Separated from his wife and daughter and holed up in a Deerfield Beach hotel room with two women he dispassionately refers to as "crack whores," Michael Kleiman says he was living his "second childhood."
But the 41-year-old used car salesman had more than the usual trappings (hideaway, women, illicit drugs) of a middle-aged man's debauched try at regaining his youth. He also had a personal computer. And, though he was in dire financial straits, he was making lots of cash.
Kleiman had become a counterfeiter.
He says his foray into making bogus cash started innocently enough. As a joke he used a computer scanner to superimpose a picture of a friend's daughter over the face of George Washington on a dollar bill.
"I didn't think anything of it then," he said. "I just thought, 'Wow, it came out pretty good.' It was clean, it wasn't all fuzzy."
At the time he was already separated from his wife of eighteen years and their seventeen-year-old daughter. The car dealership he was working for was having problems paying him, leading to his own financial problems. He said he met some shady characters at the car lot and hatched a plan to make money on his computer.
"It was stressful," he said. "I'm just like any schmuck out on the street trying to make a buck. You look for an answer on the wrong side of the fence."
And it was such an easy, albeit ill-conceived, answer.
All he had to do was run a twenty-dollar bill through a computer scanner to create a reproduction of the bill, which he then printed out on a piece of paper. He used regular, store-bought typing paper and a paper cutter to produce actual-size bills. He admitted they were "shit-quality," but he said the lowlifes he was trying to deal with didn't seem to care.
"It's sad but true -- you don't have to be a smart person to do it," said Kleiman, a high school dropout who picked up his limited computer knowledge on his own.
He says he just wanted to make a couple big scores so he could get his life back on track and move away from Fort Lauderdale. He made thousands of fake dollars, mostly twenties, with the idea of selling $5000 to $10,000 in counterfeit bills for some real money. But one potential deal after another fell through with shady customers who used code names like "Dread" and "Red."
In the meantime, however, the two women moved into the Villager Hotel room with him, and the trio started buying crack with the counterfeit cash. Kleiman claims he only tried crack a few times; the women living with him were the ones addicted to it. They weren't ripping off the drug dealer, he said -- the dealer knew he was trading rocks of crack for fake money.
On March 21 came the event that would ultimately turn Kleiman's second childhood into a disastrous midlife crisis. The drug dealer was caught with $580 worth of Kleiman's handiwork in his pocket during a traffic arrest in Miami. Facing some serious federal pressure, the dealer, whose name hasn't been disclosed, pointed the finger at Kleiman.
Special agents with the U.S. Secret Service used the dealer to set up a sting on Kleiman. When contacted by the dealer, Kleiman took a morning to make $420 for him and was arrested. Federal agents then searched the hotel room, finding Kleiman's personal computer, an ink-jet printer, and a paper cutter. Also found were "small traces" of crack cocaine, along with some crack pipes.
"Turns out you can't trust your drug dealer... ain't that a bitch?" quipped Kleiman, who is doing pretty well to laugh: He faces up to a maximum of 40 years in prison on three federal charges of making and dealing in counterfeit cash, though he'll likely serve only a small fraction of that, as he had a clean criminal record, and the only known victim of his crime is the government.
"I've heard I might get two years, but I'm not sure," said Kleiman, adding that an assistant federal public defender is expected to enter a plea on his behalf on June 1.
A year ago Kleiman's case likely would have been handled by state prosecutors rather than by the federal courts, said Kenneth Keene, Special Agent in charge of the Secret Service office in Miami. Keene said that as more and more bogus bills make their way into circulation, federal investigators and prosecutors are making computer counterfeiting cases a priority.
Last week's unveiling of the new "big head" twenty-dollar bill -- which has sophisticated features like microscopic printing, watermarks, and color-shifting ink to make it difficult to replicate in detail -- is another step in helping to catch fabricators.
Although the government seized Kleiman's computer equipment, the agent says legislation has been submitted to Congress that would make it easier for the federal government to seize counterfeiters' cars as well. (The car would be seized if, for instance, the counterfeiter drove to a store to pass the bogus bill.)
Used to be, a counterfeiter had to have access to a printing press. Now all he or she needs is a personal computer, the necessary software, a scanner, and a printer. More and more, counterfeit money is being used like Monopoly money to keep addicts in drugs.
"It used to be a crime of expertise, now it's a crime of convenience," Keene says. "We're seeing people who are just trying to support a drug habit."
It was bound to happen, the combination of crack cocaine with computer-generated counterfeit cash, of making money the easy way with getting high the cheap way.
And Secret Service agents are finding that a drug dealer often holds the key to breaking a counterfeiting case.
In addition to the Kleiman indictment, another drug dealer recently led authorities to arrest a married couple counterfeiting cash in Fort Lauderdale.
Carl and Kelly Waldron were indicted in late February after a drug dealer ratted them out. The Waldrons, according to federal court documents, used their computer to make cash for one thing only: Kelly Waldron's crack habit. She wrote in a statement she gave to federal agents that it all started in mid-January with this all-too-common dilemma: "I had a five-dollar bill and my husband... said he needed it for lunch, but I wanted it to go buy more crack."
She said she "jokingly" scanned the bill through her husband's computer. "When I saw how well it came out, I was shocked and called Carl."
She told investigators that she came up with the idea to make fake bills so she could "ride through and rip off the dope dealers for their crack, and my husband wouldn't have to give up his money, and he could get the bills caught up."
Carl Waldron told the feds that "it was more like a game with the drug dealers." As Kelly Waldron kept making more and more money to buy more and more crack, he restricted her use to the computer. But he still kept doling out the computer cash to his wife so she could keep her pipe filled.
"I can honestly say that if it wasn't for me, Carl would have never had anything to do with criminal activity," Kelly Waldron wrote. "He doesn't even like the fact that I do crack. But all he wanted was to keep me safe and at home."
One of the drug dealers was also a confidential informant who contacted the Broward County Sheriff's Office. Soon the informant was working for the feds, buying counterfeit cash from Kelly Waldron, according to federal affidavits.
The Waldron cases are being heavily contested by defense lawyers who are attacking the credibility of the drug dealer who helped to arrest them.
While federal agencies may be putting computer counterfeiting at the top of their priority list, Kleiman said he believes more and more people like him will figure out how easy it is and give it a shot.
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"The people who arrested me told me this is getting to be a real bad problem," he said. "Somebody's scanning bills all over the place. I'm sure there's a guy down the road right now with 25 computers hooked up to the same printer making the stuff."
Kleiman's living in Sunrise now, after posting a $25,000 bond to get out of jail, if only temporarily. He's reunited with his wife and daughter and still scraping to pay the bills.
"I just want to get past this and get on with my life," he says. But he adds, only half-jokingly, that he might share his knowledge of computer-generated cash -- flawed as it may be -- to a worldwide audience.
"I'm going to write a book on it and put that on the Internet and try to recoup some of my losses that way. 'How to Make Money on Your Own PC.' It's sad, really, how easy it is.