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United States v. Gaston

decided: May 5, 1980.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 79-CR-34 -- James E. Doyle, Judge .

Before Fairchild, Chief Judge, Swygert and Sprecher, Circuit Judges.

Author: Per Curiam

Defendant-appellant, Lawrence Gaston, appeals from a judgment of conviction after a bench trial on one count of conspiracy to possess stolen mail, to transport forged securities in interstate commerce, and to cause financial institutions to transport negotiated forged securities in interstate commerce and a second count of transporting fifteen forged securities in interstate commerce. On appeal, Gaston contends that his warrantless arrest was without probable cause and therefore the evidence seized pursuant to the arrest should have been suppressed. We reject Gaston's contention and affirm the judgment of the district court.


Gaston challenges his arrest and the subsequent seizure of forged checks and stolen mail. A suppression hearing was held and demonstrated the following: Postal inspectors in Chicago had been investigating a scheme which involved the theft of mail from collection boxes and cashing of forged commercial checks. Specifically, the scheme involved the theft of personal checks from mail collection boxes. The information obtained from these checks would then be used to complete blank commercial checks which had been stolen or obtained in blank by some other means.*fn1 The commercial check would be made payable to the individual whose checks initially had been stolen from the mail collection boxes. The individual's name would be typed in as the payee and the amount of the check typically would range from $450 to $490. Someone involved in the scheme would then forge the payee's indorsement on the commercial check (having obtained this signature from the stolen mail) and present the check at the individual's bank for either cashing or a minimal deposit and cash return.

Postal inspector James Wachuta investigated the scheme and conducted several interviews. During the summer of 1978, Wachuta interviewed Cecelia Galloway. Galloway's blank personal checks had been stolen and made out to an individual whose mail had been stolen. Galloway told Wachuta that she shared an apartment with Sheila Clark and identified several of Clark's friends who had access to these blank checks. The defendant Gaston was one individual mentioned as having access.

Wachuta also interviewed Patricia Jackson. Jackson was contacted because the license number on her car was written on the back of one of the stolen checks that had been cashed. Jackson told Wachuta that many people used her car. During the interview, a man came into the apartment and asked what was being discussed.*fn2 When told that the use of Jackson's car was being discussed, the man and Jackson ended the interview. Wachuta identified this man as the defendant Gaston.

Also during the summer of 1978, Wachuta interviewed Steve McMillan. McMillan had been arrested on local charges and agreed to cooperate if the local charges were dropped. Thereafter, McMillan told Wachuta that he, Gaston, and others had managed to obtain entry to several mail collection boxes in the Chicago area.*fn3

In January 1979, Postal Inspector Martin Walsh assumed the responsibility of coordinating the investigation of this scheme. Wachuta informed Walsh as to the information he had obtained through the interviews described above. Also, Walsh learned that the scheme extended beyond Chicago to Rockford, DeKalb, Freeport, Peoria, Kankakee, Joliet, and Champaign-Urbana. Walsh was able to link these cashings with the Chicago scheme because the checks were made out to individuals whose mail had been stolen and by the fact that the drawers of the checks were the same as those on the checks passed in the Chicago area.

In February 1979, one of Gaston's co-defendants, Rose Covert, was arrested in Northbrook for passing a forged commercial check. The passing fit the scheme which had existed the previous year that is, the payee of the check had her mail stolen a day or two before the check was passed. After her arrest, Covert called Gaston to make bond.

In March 1979, information was obtained indicating that the scheme had spread to Wisconsin. On March 6 several mail collection boxes were broken into in Racine, Wisconsin. The individuals whose mail was stolen appeared as payees on several commercial checks cashed in the Racine area. Bank employees identified three women, Rose Covert, Lydia Brown, and Patricia Jackson, as the persons who cashed the checks. Also, Covert was seen driving a blue Firebird, the same car which she was driving at the time of her arrest in February 1979.

In April, forged commercial checks were passed in Milwaukee. Covert, Brown, and another female were identified as the women who cashed the checks. A large number of the checks passed in Wisconsin listed Bold King Enterprises as the drawer, a company which had been dissolved for several months.

In March of 1979, a teletype was sent to postal inspectors in the Upper Midwest area which described the scheme and the individuals suspected of being involved. Specifically, the postal inspectors knew that women generally were used to cash the checks and that male participants usually were parked nearby. The presence of male lookouts was known from information provided by various bank employees who had witnessed the operation of the scheme as well as from information supplied by the informant McMillan. Also, it was known that if inquiries were made at the bank about the check, the woman would not cash it but rather would deposit the entire sum in the account. Finally, the postal inspectors knew that many of the checks had been drawn on the account of Bold King Enterprises.

Postal Inspector Timothy Clifford of Madison, Wisconsin received this teletype describing the scheme and the individuals involved. On Monday, April 23, 1979 four break-ins of collection boxes were reported to Clifford.*fn4 These break-ins occurred on the west side of Madison. Clifford recognized this as part of the scheme which had been described in the teletype he had received in March. Clifford notified local banks to be alerted to checks drawn on the ...

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