COTATI , Calif. (Debora Villalon/KTVU) In the North Bay, Cotati Police have identified a woman who passed fake money at a school bake sale.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Michelle Marie Kruse, 41, who lists a Rohnert Park address, but has not been located.
"She was in the store for probably fifteen minutes," Oliver's Market Store Director Jeff Spackman told KTVU, showing surveillance images of Kruse pushing a shopping cart up and down a few aisles Monday afternoon. She is seen abandoning the cart, and leaving.
Her only purchase was made outside the store, at a table staffed by teenage volunteers.
"When she came up to the table, she asked us what the money was for," student Jessica Alcala told KTVU. "We told her it was for new instruments and equipment that we need."
Alcala and other musicians from Rancho Cotate High School were selling donated baked goods to benefit their music programs.
The money raised enables them to travel to performances and festivals.
So they were unsuspecting when Michelle Kruse purchased some goodies with a $100 bill, and left with $80 in change.
Alcala sensed immediately that the bill was "weird" and showed it to student Evan Crow, who works in a pizza parlor.
He held it up to the daylight and saw that it was missing many key features.
"I've come across a bunch of hundreds before so I know what to look for, and also I've been kind of trained," explained Crow.
By that time, Kruse had made it to her car, an older model Honda Accord.
The two young people thought she might have given them the bill accidentally, not realizing it was fake.
They crossed the parking lot to approach her, but she saw them and hit the gas, speeding off.
Thanks to their astuteness and the store surveillance system, Kruse's car and image were publicized on the Cotati Police Department Facebook page and widely shared.
"Within a couple of hours there were thousands of people who were seeing it and the police were getting all sorts of tips," observed Spackman.
Those tips identified Kruse, who has prior counterfeiting and fraud offenses.
Spackman suspects Kruse intended to pass the bill at one of the store registers but went to the bake sale instead, because it would be less likely to be detected as fake.
"It's really unfortunate there are people out there like this who want to take advantage of not only businesses, but even worse, kids," declared Spackman.
Rancho Cotate's music director says the upside has been unexpectedly sweet.
"The response has been great, the community, the outpouring of support has been kind of overwhelming," admitted Tim Decker.
Letters, calls, and donations have been coming in for the band, choir, and drum major programs, which involve more than 100 students.
"This is a learning experience for our students," noted Decker. "I was definitely disappointed that this happened, but it's something they will remember and something they can learn from."
The two students in the middle of it hope Kruse is arrested before anyone else is ripped-off.
"I started to cry a little bit, and Evan did too," said Alcala, remembering the shock of it.
"In band, we're a family, and even though we are the ones who took the bill, it felt like they stole from all of us all at once, and it made me really upset."
Oliver's Market eased some of the initial sting by restoring the $80 the students lost.
Police are still looking for tips to the whereabouts of Kruse. They advise anyone who spots her to call 911, rather than approach her. They also note her brown Honda has wheel rims newly painted black, apparently in an effort to disguise the car.