Gustine police arrest 2 in identity theft, counterfeit money case

GUSTINE, Calif. (KFSN) -- Authorities have uncovered a major identify theft and counterfeit case in the North Valley.

Gustine police say they've arrested the two main suspects accused of stealing dozens of identities. Joseph Reis, 29, and Victoria Mejia, 41, are both convicted felons, and Mejia was already on probation. Both suspects were booked into the Merced County jail, but Reis is now free on bail.

Some of the money may look real, but police say it was all printed by criminals -- from practice sheets to the final product.

"What they were doing was taking $1 bills, washing them and changing them into $100 bills," said Gustine Police Chief Doug Dunford.

This is just some of the evidence officers seized during a search warrant at the Meredith Manor apartment complex Thursday night.

"When we went into the apartment, we found a bunch of counterfeit bills, money, payroll checks, government checks that had all been falsified," said Dunford.

Dunford says an entire police bag filled with fake money and documents was taken from the scene, along with several printers. Officers also arrested Reis and Mejia. Investigators believe they counterfeited about $5,000 and stole the identities of at least 50 people in northern Merced County and southern Stanislaus County.

"Nobody figured it wouldn't be happening in a small city, and I think they were trying to take advantage of it," said Dunford. "And we had a lot of good people come forward to let us know what was happening; we were able to track it."

Hector Vargas was the first victim to make a report after his apartment was burglarized back in December.

"Passports, driver's license, I can't even remember right now, a lot of stuff that wasn't supposed to be taken from there," said Vargas.

Police are still trying to track down possible accomplices and return stolen items to the victims. Secret Service agents also visited the city on Friday to look into the counterfeit case.

"Here we are just seeing what's going on, and hopefully we'll get justice," said Vargas.

Police say it's not clear yet how much of the fake money may have already been spent in the community. They say it's likely the suspects targeted small shops and restaurants during busy hours when they wouldn't have much time to closely examine the bills.

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