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Published January 31, 2012, 01:53 AM

Fargo Man Accused of Passing $65K in Bad Checks

FARGO – A Fargo man with a history of writing bad checks is accused of opening an account using his 10-year-old son’s Social Security number and passing more than $65,000 in bad checks in the days before he pleaded guilty to forgery and theft charges from two separate cases.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Fargo Forum

FARGO – A Fargo man with a history of writing bad checks is accused of opening an account using his 10-year-old son’s Social Security number and passing more than $65,000 in bad checks in the days before he pleaded guilty to forgery and theft charges from two separate cases.

Joseph Clifford Lightowler also awaits a March 29 trial in Bismarck, where police allege he failed to pay a $1,052 bill for a weeklong stay at Candlewood Suites after claiming he was the new manager at Hooters and the company would foot the bill. Lightowler denies the charge.

The most recent charges were filed last week in Cass County District Court.

Lightowler, 33, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the Class A felony charge of identity theft. He also faces a Class B felony count of property theft.

“I do consider this a serious case,” Assistant Cass County State’s Attorney Tanya Johnson Martinez said. “I think we need to protect the public from checks that don’t have funds to support the payment that the person is trying to submit.”

Lightowler’s attorney, Jeff Bredahl, said Monday it would be inappropriate to comment on pending cases.

Lightowler is currently out of jail on $25,000 bond as he awaits trial in Bismarck and an April 9 sentencing in Cass County on forgery and theft charges he pleaded guilty to Jan. 9.

In one of the latter two cases, Lightowler pleaded guilty to giving his mother a counterfeit check for $15,000 in January 2011 to pay off a loan on a vehicle they had bought together.

According to the police report, a counterfeit check was written on the account of Lightowler Johnson Associates, a Fargo-based architecture and engineering firm to which Lightowler has family ties. His grandfather of the same first and last name founded the company in 1954.

In the other Cass County case, Lightowler admitted to passing a bogus check for $14,342 to Swanston Equipment last April to pay off a skid-steer a friend of his was purchasing through a rent-to-buy agreement.

Swanston Equipment notified police after being tipped off that someone was trying to pawn the skid-steer at Used-A-Bit Sales & Pawn on Main Avenue, where police later recovered the machine.

Lightowler’s friend, who was trying to pawn the skid-steer, told police he and Lightowler had an agreement in which he would do work for Lightowler to reimburse him for paying off the skid-steer. He told police he didn’t know Lightowler was going to use a bad check to pay for it, and that it was Lightowler’s idea to pawn the skid-steer for operating money and get it out of hock later.

“It is unusual to have so many cases in quick succession with such a high dollar amount,” Johnson Martinez said, stressing that she was speaking only to the cases in which Lightowler has pleaded guilty.

In the six days before Lightowler entered his guilty pleas, police allege he went on a check-bouncing spree after using his son’s Social Security number to open a business account at Gate City Bank under the name Superior Auto Sales.

According to the police report, Lightowler used six of the 10 starter checks to write bad checks totaling $65,093. They included a $5,500 check to his mother, a $2,946 check to the Carpet Garage, a $3,151 check to S&L Computer Services and a $52,600 check to James “Pete” Sabo.

In an interview last week, Sabo said the check was for a 2007 Cadillac Escalade he sold to Lightowler.

Sabo, who owns rental property in Fargo, said Lightowler also paid the next 12 months’ rent for a friend. Sabo said Lightowler also owed him $10,000 from a previous loan.

Sabo said he wanted to give Lightowler a second chance. He said he doesn’t believe Lightowler is maliciously defrauding people.

“It’s almost kind of sad,” Sabo said. “He wants to be nice, but he doesn’t have the money to back up his words.”

Sabo said Lightowler has already paid him $24,500 of the $52,600 he owes. The check cleared, he added.

Lightowler’s history of bad checks dates back to August 1997, when he was convicted of misdemeanors in Cass County for issuing a check without an account as well as without funds.

He has a prior conviction in 2006 for identity theft, which elevated the current charge to a Class A felony. He was sentenced to two years behind bars with all but 30 days suspended.

In 2007, Lightowler was convicted of theft of property and sentenced to three years, with Judge John Irby recommending placement in a rehab unit for alcohol addiction. He was released in March 2010 and has since been charged in four separate cases, including the Bismarck theft-of-services charge stemming from his hotel stay in fall 2010. Lightowler entered a guilty plea in that case but withdrew it in December.

In an affidavit, he maintains that he said all along that the general manager of a lounge and grill in the city of Lincoln near Bismarck asked him to help turn around the business and agreed to pay his hotel bill in return. A bar manager hired by the business at the same time supports that claim in a court affidavit.

There’s no mention of Hooters in the affidavits.

As part of his bail conditions, Lightowler must report twice a day for sobriety tests under the 24/7 monitoring program.

He’s also banned from having a checking account.

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