal investigators, Hargett said he was paid by two men to point out Atlanta-area homeless shelters.

The Secret Service, which investigates bank fraud cases, first made contact with Hargett after one of the homeless men used to cash the fake checks gave them Hargett’s cell phone number, testified Secret Service Agent Douglas Dale.

On Tuesday, several of five witnesses who served jail time related to the case testified that Hargett — known to them as “Dreds” for his dreadlocked hair — first approached them with an offer of work, sometimes saying construction work. Later, the true nature of the work was revealed and the soon-to-be check cashers were taken to a hotel in Atlanta where they turned over their identification, according to testimony.

The homeless men were given food, marijuana, crack cocaine and alcohol while spending the night in the hotel, several testified. In the morning, they were taken up to the Chattanooga area to cash checks, some of which were for amounts of about $2,000, according to testimony, and after cashing the checks, they were given between $100 and $300.

In cross-examination, Ortwein questioned the witnesses’ criminal records and the influence their admitted drug use had on their abilities to remember details of the case.

The defense starts its case to the jury and U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice today at 10 a.m.

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