Editor’s note: The following is a report of the second day of the trial of Robert L. Barga. For a report of the charges in this case and the first day’s court proceedings, see Page .
SIDNEY — Conflicting testimony highlighted a trial regarding a local counterfeiting case during the second day of litigation in Shelby County Common Pleas Court, Wednesday.
Witnesses, who are mostly former and current friends and family members of the defendant participated in what turned into a legal version of Whack-A-Mole.
Discussion included the purchase of beer and pizza with counterfeit money, foiled purchase attempts, erotic photos and texts on a cell phone, and Internet sales of soiled undergarments. At one point, a witness’s comment lead to an outburst of laughter from Judge James Stevenson and the seated jury.
The trial will continue Thursday in the case against Robert L. Barga, 41, 615 Sixth Ave. He faces one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity; four counts of forgery; and one count of possession of criminal tools during a grand jury session in January 2017, all fifth-degree felonies.
Shelby County Prosecutor Tim Sell called five witnesses, Wednesday. Taking the stand were Kevin Smith, 42, 614 Michigan St.; Trisa Engle, 28, 229 Brooklyn Ave.; Nick Harris, 380 Blackfoot St., Piqua; Bruce P. Barga, 35, 2758 State Route 29; and United Stated Secret Service Agent Jennifer Tron of Dayton.
Defense attorney Justin Griffis called two witnesses before adjourning for the day. They were husband and wife, Michael Barga and Amanda Knoch, 318 S. Roosevelt St., Piqua, the brother and sister-in-law of the defendant.
Several witnesses refuted what they had told investigators early on. All claimed they were frightened of the interrogation process and didn’t want to implicate themselves in the crime.
Smith is Robert Barga’s cousin, and faces charges involving similar charges in another pending case. Smith testified that he was bringing an air of truthfulness to the witness stand, even after being told he wouldn’t be prosecuted.
He and Griffis became loud and contentious during the testimony. Twice, Stevenson called the pair back into order during the questioning.
Smith admitted spending the counterfeit money on fast food restaurants, pizza delivery, alcohol, clothing, and household items. He said the spending was prompted by his unemployment. Griffis pointed out evidence that Smith had also purchased $150 in lottery tickets at the Sunoco station on Fair Road. When he returned the next day to cash in winning tickets, he was confronted by the clerk for using counterfeit bills for the purchase.
Smith said he told the clerk to call the police, then waited for them to arrive. He claimed the clerk instructed him to leave the premises.
An attempt to pass a bill at a local bar was thwarted by an employee, but police were not called, Smith said.
When asked if he received his own counterfeit bill as change for a small purchase at a local business, Smith said, “Yes! I was trying to get rid of it, and I get back in change.”
Looking at Stevenson, Smith added, “Isn’t that ironic, judge?” as loud laughter was heard throughout the courtroom.
Judge forced to calm the storm
In his criminal case, Smith is accused of possessing and destroying a computer used in the manufacturing of the bills.
The discussion grew most tense as Griffis grilled Smith on why he destroyed a computer he knew the police did not want as evidence. As the exchange heightened, Sell objected and Stevenson agreed, warning the men that sanctions could be leveled if they didn’t follow his orders.
Smith said Barga asked him to let him use his garage, but he thought it involved an extramarital affair the defendant was involved in. He indicated it was later that he learned Barga was printing money. He saw the sheets of money on the seat of Barga’s Jeep and was told he had to deliver the bills to a customer.
After that, Smith said he knew Barga was counterfeiting but felt it was not his business and stayed out of it. He thought printing money was legal, spending it was not.
He said Barga printed money three more times at his garage. He contended throughout his testimony that Barga was the main figure in the counterfeiting and bragged about his scheme. Smith agreed that he spent approximately $1,000 in purchases.
Griffis asked why he was refuting statements he had initially made to police. He also challenged Smith on his reluctance to turn his cell phone over to investigators. That exchange also resulted in high volume levels.
Smith said the phone contained erotic photos and texts sent to him by his wife. He said he didn’t want investigators to see the photos, something that was personal between him and his wife. Griffis claimed his reluctance was more than a desire to shield personal information.
Two of Barga’s brothers testified. One was challenged on his truthfulness and willingness to cooperate.
Michael Barga was the final witness for the day. He claimed that he and his wife, Amanda Knoch, had been good friends of the Smiths’. For a period of time, they would visit the Smith home every weekend.
Michael claimed Smith was very active in the counterfeit activity. He reported that he witnessed Smith printing $20,000 in counterfeit bills between November 2016 through January 2017. He also said that Smith sold bills to others in his neighborhood.
When asked what he knew about his brother’s relationship, Michael said that Smith was often jealous and envious of the defendant. He said this attitude involved Smith in other ventures.
Michael said his brother was operating an online sales business of offering purposely soiled women’s undergarments. He noted a large demand for such items created a large customer base for Barga. He claimed Smith proclaimed that Smith could create a better business model and attempted to go into the same business.
Michael claimed he never spoke to his brother about counterfeiting and knew nothing of it. He said Kevin Smith “lies a lot” and that he and his brother felt Smith was “snitching” on him.
Sell asked Michael if he felt his brother was a “schemer and a scammer.” He commented that he felt Barga had changed when he was last released from prison.
Audio tape provided for state’s hostile witness
Earlier in the day, Bruce Barga was ultimately ruled a hostile witness for the prosecution. He noted that he met with Griffis prior to the trial to discuss his testimony, but refused to meet with Sell. The prosecution also confirmed he was talking with Griffis outside the courthouse during a trial recess.
Subpoenaed by Sell, Bruce refuted all the facts of his statements initially made to investigators. He claimed he was under duress and had been threatened by officials.
Bruce said Secret Service Agent Kevin Dye arrived at his home to ask about his brother’s counterfeiting activity. He said the physically large agent intimidated him with prison and not being able to see his children again “if I didn’t say what they wanted to hear.” He claimed that two Sidney Police officers stood by during the loud, cursing exchange with Dye.
In reference to impeaching Bruce Barga, due to his unexpected testimony turn, Sell was granted the option to play a six-minute audio interview with Bruce Barga by Sidney Police. The interview included discussion of criminal activities.
Bruce also reported his witnessing the Smiths talking about their counterfeiting success at his stepfather’s birthday party last year.
Trisa Engle was the first witness of the day. She too reversed course on previous testimony. She stated that Barga provided her with counterfeit money to purchase drugs in Dayton. He said Barga told her how the money was made and involved a friend in exchanging a printer at Walmart in Sidney.
Griffis said Engle’s “crisis of conscious” was brought about to receive a more lenient consideration for her upcoming, related case. Engle denied any plea agreement offers were made. The attorney recapped her past convictions and sentences.
The issue of signing a proffer document was brought into the mix when Nick Harris took the stand. Such an agreement gives a witness the right not to be prosecuted for any information they may bring forth regarding a crime.
Harris took the stand, stared at the floor, and talked in a low, mumbled tone of voice. After being asked if he were sober, court officials asked him several times to speak louder and more distinctly and to make eye contact with the person asking the question.
Harris was found with counterfeit money after an arrest at Wendy’s. He indicated he received it from Barga.
The prosecutor confirmed Harris was given money three times; twice it was $500 for drug purchases in Dayton. Barga was to receive half the drugs that were purchased, according to Harris. When a drug dealer shot at Harris in Dayton after noticing the counterfeit bills, Harris said he wouldn’t be involved in it any longer.
Harris claimed the bills were created while he and Derrick Cornett were homeless and staying with Barga and his wife, Christina.
Griffis questioned Harris’ claim that he was free of drug use. He confirmed that Harris overdosed more than a week ago. He also challenged that Harris was testifying because of promises made regarding his pending cases.
Amanda Knoch had testified prior to her husband, saying she witnessed the Smiths printing and processing counterfeit money. She spoke of Mrs. Smith bragging about spending the money in Miami County. She didn’t recall seeing anyone else printing money.
Jennifer Tron was designated as an expert witness to identify genuine currency. She has been serving with the Secret Service since 1999 and is trained in techniques of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. She identified several pieces of evidence as counterfeit.
The final motion of the day was a request from Griffis, asking for an acquittal due to the lack of evidence. After Sell briefly recapped the state’s case, Stevenson denied the motion.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.