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License probe uncovers multistate counterfeit ring

An investigation that began months ago with fake, high-quality drivers' licenses found on two Butte College students, has mushroomed into the discovery of an active, multistate counterfeit identification ring. The matter may have stayed small, and local, if not for an on-duty accident that sidelined Chico-area California Highway Patrol officer Tom Nickell, who suddenly found himself with the time to do a thorough investigation.
/ Source: Enterprise-Record

An investigation that began months ago with fake, high-quality drivers' licenses found on two Butte College students, has mushroomed into the discovery of an active, multistate counterfeit identification ring. The matter may have stayed small, and local, if not for an on-duty accident that sidelined Chico-area California Highway Patrol officer Tom Nickell, who suddenly found himself with the time to do a thorough investigation. Nickell said it became apparent early on that the phony licenses were the result of a sophisticated, high-tech operation.

The Butte College students, who weren't charged, supplied Nickell and fellow CHP investigator Paul Sadowski with information that led to the arrest of two middlemen in Davis and San Luis Obispo. Both were students charged with selling the licenses.

They steered the CHP to a 19-year-old community college student living in Mountain View suspected of making the licenses.

Sadowski said the student was found in possession of sophisticated equipment and had manufactured an unknown number of realistic drivers' licenses.

"These were good enough to fool law enforcement," Sadowski said.

They were primarily sold to underage students, who wanted to purchase alcohol. Their price tags ranged from $150 to $200.

The local investigation was assisted by Department of Motor Vehicles official Kevin Highbaugh, who said the fake licenses included most of the security features used by the state.

Officials would only talk specifically about a hologram feature, which was present on the phony documents, but showed up slightly fainter under a black light than it does on state-issued licenses.

"Fakes of this quality could have national security implications," Sadowski said, noting that terrorist elements might offer up to several times the asking price for the phony identification.

The suspect's computer was confiscated and initially uncovered photos of about 100 young people ready to be applied to fake licenses.

Suspecting the operation went beyond the capabilities of one person, Nickell asked for help from local computer expert Earl Keene.

Keene, a city of Chico employee, agreed to help the investigation on his own time.

A court order was obtained to keep records from automatically being purged from the suspect's hard drive and, over a period of months, Keene was able to glean information that suggested a counterfeit identification ring operating in at least four other states, with as many as 300 fake driver's licenses already produced.

"Every time he (Nickell) came over, I would have a new piece of information for him," Keene said. "He would light up like a kid with a new toy at Christmas."

They discovered that state seals on the licenses were coming from companies in California and Oregon with the capability of producing them, but not authorized to do so.

The source of the seals are part of an ongoing investigation now under the direction of federal authorities. Additional arrests are expected.

On Wednesday, Keene, the brother of Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, was awarded a certificate of appreciation by Chico CHP commander Kim King.

King said Keene's assistance not only aided local authorities in the identification of suspects, but will also help facilitate their prosecution by state and federal authorities.

Assemblyman Keene said his brother became a self-schooled computer expert after he left Hayfork and a career in the faltering logging industry.

Staff writer Greg Welter can be reached at (530) 896-7768 or gwelter@chicoer.com.