WHEN YOU GET RIGHT down to it, even a mega-million-dollar international criminal caper is mostly boring shitwork.
As Frank Bourassa tells it, his own criminal masterpiece hinged on the events of one morning in early December 2009, a morning he says he spent freezing his ass off in a parking lot, staring through binoculars at the Port of Montreal. On the face of it, the shipment he was waiting for was also dull stuff: boxes of blank paper, nothing more. If the customs agents were to crack into the cartons, Frank was praying that mere paper was all they’d see.
Frank’s buddies, in two separate cars, had been surveilling the parking lot for two days, and though they didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, he says he was uneasy, knowing that at any time, a bunch of law-enforcement people might swoop down out of nowhere and snatch him up. Frank was right to be paranoid. Indeed, a day would come when a bunch of law-enforcement people would swoop down out of nowhere and snatch him up—but not today. Sensing the moment was right, Frank made a call to another of his guys, a runner he’d hired, and gave him the green light to pull his box truck through the security gates and into the port to load up the shipment.
Before long, the vehicle came rumbling out through the exit lane, and Frank, watching from a distance, got about as excited as a person can get at the sight of a box truck. He had been anticipating this day for nearly two years, though in a larger sense he had been anticipating it since adolescence, when Frank Bourassa launched his varied and profitable career in the lawbreaking sector. His résumé so far, he says, included but was not limited to petty larceny, grand larceny, and grand dope smuggling. But this day marked the real beginning of the grandest, riskiest, most potentially enriching scheme of Frank’s life. The convoy now on the move, he and his crew fell in behind the truck.
Everything seemed to be cool. No choppers. No black SUVs. But who was to say that invisible cops might not be in tow? Frank ran a few cautious spy moves just to be sure: At the on-ramp to the highway, one of the cars in the procession shammed a breakdown, halting traffic behind it and stymieing any would-be tails. The runner sped the box truck to a parking lot outside Montreal and left it there. Three days of binocular work ensued. No cops. So the runner drove the truck to a freight lot in Frank’s hometown of Trois-Rivières, a small city of 130,000 on the St. Lawrence River, and left it. Frank and his team spent three last unthrilling days on binocular detail.
Finally, when he was fairly certain that the cops weren’t onto him, Frank says he called another friend of his who showed up with scanners and radio wands to check the shipment for bugs. The crew opened the truck. On five wooden pallets sat the future of Frank’s criminal enterprise. It was paper of a special kind, made with the same rare cotton-and-linen recipe used for printing American currency. It also bore watermarked images of Andrew Jackson’s face and security strips reading usa twenty in minuscule type.
The paper was the essential ingredient for fabricating high-grade counterfeit bills that the Canadian police would later describe as “basically undetectable” from the real thing. As soon as the security sweep pronounced the shipment clean, Frank welled up with optimism. “There was no way to stop me from there. I knew I was rich,” Frank recalled. “It was the best day of my life.” Frank now had what he needed to print hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fake U.S. currency—and to soon become the most prolific counterfeiter in the history of the trade.
FRANK BOURASSA IS AN AMUSED, easygoing man of 44 whose standard answer, when you ask him why he beat up such-and-such a person, or got stabbed by so-and-so, or committed this or that felony, is “I don’t know, I guess for fun.” On a website he recently launched, Frank describes himself as an “insane million making Master earner,” though he does not necessarily look like an insane million-making master earner. He is a shortish guy with a nocturnal, indoorsy complexion and a faux-hawk hairdo that sometimes looks fussed over but usually not. He has a big belly that started coming into focus a few years back, during his house arrest for a pot charge. He favors old T-shirts and complicated jeans with lots of pockets and zippers, which, actually, probably did set him back a buck or two. He drives an aging Mitsubishi Eclipse in which I think I counted three different apparatuses for affixing Oakley-style sunglasses to the flip-down visors. You see, an insane master earner who makes his millions by illegitimate means “can’t just drive around in a Ferrari,” Frank explained. “If I need a luxury car, there are luxury cars I can use, but most of everything I buy, I have to go through somebody else. You have to have discipline, or otherwise you get caught. I’m a silent partner in many things.”
Frank’s self-image may be described as not merely healthy but hyperpituitary. When I asked him where he found the lunatic gumption not only to enter into the risky business of counterfeiting but to do so at the unheard-of scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, Frank replied with a shrug: “I can do anything I want. I can go to the moon. I’m good at figuring out stuff. I could do a heart transplant if I wanted to.”
Are we to take Frank at his word? Should he be allowed by NASA to attempt a lunar landing? Should he perform your father’s triple bypass? I will say only this: Do not discount someone who apparently launched a currency-fraud scheme so cunning that he was able to rook the Secret Service and the Canadian government and then walk away from the whole mess a free and wealthy man.
Possibly out of bureaucratic discretion, possibly sore from their humiliating dealings with the counterfeiter, the legal authorities here and abroad would say very little on the record about the Bourassa case. So what follows is largely a tale straight from the mouth of the guilty party, who was only too delighted to relate the long career of outrages he has visited upon the law.
Frank’s criminal ambitions, he tells us, began taking shape in the eighth grade when he launched his first racket, a shoplifting ring. “I started making good money. Hundreds a week, which for a 14-, 15-year-old kid, that’s huge!”
Around the age of 15, he says, he moved out of his parents’ house, quit school, and got his own place. Frank found legal work, mechanicking at a garage. He also found illegal work running stolen automobiles. “I had two or three guys who I’d give the orders to, and then they’d go jump the cars,” Frank said. His adventures in hot-car trafficking went on for a few years, over the course of which Frank oversaw the theft of “I don’t know, maybe 500?” vehicles.
In his late twenties, Frank committed what he generally describes as the most regrettable error of his professional life: He tried to get rich by legitimate means. On the western side of town, he opened a small factory specializing in the manufacture of brake pads and shoes. The factory was moderately successful. Honest success made Frank Bourassa miserable.
“I was working twenty hours a day, not sleeping. It was completely crazy,” Frank said. Before long he was diagnosed with an acute stress disorder and prescribed anti-anxiety pills, which “I was taking like crazy.” He sold the brake business, but the experience led Frank to a crucial resolve: “I said, ‘Fuck it. I’ll never work legit again.’”
And so Frank went back to breaking the law. “People were making good money smuggling pot at the time, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll give this a shot.’” The cannabis trade treated Frank nicely, until one day in 2006 when the police raided the grow operation of one of his suppliers. Frank was convicted on a drug charge and had to do some time. His sentence was twelve months, of which Frank says he was required to serve only three. Canada being Canada, they let him serve it in his living room.
After this brush with the law, Frank began to wonder what he was doing with his life. He’d known the pot thing couldn’t go on forever. Mexican reefer was flooding the market, driving down prices. Then an epiphany of sorts came to Frank. Across his wide-ranging career, his fundamental strategy for turning labor into cash, he concluded, had been indirect and flawed. “I realized: The end result is always the same. You do all this work just to get money. So fuck it: Why not skip everything and just start making currency?“
WHEN MOST PEOPLE look at a dollar bill, we don’t see a material object; we see magic—a totem embodying luck, labor, destiny, and one’s essential value compared with that of the guy next door. Or if we look at money practically and technically, we see such a profusion of security features as to make the notion of faking one a ludicrous impossibility. But as Frank began delving into the matter, his research bore out a simple but life-altering revelation: Limitless wealth was a craft project. Frank started loitering in counterfeiters’ chat rooms. He paid a few visits to the U.S. Secret Service’s website, which, handily, offers an in-depth illustrated guide to serial numbers, watermarks, plate numbers, and all the other fussy obstacles to the counterfeiter’s art. “It would be difficult, but obviously currency is made by human hands, so it would be physically possible to do,” Frank said. “But I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’ll go big or go home.”
Serious counterfeiters do not spend their money themselves but instead sell in bulk, and the going rate for a good bill, the Internet informed Frank, was 30 percent of face value. He reasoned that if he was going to put himself through the hassle and expense of buying supplies and so on, he should print enough in a single batch to leave himself set for life. He figured something in the $200 million range would suffice. It should be stated plainly that by the standards of most counterfeiters, printing $200-plus million is not going big—it is going insane. In fact, the hubristic volume of the operation would prove, in ways Frank did not intend, to be a major blessing in later days, when Frank’s fortune would take a turn for the worse.
Drawing on cautionary news reports of failed counterfeiters, Frank sketched out a set of best-practice guidelines for his new concern. First, “don’t ever try to pass the money yourself. You want to be as far away as possible from where the money’s being spent.” Second, “don’t sell your stuff to anyone who’s going to be passing it locally. I knew from the beginning, I needed to sell my bills to Europe or Asia.” Third, resist the temptation to print big bills. “Do twenties. It’s stupid to try to pass hundred-dollar bills anymore. People look at them all day long, hold it up to the light and everything. Nobody looks twice at a twenty.” Fourth, don’t cheap out. Most of the people who try their luck at counterfeiting do so by breathtakingly broke-dick means, with stuff you can buy at Office Depot.
“Can you make bills on a $50 ink-jet? Sure, if you want to get busted right away,” said Frank. “All the security features in a bill are basically there to stop broke fucking-moron assholes who are trying to do their thing on an ink-jet. I knew if I wanted to succeed, my bills had to be as perfect as possible, as close as possible to the way the bills are actually made.”
FRANK DROVE HIS PAPER to a garage outside of town. The place belonged to a farmer who rented it to Frank no questions asked. The farmer “knew a bit of what I was about,” says Frank. Inside, Frank had set up a printshop that would make a desktop counterfeiter swoon with envy. Financed with proceeds from his cannabis endeavors, the workshop testified to Frank’s sophisticated ambitions and had been outfitted with the help of an expert consultant. Before embarking on the caper, Frank had zero knowledge of professional printing. But it had come to his attention, he says, that a casual acquaintance who ran the presses at a printshop in Montreal had done some prison time. This was auspicious news for a man in need of an offset-lithography specialist willing to work outside the law.
With his new press operator advising, Frank dropped $125,000 on a four-color Heidelberg offset printer. His arsenal of equipment also included a $24,000 single-color Heidelberg (for test batches); two platen presses for embossing and applying color-shifting foil; an industrial paper cutter; platemaking equipment; counting machines; strapping machines; twenty or so Ricoh ink-jet printers, whose particular brand of gel ink is ideal for printing serial numbers; ink; and lots of other stuff.
The total tab for gear and materials came to roughly $300,000. This seems like a very serious chunk of change, until you consider that this equipment would turn out a run of phony bills that Frank intended to sell for $80 million or so. “So what’s $300,000? It’s nothing!” But acquiring the paper itself had posed a complex nest of problems mere money could not solve. It had required tremendous criminal deviousness—and also money.
The recipe for the rag paper U.S. notes are printed on is deceptively simple—75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen—a distinctive composition every American unconsciously knows by feel. Simple though it may be, the recipe is also so widely known that dialing a paper mill and asking for a batch of 75/25 is a speedy way to get raided by the Secret Service (which was created expressly to bust counterfeiters—POTUS tending came later).
And even if you could somehow chef up a few reams of the cotton-linen blend, you’d still need to add to it a whole host of security elements: the watermark—the translucent face of Jackson, Franklin, et al.—which appears when you hold the bill up to the light; the security strip; the tiny red and blue fibers embedded throughout the paper; and so on.
In the fall of 2008, Frank says he began reaching out to paper mills across Europe and Asia under the alias Thomas Moore, an employee of The Letter Shop, a fictitious Quebec stationery concern. He purported to have a special client who wanted some special paper manufactured. What kind of paper? Well, rag paper with cotton, maybe some linen thrown in there. “Cotton and linen? Like, for currency?” suspicious papermakers would often respond, and Thomas Moore would be heard from no more.
But Frank had faith that somewhere—maybe in Poland, Slovakia, or Bulgaria—his avatar could flush out a papermaker stupid or crooked enough to make his recipe. In January 2009, he says, his search ended at the Artoz paper company headquartered in Lenzburg, Switzerland. By now, Frank had adopted the nom de plume Jackson Maxwell, of the Keystone Investment and Trading Company, a securities firm whose letterhead, suspiciously, bore no street address.
In correspondence included in court documents that Frank shared with me, Maxwell told his mark that Keystone was looking to print bond certificates on secure rag paper—customized with one or two security measures designed to, um, foil counterfeiters. Frank says that after Artoz accepted the basics of his bond-brokerage story, he tweaked and refined his order over many months, nudging one felonious tidbit after another onto the papermaker’s plate. He got them to add linen to the recipe. He asked them to mix in chemicals to thwart security pens and black-light tests. He persuaded them to sew in a security strip reading, in near microscopic print,usa twenty. (“I told them it was, you know, for a $20 bond.”)
Artoz, he says, also agreed to imprint his paper with a watermark, an image etched into a cylindrical printing drum and pressed into the paper while the pulp is still wet. To get the equipment Artoz would need to do this, Frank paid $15,000, routed under a surrogate’s name through a Swiss bank account, to a company in Düren, Germany, that manufactured a drum etched with the likenesses of Andrew Jackson’s face. How did he manage that, exactly? “It was easy,” said Frank. “To you, he’s Andrew Jackson. To some guy in Germany, who the fuck is it? Some guy’s face. He doesn’t know.”
This core insight—that most people have no idea whose faces are on the banknotes of a foreign nation—was the essence of Frank’s counterfeiting philosophy and is the source of Frank’s confidence that without too much difficulty, any enterprising citizen can find someone, somewhere, with the technical know-how and solipsistic deficits to unwittingly help him dodge just about any security measure a national treasury can devise.
Sitting at a bar with him one afternoon, I handed Frank an array of bills—a fifty-euro note, a U.S. $100, a Canadian $20, and a New Zealand $10—and asked him which one of them would be most difficult to counterfeit. “None of them,” he said. He picked up the hundred and poked Benjamin Franklin’s face with his fingertip. “I could get them to make a watermark of this guy, no problem.
“Really? Ben Franklin? ”
“You’re somebody way back in China, you wouldn’t think twice about printing this asshole. Who is that? They don’t know. He looks like a clown, for all I care. I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m from a circus. We’re having this production. We’d like to do some flyers, so I need a die for this. He’s our clown. Bozo.’ “
Frank’s gifts as a conniver were confirmed by the sample sheets he says Artoz mailed to him in the fall of 2009. “The paper was perfect,” he said. “The exact same paper the currency is printed on.” He promptly ordered $50,000 worth (Frank provided us with what appeared to be an invoice, but the company didn’t respond to queries about the transaction) and, before long, got a call from a buddy of his in the import trade: “Your shipment’s here. It’s at the docks. Come pick it up.”
NOW THAT HE HAD the paper, the equipment, and the guy to operate it, Frank figured the fabrication of his fortune would be a simple matter of flipping a switch. And sure enough, after several weeks of tinkering to get the color just right, he was moved by what he saw coming off the Heidelberg. “I’m not an emotional guy, but when I looked at that first perfect sheet, it sort of rang home. After all of those years of dodging the police and running around and chasing money, it really rang home: I’m fucking rich! Right now! Oh yeah!” Frank claims that his little shop in the farmer’s garage began pumping out tens of millions of dollars’ worth of flawless twenties a month.
Now Frank’s attention shifted to finding somebody to sell them to. He hired a marketing director of sorts, an old friend, who’d dig up customers.
“We’d been talking to some drug guys, heavy workers who were moving cocaine,” Frank said. But to his surprise, guys who were perfectly comfortable shipping cocaine by the container load drew the line at phony bills. “No thanks, and be careful” was where that conversation ended. This bewildered Frank Bourassa. “I was saying to myself, Jesus Christ! These guys were doing a lot worse than moving counterfeit bills, and they’re telling me to be careful? Are they screwed up?”
Still unable to find buyers, Frank brought on a second customer-outreach man whom we’ll call George. For months, Frank did nothing but pack sample boxes—hundreds of thousands, face value—for his guys to take to potential clients. Frank’s spirits were flagging. “I wasn’t getting paid. I was just sending out free shit.”
At last Frank’s sales agents located some customers. These were four buyers of the ideal kind, guys with import-export connections who wanted to sell the bills overseas. But they weren’t interested in the sort of volume Frank was keen to unload. “Their first orders were $10,000,” Frank said. “I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, it can’t be! I might as well go to McDonald’s with $20 bills and change ‘em that way.’ It was ridiculous.” But soon their appetites grew. Frank says they started taking a million a week apiece, which he was selling them for thirty cents on the dollar. Just like that, Bourassa recouped his $300,000 investment. Still, at this rate, it would take over a year to unload the full press run—ample time, Frank worried, for the cops to get wise to the garage.
(According to a short ABC News piece on Frank and his adventures, the authorities began spotting the bills in both Florida and Las Vegas. But exactly how wise the cops were getting to Frank’s operation, the authorities won’t say. Officials from the U.S. Secret Service, Interpol, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police refused to discuss details of the investigation.)
In search of new business, Frank began flying George all over the world. “He was talking to all sorts of people, a guy who had casinos, other guys who said they were interested, but nothing panned out.”
At last George reached out to a local guy in Trois-Rivières who was operating a stolen-heavy-equipment ring. For two years, the heavy-equipment man, whose name was Éric Lefebvre, had been unwittingly selling stolen dump trucks and front-end loaders to a man we will call Undercover Cop. One day in May 2012, Lefebvre asked Cop whether he might also be interested in some high-quality counterfeit bills. Cop said that he would indeed be interested. He ordered $100,000 worth for $30,000, clean. And abandoning his usual caution, Frank stuffed the bills into a box and carried them, in person, to Lefebvre, who was waiting for him at the house of a guy they both knew. Lefebvre carried the bills to Cop, and Cop was so well pleased with the bills that he ordered another $100,000 the very next day. So Frank boxed up another 100K, and he set off to meet Lefebvre, whom, it turned out, a helicopter had followed. It was flying at such an altitude that Frank neither saw it nor heard it. Yet something—some unarticulable misgiving—nagged at Frank’s consciousness that day. Ordinarily, he might have simply parked in the driveway and lugged in the boxes of phony cash. But today something told him to be careful. Rather than tote the deliverables inside in plain view, he backed into the carport, an inadvertent act of caution that would prove helpful down the line.
JUST BEFORE DAWN on May 23, 2012, Frank Bourassa woke up in the worst sort of way. Sounds of men yelling. Heavy fists on the door of his girlfriend’s home. His girlfriend in bed beside him, losing it. “Wake up! Wake up! It’s the police!” she cried.
Frank cracked an eye. It was 5 A.M. This isn’t good. No way is this good.
“What do we do? What do we do?” his girlfriend was saying.
“Say nothing,” Frank told her. “Do nothing. Don’t move.”
Frank jerked on a pair of torn jeans and an old T-shirt and padded downstairs to get the door. A dozen or so representatives of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were standing on the threshold, along with a pair of agents from the U.S. Secret Service.
One of the two pricey Heidelberg printing presses that Frank purchased for his project. Photo courtesy of Frank Bourassa
With Frank handcuffed in the kitchen, the police searched the house and found all sorts of things to get excited about: a slew of guns, five computers, a pen for testing counterfeit currency, and a foil press affixed with a copper die cut in the likeness of the iridescent “20″ on a $20 bill. They also turned up printing plates and close to a million dollars in what looked to be U.S. twenties. According to a press release put out by the RCMP, the bills were “very high quality counterfeit bank notes that were basically undetectable to the naked eye.”
The size of the haul was, for the authorities, a source of joy. Nearly a million dollars in fake bills, stacked in a suburban basement, is a sight few cops see in the course of their careers. And so much equipment, too!
“They were very, very happy,” Frank recalled. Though as far as the cops knew, the $949,000 was the extent of Frank’s operation. They were still wholly ignorant of the $200-plus million, stashed in the farmer’s garage. “They were so hyped up. I was thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, calm down. You got nothing. These are samples. You got samples and you’re happy about that?’ On the other hand, I knew I was in shit. So I was thinking both at the same time. Mainly I was thinking: Shit.“
THE VIDEO OF Frank Bourassa’s interrogation makes for solemn viewing. The footage, later turned over to Frank and his lawyer, all three hours of it, shows the accused sitting in the corner of a purgatorial white room, hugging himself against the chill and the prospect of a prison sentence. The charges arrayed against him include seven counts of possession of an unauthorized firearm; three counts for possession of methamphetamine, marijuana, and hashish (trace quantities of which were discovered in Frank’s car, left there, he claims, by other people); and of course, circulating counterfeit bills. Throughout his chat with the police, Frank looks like a freshly beaten dog.
A tall, avuncular RCMP officer plies Frank with questions, and Frank says little more than I’m keeping silent. Or this is what he says until the officer works his way around to the subject of Frank’s girlfriend, who owns the house where the money was found. The officer tells Frank that his girlfriend has been arrested. Her house will probably be seized. Here lies Frank’s weak spot. His girlfriend is a schoolteacher, an innocent, he proclaims. She knew nothing of the business, Frank says, and presumably never once wandered into her own basement and asked what all of those fake American twenties were doing scattered around.
“It’s all mine,” he tells the cop. “She knows nothing. She knows nothing. All of it’s mine.”
From the outset of Frank’s foray into counterfeiting, he’d built into his estimated costs of doing business that the enterprise might end with a prison bid. “I figured if I get hit real hard, I’d get six or seven years,” he said. “In Canada, you do one-sixth of the sentence. So maybe I’d do twelve to fifteen months. No one wants to spend a year in prison, but when it came down to it, I could do it. It’s manageable.”
But for all of Frank’s shrewdness aforethought, he had, dangerously and naively, failed to consider that his caper would piss off the United States authorities in a very serious way. Toward the end of the interview, Frank is astonished when two members of the Secret Service enter the room bearing information he is wholly unprepared to receive. The agents don’t mess around with any small talk. They don’t threaten him or tease him. They simply tell Frank that they are getting ready to extradite him to the U.S., where he will serve lots and lots of time in a federal penitentiary. “It’s a twenty-year felony for each charge,” one agent says in a calm, informative sort of way. Based on the evidence retrieved from Frank’s girlfriend’s house that morning, Frank could face separate charges for the possession of the counterfeit plates, for the possession of the bills, and for transferring currency to Lefebvre. Sixty years, worst case.
The suspect goes silent. You can almost hear a trapdoor give way in Frank’s solar plexus. “You’re crazy,” he murmurs. “Chill out.”
“This isn’t something we chill out about,” the agent replies. “This is what the Secret Service was started for—counterfeit currency.”
Sure, okay, but in the real world, Frank asks, how much time was he likely to do?
“The one [case] that I’m familiar with was actually a guy from Montreal,” the agent says. “He received nine years.”
“Out of these nine years,” Frank asks, “how long did he do?”
“Down there, federal time, you don’t get good time,” the agent says. “He died in jail.”
Frank’s head seems suddenly to put on weight. His left eye begins to twitch.“Nine years,” he repeats. “Don’t ask for extradition,” he says in a tone of abject hopelessness. “Please.”
The Secret Service agents quit the room, and Frank Bourassa is sent to jail without bond.
THE CROWN (as the Canadian government’s prosecutorial body is known) declined to comment on many of the details of Frank’s case, so here we’re relying on Bourassa’s word alone for the particulars of how he schemed for his freedom, both in and out of court. As Frank tells it, his salvation from extradition rested on a single card: Under Canadian law, the police need clear evidence to secure a search warrant. Because their surveillance footage showed Frank pulling into the carport at the rendezvous but not bodily muling the boxed cash into the house, the case could be made, Frank’s attorney argued, that the warrant the cops used for the raid had been issued on insufficient evidence and that the search of the house had been illegal.
It was a pretty feeble argument, yet there was some chance that if Frank’s attorney used these grounds to file a motion to dismiss, the case could be thrown out of court. Frank wanted to negotiate: If the Crown suspended his extradition proceedings, his lawyer wouldn’t file the motion. Not wanting to gamble their entire case to please the U.S. prosecutors, Frank says the Crown took the offer. So in the end he would not be serving time in an American cell. After six weeks in jail, Frank’s lawyer swung a bail arrangement, and he walked on $10,000 bond.
At this point, the prosecution—while thrilled with the hand they were holding—knew for sure only about the million dollars turned up in the raid. But investigators were carefully sifting through Frank’s hard drive for clues as to how much counterfeit might be out there and where it might be hidden.
When Frank returned, provisionally, to the free world, he took a job working construction. He spent his spare hours begging forgiveness from his girlfriend and made a point not to go anywhere near the farmer’s garage. The Crown, for its part, was doing all it could to bolster the case against Frank. Strange cars were tailing him. His phone was almost certainly tapped. He did not talk about the money, to anyone. He tried to put it out of his mind.
In September 2012, Frank says, he received an e-mail from a mysterious buyer expressing a sudden interest in the Heidelberg press Frank had listed on an industrial-equipment site the previous year. The buyer, as it happened, was an undercover cop. Internal police reports on the sting, later given to Frank and his lawyer, declare the exciting news that “the counterfeiting equipment that Bourassa has for sale is…in the Trois-Rivières area” and that an operation is under way in which cops will “go to inspect the equipment as potential buyers.” But something about the arrangement didn’t feel right to Frank. He stopped returning e-mails, and the sting fell apart.
In the fall of 2013, after over a year of haggling with Frank’s attorney, the Crown presented Frank with its final—and extremely lenient—proposition: three years in prison, of which term Frank would likely serve six months. Against his lawyer’s strenuous recommendations, Frank rejected the offer.
And in December 2013, a year and a half after his arrest, the case of Crown v. François Bourassa was finally going to trial.
Walking with his attorney into the courtroom before the opening gavel, Frank says he at last revealed a secret he’d kept hidden from his lawyer all along. “What if I could give them $200 million,” he murmured. “Do you think that would help my case?”
Frank says the attorney raised an eyebrow. “You’re telling me you’ve got $200 million?”
“Sure!” said Frank. And he would gladly give it up—along with his Heidelberg printer—provided that the Crown would stop trying to seize his girlfriend’s house and also give him back his Mitsubishi.
Another thing: He felt he’d done enough time on the counterfeiting beef. He wanted his jail sentence reduced to the six weeks he’d already served.
Presumably it chapped the Crown’s ass very keenly to consider letting Bourassa skip with a slap on the wrist, but the opportunity to remove from circulation $200 million in high-quality counterfeits was hard to refuse. After some negotiation, the Crown agreed, more or less, to Frank’s offer. If he could indeed produce the bills, he would pay a fine of $1,350 on the drug-possession charges, and one of the biggest counterfeiters in the history of the trade would slip off the hook after a month and a half behind bars. (For his equipment-theft high jinks and his relatively minor part in Frank’s counterfeiting ring, Éric Lefebvre was sentenced to thirty-one months in prison.)
Here it’s worth noting a tactical irony in Frank’s business plan: Had he not printed such an outrageous amount of money, desperation to unload it might not have forced him to sell some to an undercover cop.
But then, at the same time, if he’d printed a measlier number of millions, he would have lacked a big chip with which to bargain for his liberty. He would certainly have been jailed alongside Lefebvre. In other words, had Frank not gone big, it could have been quite a long time before he’d have been free to go home.
ALTHOUGH IT APPEARED the Crown had agreed to let Frank Bourassa buy his freedom, Frank was still in a touchy spot. The government wouldn’t let Frank simply hand over the money and be done with it. Instead, they set a drop date over a month hence, for January 31, 2014. The delay seemed to buy the authorities some strategic leeway. If they could ferret out the stash themselves before Frank delivered the money, the plea deal would evaporate. The Secret Service would suddenly have all the uncontested evidence it would need to proceed with extradition, and Frank would likely find himself facing a very long prison sentence south of the border in a federal pen.
“After the deal,” Frank claims, “every morning, [the police were] sitting in front of my house. They were tailing me, twenty-four-seven. These guys, all of them were thinking, ‘If we can find the money before the drop, we can fuck him.’ So everything I did, everywhere I went, they were watching. Jesus Christ, were they hard at work on me.”
His attorney, Frank says, warned him to be very careful how and when he made arrangements for the drop. Frank didn’t want to bring down any heat on the farmer who’d leased him his shop space, so the handoff couldn’t be at the garage. At the same time, Frank obviously couldn’t make a trip to the shop himself or even arrange for someone else to do it, with the lawmen treading at his heels.
But Frank had foreseen these complexities. Back in December, before he mentioned the $200 million to his lawyer, Frank says, he’d called a friend. This friend had loaded a box truck with the $200 million, plus a Heidelberg press, the cheaper one. He left the truck south of town in the parking lot of a hotel where another of Frank’s associates worked. And there, for nearly two months, protected by nothing but a padlock, the $200 million and Frank Bourassa’s freedom had been sitting, awaiting the January 31 handoff.
When the day finally rolled around, Frank went to the RCMP station in Trois-Rivières to take the seat of honor in an uneasy law-enforcement parade. Escorted by a motorcade of six black SUVs, Frank directed the police to the box truck. “The bomb unit came, the K-9 unit. It was crazy. They set up a whole perimeter there in the parking lot. They made me go open up the truck first to make sure it wasn’t going to explode.” He opened the truck. In the back sat the $200 million, tidily packaged in brown cartons, each a little larger than the size of a shoebox.