published Thursday, June 30th, 2011

No verdict in fraudulent check-cashing scheme

A jury returned no verdict Wednesday and will reconvene today in the trial of an Atlanta man who said he was the innocent fall guy in a fraudulent check-cashing scheme.

Herschel Hargett is accused of recruiting homeless people in Atlanta then taking them to Tennessee, where they cashed fake checks at Regions Bank on Gunbarrel Road and at GreenBank in Athens, Tenn. He reportedly was paid $400 to do so.

He is charged with five counts of bank fraud and one conspiracy charge.

Five homeless men convicted of cashing more than $13,000 in fake payroll checks picked Hargett out of a photo lineup. This week, they testified he picked them up and told them about the scheme.

The jury went into deliberations about 2 p.m. Wednesday. Jurors will reconvene today at 10 a.m.

On Wednesday, Hargett’s attorney, Lee Ortwein, asked the jury to remember the five homeless witnesses were admitted crack cocaine users with lengthy criminal records.

He also pointed out the homeless men had signed plea bargains with the prosecution, exchanging their testimony for possible reduced sentences.

The prosecution wasn’t relying only on witness testimony. During the investigation, Hargett wrote a statement for Secret Service agents — who investigate counterfeit checks — describing the check-cashing operation and specific details of the scheme.

“His statement alone is enough to find him guilty,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Brooks told the jury.

But Hargett, who took the stand in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga for about an hour Wednesday, told jurors he knew nothing about the scheme and said he pieced together his statement from what investigators told him.

Hargett testified he showed homeless shelters to a man he knew only as Josh, who presented himself as a businessman from Ohio looking for day laborers. Hargett said he accepted $200 for a cell phone the man used to get in touch with him and $200 for showing homeless shelters to the men later.

He said he only had an inkling the activity was illegal when he overheard two homeless men discussing the scheme in vague terms on his last day working with Josh.

Hargett, a video production student at the Art Institute of Atlanta who said he’s never had so much as high school detention, called the scheme “the perfect crime” because the ringleaders “got the money and they’re already spending it while the homeless guys and I are in here pointing fingers at each other, fighting for our lives in the courtroom.”

Although he said the homeless men’s testimony should be carefully considered, Brooks asked the jury to remember that all five men identified Hargett as the one who recruited them for the scheme.

“Don’t you think if they wanted to help their case, they’d pick the guy who did it?” he asked.

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