Wearing a jail jumpsuit with her hands cuffed, Kelly McPhee turned her tear-streaked face to more than a half-dozen relatives and mouthed the words "I love you" as she left the courtroom Wednesday.
Alan McNeil Jones, 31, and Mark G. Bernardo, 26, both of Charlottesville, appeared stoic before U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Waugh Crigler in the Charlottesville federal courthouse.
Prosecutors charged Jones and McPhee, 31, also of Charlottesville, with mail fraud, wire fraud, and fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents. Bernardo was charged with fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents and one count of money laundering.
It was the latest turn in a saga that turned dramatic Monday night, when state police swarmed in Rugby Road carrying assault rifles, wearing tactical gear and some riding in an assault vehicle. That climaxed a monthslong investigation into what authorities described as a nationwide fraud ring that sent more than 4,000 fake ID's across the country starting in 2011, mostly to college students.
Authorities seized weapons, a Cadillac sport utility vehicle and Jeep Wrangler and $200,000 in cash from the $1.3-million Rugby Road home where Jones lived and ran the operation, according to court records. Authorities later seized a Range Rover driven by Jones. McPhee and Bernardo were arrested in the raid Monday and Jones was captured the following evening at the Barracks Road Shopping Center.
Jones and McPhee both face a maximum penalty of 55 years in prison and a $750,000 fine. Bernardo could serve up to 35 years in prison and pay a $750,000 fine.
"Again, I'd like to emphasize that these are preliminary holding charges," U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy said Wednesday after reading aloud the criminal complaint against Bernardo, the last of the three to appear in court. "We expect many additional charges."
A woman who identified herself as McPhee's mother cried throughout the proceedings and left the hearing room briefly after her daughter was led away.
The defendants did not make eye contact as they passed each other entering and exiting the courtroom.
McPhee's family and Charlottesville-based attorney K. Andrew Sneathern, who said he is in negotiations to represent her, declined to comment as they were leaving the courthouse.
According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the large-scale, multi-agency operation began last year after authorities in Charleston, S.C., intercepted a number of fraudulent identifications addressed to students at the College of Charleston.
“Following the seizure of a large number of high quality counterfeit driver’s licenses from College of Charleston students, ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the college Public Safety Department and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) initiated a multi-agency investigation into the source of the counterfeit documents,” ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said in an email Wednesday.
The federal investigation revealed that thousands of fraudulent identifications had been shipped to colleges and college towns across the country, all linked to a Charlottesville post office box.
Following five months of surveillance, federal authorities contacted state police and initiated the takedown operation Monday night, Picard said .
“I can’t recall in my career anything that was like this,” Charlottesville police Lt. Ronnie Roberts said. “It was one of the largest operations I can remember taking place in our community.”
Authorities have been at odds with high-technology counterfeiters for years, Roberts said.
In response, states have attempted to thwart a growing and sophisticated counterfeit market with technology of their own.
“You’ve got to remember there are a lot of very intelligent individuals out there,” Roberts said. “We live in an environment where technology has aided a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.”
In 2009, Virginia was the first state to opt for a new driver's license design that replaced the standard bendable color cards with hard polycarbonate rectangles featuring black-and-white photos officials said made the ID's virtually impossible to replicate.
Since then, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has not seen a “credible” forgery of a state license, agency spokeswoman Pam Goheen told the New York Times last month.
Those who have tried, she said, have failed miserably.
“They’re really awful,” Goheen said.
New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles adopted a similar card this year slated be used starting in July.
Neither state, however, can prevent counterfeiters from producing identification from other locales, Roberts said – a note that is especially significant in college towns where students often hail from out of state.
“At any major university, you’re going to see people from all across the United States,” Roberts said, “even outside the United States. At the university community here we see all types.”
Finding a college student with a California or Texas driver’s license in Charlottesville isn’t that uncommon, Roberts said.
Court documents do not specify how College of Charleston students knew of the Charlottesville operation or if University of Virginia students were involved.
Federal authorities allege the identification transactions were processed via email and through the Postal Service.
In court Wednesday, Jones and McPhee said they would hire private lawyers. Bernardo requested a court-appointed attorney.
All three are scheduled to appear again in federal court next week. They are being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.