Bogus TriMet ticket ring smashed in outer East Portland

Discover how TriMet cops detected the professionally-printed fake fares, and found the ring leaders’ stash of 35,000 unsold tickets …

Portland Police Bureau Transit Police Division Lieutenant Tony Silva doesn’t try to hide his joy about confiscating stacks of fake TriMet tickets that would have bilked the system for hundreds of thousands of dollars if sold.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The area in outer East Portland surrounding the TriMet MAX line has become infamous for gangs, violence, and drugs. Adding to the problem – until July 7, apartment #60 at 15811 East Burnside Street was the headquarters for a scam said to have cost the region’s transit system more than $100,000 so far: Counterfeit TriMet tickets.

“We’re not talking about a couple of tickets,” Portland Police Bureau Transit Police Division Lieutenant Tony Silva told us, as we looked neatly-bundled stacks of forged TriMet fare instruments. “We’re counting thousands of them.”

These tickets sure look real – but officials confirm they are, indeed, fakes.

Duped by top-quality fakes
Starting a couple of months ago, Sylva said, the fake tickets started showing up. “Bus riders put their tickets into the fare box. The accounting people at TriMet who count tickets and compare them against the revenue in the box started seeing these bogus tickets coming through, night after night.”

At a glance, a bus operator – or even a Transit Division cop walking through a crowded MAX train – would have difficulty discerning these fakes from the real thing, Sylva explained. “I may have seen some of them myself, when I was out working fare inspections.”

The tickets are crisply-printed, on high-quality card stock, and precisely cut. These counterfeits clearly weren’t simply run off on a photocopy machine or computer printer.

“It looks as if an expert printer did a good job of duplicating the tickets,” Sylva commented, “but, they are missing certain security features that make it possible to tell them apart from the real thing.”

What officers didn’t find at that apartment – or at the other apartment they raided, at 314 NE 100th Avenue – was the print shop. Sylva held up a bundle of fake tickets, giving us a close look at them, and pointed to the printed paper holding them in stacks. “We don’t know where they were printed, but it was a professional job.”

Take a look at the paper band encircling bundles of fake tickets – it looks as if they were cut from youth sex-education pamphlets – written in Spanish.

Distributed like dope
The bogus tickets were distributed much as a drug-pedaling ring distributes dope, Sylva explained. “The massive stock of tickets got broken down into smaller quantities. These may have been redistributed to individuals who sold them on the street. Each level makes a small profit along the line.”

In the end, most of the fake fares may have been used by otherwise typically law-abiding citizens who fell for a peddler’s pitch that he or she desperately needed money and was selling their own tickets at a discount to raise cash.

Piled up here in bags boxes and stacks, it takes a team of Transit Division officers to count and document the thousands of phony TriMet tickets.

Brought down by ‘good police work’
With revenue losses to TriMet from the lost fares pegged at $100,000 and climbing, Transit Division officers turned up the heat, Sylva related. “Some great Transit Police officers on day shift made an arrest. We started talking to the suspect – this led to another suspect – and we started going ‘up the ladder’ of sales.”

Then, the cops got an unexpected break. “An informant tipped us off to suspected locations. Based on information from our ongoing investigation, we were able to get search warrants for the two apartments.”

The raid netted $109,000 worth of counterfeit tickets – of which about 11,000 are “All Day” tickets valued at $4.75 each – and tens of thousands of two-hour tickets, worth $2.30 each. “These are tickets that will NOT be getting into the system,” Sylva commented.

Jaime Caamal-Balam, Gabriel Bedolla-Medina (one of his many aliases), and Maria Izquierdo have been arrested in connection with this case – and more arrests are likely.

Three arrested, so far
27-year-old Jaime Caamal-Balam, 30-year-old Gabriel Bedolla-Medina (a/k/a 37-year-old Manuel Aguilar Martinez a/k/a Csar Trejo Gonzales), and 23-year-old Maria Izquierdo have been arrested in connection with this case. The number and category of the charges each person faces is still being determined, but are likely to include multiple counts of forgery and possession of forged TriMet fare instruments, officials indicated.

“At the time of his arrest, the suspect identified as Bedolla-Medina falsely identified himself to law enforcement officers,” noted Sylva. “US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is investigating; he may be a deported felon who has reentered the country.”

Bedolla-Medina a/k/a Trejo Gonzales picked up yet another charge on July 10. He was indicted by a Multnomah County grand jury on a count of failing to register as a sex offender – meaning he’ll face a five year prison term and a $125,000 fine, if convicted.

Oops! Not a perfect fake – note the website URL (we highlighted it in red). NOTE! If you hold a ticket with this serial number – 30177377 on a two-hour, all-zone fare, (or 80006798 for an all-day, all-zone ticket) – you’ve got a counterfeit ticket and may be arrested if you’re caught trying to use it!

Think twice before using ‘cheap’ tickets
Sylva said transit cops are keeping a sharp lookout for bogus TriMet tickets – and for those who sell them.

“My advice is, if somebody tries to sell you a ticket – or you’ve purchased one at a ‘discount’ – don’t use it. If you’re caught in possession of, or using, a forged TriMet ticket, you can be arrested. And, you’ll be excluded from using any TriMet service for at least 90 days,” warned Sylva.

Buy your tickets from retailers like Fred Meyer or Safeway, online at www.TriMet.org, from a ticket vending machine, or on a bus, he advised. “It’s not worth going to jail for having or using a forged ticket, is it?”

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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