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Sunday, June 17, 2001

Counterfeiter’s secret Suisun cave

Jerry Bowen

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Underground den produced countless coins

The hunter took aim at the rabbit and slowly squeezed the trigger. The loud bang was followed by a cloud of dust exploding into the air as the animal scampered away in terror.

Suddenly the ground opened next to the dust-cloud and a spooky human form rose from the bowels of the earth and quickly disappeared. Frightened out of his wits, an 1895 newspaper article reported, “The hunter took flight and ran away with the utmost speed!”

OK, OK, so that was a little melodramatic for a history article, but it actually happened and is connected to what I call the “Suisun Valley Mint” as we shall see.

John Cavanaugh and his brother, proprietors of a saloon near the north Vallejo railroad depot, had heard that “funny money” in the form of quarters, half dollars and dollar coins were being passed in the area.

One Saturday afternoon in early 1895, John was offered a quarter from a man who called himself John Montifino to pay for his drink. It didn’t feel right and he immediately pronounced the coin counterfeit.

Montifino loudly insisted the coin was good and bet Cavanaugh $5 that it was the genuine article. He covered the man’s bet and cut the suspect coin with a knife, proving it was fake.

The stocky Italian continued to insist the quarter was real as Cavanaugh told him he was under arrest.

Montefino delivered a punch to Cavanaugh’s jaw, followed by a solid punch between the eyes. The barkeep quickly recovered, drew a pistol and with an assist from a bystander they finally subdued the suspect and tied him up.

Arrested and jailed, his bail was set at $10,000. News of the arrest of Montifino quickly spread throughout the area. He was identified as Giovanni Montelbano with a criminal past and was taken to San Francisco for trial.

Charles Hench of Suisun Valley recalled seeing a man in a dugout in the side of a hill behind the McIntyre home about three and a half miles northwest of Fairfield. He reported the stranger’s mysterious action to the local constable, but no action was taken at the time.

The hunter who had the strange encounter with the spooky human form rising from the ground also recounted his experience to authorities after hearing of the suspect’s arrest.

Investigation into the suspect’s activities soon began to tie several clues together and reveal the clever method used to conceal his efforts in making what were considered counterfeit coins of the highest quality.

The Feb. 28, 1895 San Francisco Weekly Examiner said: “The most mysterious hiding place of counterfeiters ever discovered by government officers was unearthed last week by Assistant Secret Service Agent Harris, who explored it and captured many coins and the ingenious instruments used in their production.”

The agent added: “It was the workshop of Giavanno Montelbano, who is now awaiting trial in the Alameda County jail, and who is about ready to confess and tell the story of his long career of successful crimes.

“He has made and circulated more counterfeits of silver dollars, dimes, and quarters in the past five years than any other 10 operators combined.”

A Secret Service agent’s report described Montelbano’s workshop in the following manner: “This cave is the oddest thing ever unearthed by the government. It is situated about three and a half miles from Fairfield, in a side hill, and so located that one might pass by it and never suspect its existence. I have learned that some hunters had actually set their traps for wild animals within a few feet of the entrance.

“In order to enter it, I had to lift up some sod, after which I stepped down about 4 feet. I then crawled in about 10 feet and came down to a second bench, which was the entrance to the counterfeiter’s den proper. I had to bend over to get into this second bench and crawl some distance, after which I was in this infernal chamber so narrow and cramped that a man of ordinary height could not stand erect. The tallow from the many candles had run down in streams on the walls of the cavern.

“His furnace was made out of an empty powder can, and his chimney or flue was a long piece of well tubing, which, after running to the top of the hill through the earth, terminated some distance away in a heap of brush.

“There were many ladles, crucibles, pincers, and edge-reeding machines; there were also broken molds and several sacks filled with unfinished dimes, quarters, and dollars. Also a complete polishing outfit.

“His supplies included quantities of antimony, bismuth, block tin and isinglass. Montelbano worked at night, and in the daytime slept in his house, a crude hut nearly two miles away.”

Apparently Montelbano had been operating his underground mint for four years before his arrest. When the news of his capture and hidden lab hit the streets, people rushed to the scene and began grabbing souvenirs. Anything and everything was grabbed, including a small bag filled with 200 dimes found in nearby brush by two young brothers.

Further investigation revealed more of the counterfeiter’s criminal past. In 1884 he had been caught passing phony coins in San Francisco and had attempted to stab the arresting officer. He skipped bail and the case file was destroyed in 1890 when it was believed he had fled to Italy and was later killed.

Montelbano pled guilty at his trial in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence. The maximum punishment he could have received for his crime was a $5,000 fine and 10 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Hawley evidently had little empathy for Gionvani Montelbano. He sentenced him to nine years imprisonment and a $1,000 fine in the final act of the clandestine “Suisun Valley Mint.”