A January traffic accident in Frederick County led investigators to what Maryland police described at a press conference yesterday as a 10-year-old check forging ring that used a tangled maze of family relationships and that extended through 16 states.
In the accident wreckage, state police said, identification cards and five bank books with an assortment of names were found.
And when the officers went to tell the driver's relatives she was injured, they said, they found she had given them an incorrect address.
By the time the confusion was sorted out, 11 people were arrested on charges of check forging and credit-card trafficking.
State and Montgomery County police alleged that those people, and 17 others described only as suspects, had received about $1 million through forgery.
The investigation was complicated by the fact that many family members look alike and used the same forged identification and at least 30 different false names, state and county police said.
The pieces started coming together, police said, with the accident Jan. 15 on Rte. 270 in which Lorraine Lee Hurley, 26, was injured.
When a trooper went to notify friends and relatives at the incorrect address she gave in Gaithersburg, police said, an employe at the apartment rental office said that county police recently had visited them on another investigation dealing with Hurley.
County and state police then began working together and discovered that Hurley's mother, Mary Jane Norwood, 43, and a companion, William Jackson Thomas, 51, were wanted on credit-card trafficking charges.
Police said a birth certificate found in Hurley's actual apartment in Landover Hills led police to Patricia Wise, 30, and her husband, Kenneth Wise, 33, who were also wanted on forgery charges.
At a meeting near Rockville in early February, police from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina compared notes, photographs and aliases.
Police said they realized during the meeting that Lorraine Hurley's husband, Johnny Hurley, and her mother's husband, William Norwood, were also wanted for forgery.
Police also placed forgery charges against Mary Jane Norwood's brother, Abijah J. Wilder, 46, his former roommate Gary Stears, 28, and two friends of Lorraine Hurley's, Harold James Woods, whose age was not known, and Deborah Powers, 25.
Officer James R. Green of the Montgomery County police, and state trooper Wayne Moffatt said a typical forgery scheme would work like this:
Three members of the ring would steal a woman's purse from a bar or lounge and remove checks, credit cards and identification cards. Birth certificates were sometimes used to obtain other forms of identification under false names.
They would travel to rural areas in other states, rent a post office box to obtain a local address and use a forged check to open a savings account. Before the check had cleared, police said, money would be withdrawn from the account.
Green and Moffatt said police sometimes mistook one member of the group for another.