The Postwar Years
The years after World War II saw a revival of small-time counterfeiters, most of whom have passed into obscurity. But three men became famous, one for his lack of greed, one for his mastery of counterfeiting, and one for the heinous acts that accompanied his counterfeiting.
Here are their stories:
Edward Mueller: US, 1938-1948
Edward Mueller’s counterfeits were actually of very poor quality—he even misspelled Washington’s name on some—but what kept him in business for over a decade was his choice of fakes—$1 bills.
While most counterfeiters choose to work with higher denominations like twenties and hundreds, Mueller never set out to make a fortune, only to buy necessities and pay his rent. He used his bogus ones mainly for small purchases, and even when the Feds became aware of the bills, he avoided detection for ten years in spite of one of the largest manhunts of the time. Busy people just didn’t pay much attention to one-dollar bills.
Mueller’s counterfeiting career came to an end when his New York City apartment building caught fire. In the process of battling the fire, the firefighters moved Mueller’s printing equipment, along with some of the counterfeit bills, into an adjacent alley where they were soon covered in snow. Kids playing in the alley discovered the bills, quickly recognized them as fakes, and turned them over to their parents who called the authorities. Mueller, who by then was 73, was arrested and sentenced to a year and a day in jail and a $1 fine. He was released after serving four months.
Mueller’s story caught the attention of Hollywood, where it was turned into the romantic comedy Mister 880 starring Burt Lancaster as a Secret Service agent and Edmund Gwenn as Mueller. Mueller made considerably more money off his story than he did as a counterfeiter.
Czeslaw Bojarski: France, 1950s-60s
Polish-born Bojarski was an army officer who fled to France during WWII. A brilliant inventor, Bojarski missed out on becoming wealthy due to others beating him to the patent office with similar inventions.
Not to be denied his fortunes, Bojarski, who was also a gifted artist, made reproductions of French currency that some claim were better than the real ones issued by the Bank of France. Over the course of fourteen years, Bojarski printed hundreds of millions of bogus notes, the most famous of which is the elaborate and beautiful 100 Nouveaux Francs Bonaparte bill, and lived the good life from their sale.
Bojarski’s downfall came when he abandoned his habit of producing the counterfeits alone. As demand for his notes increased, he hired two people to help him sell them. Unfortunately for him, they turned him in and he was arrested on January 17, 1964 and sentenced to 20 years’ in prison.
Released on good behavior after 13 years, Bojarski and his wife went on vacation. While gone, a water pipe in their apartment burst. When firefighters moved a stove, they discovered ten gold bars and nearly 800 gold coins. That led to another arrest and confiscation of his property.
Bojarski died broke in 2003. Today, “authentic” Bojarski counterfeits are highly collected and worth considerably more than their face value.
Mike DeBardeleben, “The Mall Passer”: US, 1980s
While the two previous counterfeiters had their romantic sides, there was nothing nice about James Mitchell "Mike" DeBardeleben, known as “The Mall Passer” from his custom of using his fake twenties at shopping malls adjacent to Interstate highways.
Born in 1940, DeBardeleben had a history of criminal behavior starting in his mid-teens. Over the next 20 years, DeBardeleben was arrested on numerous charges including theft, robbery, and sex crimes. He also began counterfeiting $20 bills.
In the early 80s, Secret Service agents were on his trail. Noting his pattern of passing the bogus bills, they interviewed clerks, developed a composite sketch, and started passing it out at stores along what they guessed would be his itinerary. When he was arrested, agents found stacks of counterfeit twenties labeled with the city in which they were to be passed. They also found evidence of kidnappings, sex crimes, and murders.
Sentenced to 375 years, he died in prison in 2011. His criminal behavior has been the subject of several television crime documentaries, and he is cited as an example of sexual sadism in psychiatric literature.
In our next installment of Notorious Counterfeiters, we’ll take a look at some the notables at the end of the twentieth century.