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Voyageur's Best Features of 2004


Big Dollar debacle
Thirsty villain swindles big bills from Big Dollar
by Sadie Frericks  | July 20, 2004

On Friday, July 9, big city crime found its way to the small town. Gary Wayne Branchaud, a 32-year-old man from Isle, Minn., entered Ukura’s Big Dollar posing as an FBI agent searching for counterfeit bills and ran out with close to $7,000. “He was really slick,” Mark Ukura, owner of Ukura’s Big Dolllar, explained. “He had a picture ID and presented a letter with the names of Travis Pierce (McGregor Police Officer) and Judy VondeLinde, from the bank. He said they were going to take the money to the bank and sort it overnight to check for any counterfeit bills. He said a counterfeit bill came out of our store, which turned out to be untrue.”

After Mark handed over the bills, all 10’s, 20’s, and 100’s, Branchaud began acting a little strange. “He asked me how the fishing was going, twice. And I had told him after the first time that I don’t fish,” Mark said. “So I said, ‘Let’s just sit and wait and make sure you’re really an [FBI] agent. Then he asked for some water, and when I turned to ask someone to get him some, he took off out of the store. I ran out and got his license number. We were having an outside produce sale, so we had a cell phone handy which we used to call the sheriff.”

To Mark’s good fortune, McGregor Police Officer Travis Pierce was on duty at the time and immediately responded to the call. Officer Pierce quickly located Branchaud’s vehicle, and it appeared the swindler would be stopped in his tracks. But Branchaud had other ideas. The four hours that followed might best be described as a wild goose chase.

Shortly after Officer Pierce spotted Branchaud’s vehicle, Branchaud pulled over on Maddy Street and took off on foot. While scrambling around downtown McGregor, Branchaud eventually found his way to Ted and Donna Youker’s residence on 2nd Ave. “We were out in the yard mowing lawn and this guy just walked up into our yard,” Donna recalled. “He told Ted he needed to get to Tamarack to pick up his son because he (Branchaud) was late and his wife was going to kill him. And then he asked me for a drink of water. I went in to get him a glass and he followed me right into the house. It was strange. Ted agreed to give him a ride, but they didn’t get very far.”

While Branchaud was at Youkers, Aitkin County Deputies Jeff Madsen and Lawrence Derksen had begun patrolling the area in search of the perpetrator. When Ted and Branchaud drove by the deputies en route to Tamarack, Deputy Madsen saw the swindler in the van, pursued the vehicle, and pulled it over in front of the Town and Country Motel.

Branchaud jumped out of the vehicle and again took off on foot, but Deputies Sheryl Smith and Madsen chased him down and apprehended him. Officer Pierce handcuffed Branchaud and removed large amounts of money from his pockets. The villain was then taken to the McGregor City Hall where he admitted, in a statement, to swindling the money from Ukura’s by posing as an FBI agent.

After his statement was taken, Branchaud was placed in Officer Pierce’s squad car. While Officer Pierce and Aitkin County Undersheriff Scott Turner were taking a statement at the Town and Country Motel, Branchaud managed to escape out the back of the squad car. The chase was on, again.

This time, though, the whole community took part. “We really saturated the town with both police officers and community members. There were even a couple of locals in pursuit,” Undersheriff Turner explained. “We had lots of eyes and ears out looking.”

Residents got a chuckle as officers patrolled asking, “We’re looking for a man in black pants, a white shirt and handcuffs. Have you seen him?” But they took the situation seriously and pitched in. Rumor has it, two locals chased Branchaud out from under a boat in a McGregor yard and refused his request for water, but it hasn’t been confirmed. Regardless, Undersheriff Turner expressed much gratitude for the help from citizens. “It really says a lot about this community... its concern and the aid it was willing to give,” he said.

The debacle ended when Branchaud was apprehended for the last time just over four hours after the first call came in from Ukura’s. The money was returned to Big Dollar and Branchaud was charged with ‘theft by swindle’ and ‘escape from custody’.

After all was said and done, “I’m just lucky to have my money back,” Mark Ukura said. “If it wouldn't have been for Travis Pierce, I would have been out $7,000. He responded really fast.”

Neither Mark nor Undersheriff Turner recall anything of this nature happening in this area before, but, as Turner says, “the big city is here” and it’s bound to happen again. “This ain’t Mayberry anymore,” Turner went on to say. “There are all kinds of scams and schemes out there that people will try just to make an easy buck. People always need to be aware. If anybody ever has a question about something or someone, call our office. In this day and age when you can make just about anything on computer, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.”

Undersheriff Turner also said that no real police officer or federal agent will be offended if you ask to see their credentials or question their identity.

This article first appeared in the July 20, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.