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Operation Bullpen

Operation Bullpen

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Internal Revenue Service
U.S. Attorney’s Office
April 2000

According to long-time memorabilia collectors, the market for genuine vintage memorabilia has changed dramatically over the last decade. In the late 1980s, the market consisted of a very limited supply of genuine articles (e.g., vintage balls, checks, old books, letters, and the rare cut). These items were almost exclusively traded among a select group of collectors through a well-defined network. However, the market is literally flooded with tens of thousands of vintage items (including bats, balls, jerseys, helmets, pictures, magazines, pieces of papers, posters, lithographs, record albums, and other items) that are simply counterfeit.

Sources in the investigation have relayed to the FBI that the current market in vintage memorabilia (traded through local sports shops and mail order companies) is almost entirely comprised of forgeries. Some sources believe the huge market of vintage memorabilia sold by retailers is directly attributable to the special skills of Angelo and Greg Marino. For example, vintage cuts were almost non-existent prior to the Marinos beginning to forge these items. Today, there are thousands of these counterfeit items in retail businesses across the country.

The counterfeit market has been able to flourish because of the role played by authenticators who fraudulently (or mistakenly) certify forgeries as genuine signatures. This investigation has found that numerous middlemen dealt exclusively in counterfeit memorabilia.

Crime Problem

During the 1990s, the FBI identified a major problem threatening the entire sports and celebrity memorabilia market. The Chicago Division of the FBI initiated a sports memorabilia fraud investigation targeting a group of individuals who forged, fraudulently authenticated, and distributed Chicago athletes' autographed memorabilia (including that of Michael Jordan). To date, this case has resulted in the conviction of 14 individuals in five states (Illinois, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Minnesota) involved with forging and distributing forged memorabilia. Information developed by the Chicago FBI's "Foul Ball" investigation suggested that the problem might be national in scope.

While it is impossible to definitely estimate the percentage of forged memorabilia, most industry experts concede that over half of the autographed memorabilia is forged. In fact, some cooperating subjects and memorabilia experts believe that up to 90 percent of the memorabilia on the market is forged. Industry experts estimate that the autographed memorabilia market in the United States is approximately $1 billion per year. Using these estimates, forged memorabilia comprises between $500,000,000 and $900,000,000 of the market.

In 1997, the FBI in San Diego utilized the information from Operation Foul Ball and by the Upper Deck Company to institute an undercover operation designed to infiltrate the nationwide memorabilia fraud network.

The FBI and the United States Attorney's Office invited the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division, to participate in this investigation in order to take advantage of their ability to document money laundering and tax violations, as well as their expertise in tracing proceeds to identify unreported income.

The Investigation

In 1997, the government devised an undercover scenario in which an undercover agent would pose as a distributor of American memorabilia in Asia. This scenario enabled the FBI to purchase evidence without being forced to sell forged items to the public. It also made the criminals more likely to openly discuss the counterfeit nature of the memorabilia because it was "going overseas" beyond the reach of U. S. law enforcement agencies. To support this "cover story," the FBI established the Nihon Trading Company in Oceanside, California. The goal of the undercover operation was to infiltrate the forged memorabilia market and obtain recorded statements from those individuals who were identified as forgers, authenticators, and distributors of fraudulent memorabilia.

The key evidence in this investigation were recorded statements that captured the individuals knowing involvement in forging, fraudulently authenticating, and/or distributing forged memorabilia. The San Diego Division of the FBI conducted a total of more than 1,000 consensually recorded audio and videotapes. During the consensually recorded conversations, numerous co-conspirators made incriminating statements that illuminate the nature and common practices involved with sports memorabilia fraud. For example, one of the conspirators joked to the undercover agent about how Mickey Mantle still has one arm out of the grave doing autographs. Other conspirators noted that Wilt Chamberlin was still available for signing weeks after his death.

During the investigation, various conspirators became suspicious of a law enforcement investigation and scheduled a breakfast meeting at a restaurant in Carlsbad, California. The conspirators discussed how to avoid law enforcement detection, attempted to identify individuals who might cooperate with law enforcement, and developed a strategy of not talking if confronted by law enforcement. Several agents having breakfast at adjacent tables overheard all of these statements.

The investigation also revealed that the conspirators attempted to avoid detection by conducting transactions in cash and by using nominee names on bank accounts and other assets. Many maintained substantial amounts of currency that they used to pay bills and to purchase vehicles, real estate, and additional memorabilia.

The San Diego Office of the FBI also sought and received the assistance of professional baseball players Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals. Both athletes assisted the FBI by identifying forgeries of their autographs and thus provided investigators significant leads regarding the identities of individuals involved in this illegal activity.

The Takedown

On October 13, 1999, based upon an extensive amount of evidence, special agents of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service executed approximately 60 search warrants at residences and businesses in five states, including California, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Over 400 special agents were involved in the operation.

While executing the search warrants, the FBI and IRS seized over $500,000 cash and approximately $10 million of forged memorabilia. The seized memorabilia included over 10,000 forged baseballs, signed by a variety of athletes and celebrities. Some of the autographs included:

  • Mother Teresa
  • President Ronald Reagan
  • Babe Ruth
  • Ty Cobb
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Mark McGwire
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Tony Gwynn

The FBI and IRS also seized or purchased hundreds of "cut" autographs. These are pieces of paper containing an autograph of an individual who has died many years ago. The autograph cuts that were seized or purchased included:

  • President George Washington
  • President Abraham Lincoln
  • President Theodore Roosevelt
  • President John F. Kennedy
  • James Dean
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Elvis Presley
  • James Cagney
  • Walt Disney
  • Charles Chaplin
  • Ty Cobb
  • Babe Ruth
  • Christy Mathewson
  • Cy Young
  • Roberto Clemente

The investigation revealed that the counterfeiters used ink, writing implements, and paper that were produced when the forged individual was living. To acquire the "old paper," they tore blank pages from old books that they purchased at thrift stores.

The evidence seized during this investigation is currently being stored in a 10,000 square foot warehouse.

Accomplishments

To date, Operation Bullpen has accomplished a wide variety of objectives. One of the most significant accomplishments is the infiltration and dismantling of a major nationwide network of forgers, authenticators, wholesalers, and retailers. This organization is responsible for the creation and sale of up to $100 million of forged memorabilia. This network distributed forged memorabilia directly to retailers in 15 states including California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Hawaii, Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. In addition, the wholesalers sold forged memorabilia to retail businesses and consumers in virtually every state in the country.

The first group of individuals is scheduled to be arraigned on fraud and tax charges on or about April 11, 2000. This group of individuals includes forgers:

  • Greg Marino
  • Angelo Marino
  • Mike Moses
  • Mike Lopez
  • David Tabb
  • Richard Mitchell

This group also includes a number of authenticators and distributors:

1. Wayne Bray
Authenticator and Wholesaler, dba:
a. Sports & Celebrity Authentic Autographs, San Marcos, California and
b. WW Sports Cards, San Marcos, California

2. John Marino, Gloria Marino, Kathleen Marino
Assisted Forgers and Wholesalers, dba:
a. Front Page Art
Greg Marino, Angelo Marino

3. Mike Moses
Forger, Wholesaler, and Authenticator, dba
a. Sports Management Group, Aliso Viejo, California
b. Universal Authentic Memorabilia, San Clemente, California
c. Sports Alley, Laguna Niguel, California

Robyn Moses, Wholesaler

4. Reno Ruberti
Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Universal Authentic Memorabilia, San Clemente, California
Karen Ruberti

5. David Tabb*
Forger, Wholesaler, and Authenticator, d.b.a.
a. Hollywood Dreams, Santa Ana, California
b. Classic Memorabilia, Santa Ana, California
c. Hollywood Collectibles, Santa Ana, California
*Tabb was the subject of two television investigative reports regarding the sale of forged memorabilia in the lobbies of theaters in California and Arizona.

6. Ricky Mitchell
Forger and Wholesaler

7. Mike Lopez
Forger and Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. International Sports Marketing, Rosemead, California

8. Mike Bowler
Distributor and Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Catch a Star, Oceanside, California
b. JMC Distributors, Oceanside, California
c. J & M Sports Cards, Oceanside, California

9. Ricky Weimer
Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Rick's Collectibles, Escondido, California

10. Sheldon Jaffe
Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Shelly's Cards, Tustin, California

11. Richard Laughlin
Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Framed Images, San Juan Capistrano, California

12. Michael Tapales
Wholesaler and "Runner", d.b.a.
a. Prime Time Sports Cards, Buena Park, California

13. Carmen "Chip" Lombardo
Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Home Field Advantage, Del Mar, California

14. Jon Hall
Retailer, d.b.a.
a. Del Mar Sports Cards, San Diego, California

15. Lowell Katz
Retailer, d.b.a.
a. The Beautiful and the Unusual, Long Beach, California

16. Bruce Gaston
Retailer, d.b.a.
a. La Jolla Sports Cards, La Jolla, California

17. Frosty Golembeske
Retailer, Wholesaler, d.b.a.
a. Frosty's

18. Anthony Marino
Wholesaler d. b. a.
a. Pro Sport Memorabilia

19. Scott Harris
Wholesaler, d. b. a.
a. Universal Authentic Memorabilia
Mary Lou Harris
a. Universal Authentic Memorabilia

The government's investigation in San Diego is continuing, and it is anticipated that many others will be charged with fraud and tax evasion.

In addition to charging all those responsible with fraud and tax offenses, the FBI and the IRS - Criminal Investigation Division are seizing assets, assessing fines, and determining tax liability. The seized assets include two homes with a combined value of approximately $1,000,000; a 38-foot boat valued at $34,000; jewelry worth approximately $56,000; a Ferrari; a Harley Davidson Sportster; and cash or fines totaling over $1,000,000.

Through the execution of approximately 60 search warrants and undercover agent/informant evidence purchases, the FBI and the IRS seized approximately $10,000,000 of forged memorabilia that would have been sold to the unsuspecting public.

Search Results-

La Jolla Sports Cards
Bruce Gaston, La Jolla, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
264
Photos/Posters
145
Bats
39
Cuts
0
Jerseys
19
Hats/Helmets
70
Other Balls, Pucks
12
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
96

Shelly's Cards
Shelly Jaffe, Tustin, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
144
Photos/Posters
104
Bats
13
Cuts
1
Jerseys
4
Hats/Helmets
22
Other Balls, Pucks
1
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Home Field Advantage
Chip Lombardo, Del Mar, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
40
Photos/Posters
30
Bats
1
Cuts
0
Jerseys
0
Hats/Helmets
6
Other Balls, Pucks
9
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Mike Lopez
Rosemead, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
40
Photos/Posters
110
Bats
80
Cuts
0
Jerseys
96
Hats/Helmets
33
Other Balls, Pucks
5
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Ricky Weimer
Escondido, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
66
Photos/Posters
151
Bats
206
Cuts
31
Jerseys
3
Hats/Helmets
0
Other Balls, Pucks
5
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
44

Framed Images
Dick Laughlin, San Juan Capistrano, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
0
Photos/Posters
45
Bats
1
Cuts
50
Jerseys
2
Hats/Helmets
1
Other Balls, Pucks
0
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

LNN
Nate Harrison, San Marcos, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
322
Photos/Posters
0
Bats
0
Cuts
300
Jerseys
300
Hats/Helmets
150
Other Balls, Pucks
50
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Universal
Mike Moses, San Clemente, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
14
Photos/Posters
47
Bats
3
Cuts
1
Jerseys
0
Hats/Helmets
5
Other Balls, Pucks
6
Albums, CDs, etc.
2
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Ricky Mitchell
San Diego, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
100
Photos/Posters
20
Bats
3
Cuts
10
Jerseys
0
Hats/Helmets
1
Other Balls, Pucks
0
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Catcha Star
Mike Bowlet, Oceanside, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
85
Photos/Posters
804
Bats
7
Cuts
50
Jerseys
7
Hats/Helmets
75
Other Balls, Pucks
77
Albums, CDs, etc.
61
Misc. - Lithographs
200

Beautiful/Unusual
Lowell Katz, Long Beach, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
0
Photos/Posters
180
Bats
0
Cuts
85
Jerseys
0
Hats/Helmets
0
Other Balls, Pucks
0
Albums, CDs, etc.
5
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Forrest Golembeske
Fullerton, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
15
Photos/Posters
17
Bats
0
Cuts
0
Jerseys
4
Hats/Helmets
0
Other Balls, Pucks
288
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
25

Mike Moses
Newport Coast, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
234
Photos/Posters
180
Bats
31
Cuts
0
Jerseys
38
Hats/Helmets
44
Other Balls, Pucks
15
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

John Marino
Escondido, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
150
Photos/Posters
310
Bats
13
Cuts
19
Jerseys
100
Hats/Helmets
10
Other Balls, Pucks
7
Albums, CDs, etc.
30
Misc. - Lithographs
0

WWSC
San Marcos, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
60
Photos/Posters
50
Bats
1
Cuts
50
Jerseys
0
Hats/Helmets
0
Other Balls, Pucks
12
Albums, CDs, etc.
20
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Del Mar Sports Cards
Jon Hall, Del Mar, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
100
Photos/Posters
350
Bats
25
Cuts
50
Jerseys
4
Hats/Helmets
3
Other Balls, Pucks
20
Albums, CDs, etc.
20
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Dave Tabb
Costa Mesa, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
1
Photos/Posters
260
Bats
0
Cuts
2
Jerseys
0
Hats/Helmets
0
Other Balls, Pucks
0
Albums, CDs, etc.
2
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Greg Marino
Escondido, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
20
Photos/Posters
60
Bats
0
Cuts
2
Jerseys
2
Hats/Helmets
1
Other Balls, Pucks
0
Albums, CDs, etc.
1
Misc. - Lithographs
300

Bristol Storage
Orange County, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
15
Photos/Posters
4
Bats
10
Cuts
0
Jerseys
1
Hats/Helmets
1
Other Balls, Pucks
5
Albums, CDs, etc.
0
Misc. - Lithographs
0

A+ Storage
Rino Ruberti, Orange County, California

Memorabilia Quantity
Baseballs
224
Photos/Posters
350
Bats
54
Cuts
0
Jerseys
20
Hats/Helmets
13
Other Balls, Pucks
53
Albums, CDs, etc.
8
Misc. - Lithographs
0

Search Results

Mail Fraud
Title 18, United States Code
Section 1341

Wire Fraud
Title 18, United States Code
Section 1343

Racketeering
Title 18, United States Code
Section 1961

Money Laundering
Title 18, United States Code
Section 1956 and 1957

Trafficking in Counterfeit Goods
Title 18, United States Code
Section 2320

Tax Offenses
Title 26, United States Code
Sections 7201 and 7206

Conspiracy
Title 18, United States Code
Section 371

Public Awareness

Perhaps the most important objective of this investigation is to increase public awareness regarding the substantial memorabilia fraud problem that may account for upwards of $500,000,000 in losses annually. While there are legitimate and reputable companies selling authentic memorabilia, the industry has been plagued with high-quality forgeries making it difficult for legitimate companies to compete. It also defrauds thousands of unsuspecting consumers each year.

While the only way to absolutely guarantee that the autographed memorabilia is authentic is to personally witness the autograph, there are several ways to avoid becoming a memorabilia fraud victim. These recommendations include:

  • If the price is too good to be true, it is probably a fake. If a company offers an autographed item well below competitors’ prices and market value, then consumers should be wary. An example would include Michael Jordan basketballs, which some companies sell for as low as $150. Given Jordan's current exclusive contract with Upper Deck and difficulties associated with obtaining his autograph, the Tuff Stuff Magazine market value of an autographed Jordan Basketball is $500, while Upper Deck Michael Jordan autographed basketballs retail for up to $1,500. (Caution: a high price does not by any means suggest authenticity either.)
  • Certificates of authenticity are not guarantees of authenticity. Individuals and companies involved with selling forged memorabilia often include a Certificate of Authenticity, allegedly from a third party expert. Often, the authenticator is either a knowing or unknowing, but incompetent, participant in the fraud. Carefully read the Certificate of Authenticity, looking for the authentication "language", an address, telephone number, and name of the authenticators. Do not accept copies of Certificates of Authenticity.
  • A photograph of an athlete or celebrity signing an autograph is no guarantee the item is authentic. This investigation revealed that it is a common practice of forged memorabilia traffickers to include a photograph of the athlete/celebrity signing the item along with a Certificate of Authenticity. Traffickers also include photographs of themselves with the athlete/celebrity to lend credibility to their forged memorabilia.
  • An individual or company having a paid signing session with an athlete or celebrity is no guarantee of authenticity. Operation Bullpen has revealed that is a common practice for forged memorabilia traffickers to "mix-in" forged memorabilia with items signed during an autograph session. For example, a company may pay to have an athlete sign 500 items. After the signing, the company will "mix-in" forgeries with the authentic autographs. The company also may continue to sell forged items after the authentic items have been sold claiming that they were from the autograph session.
  • The method of selling the memorabilia should not affect skepticism about the item’s authenticity. The investigation revealed that forged memorabilia traffickers sell their forgeries through a variety of methods that may lend credibility to the forgeries. One such sales method is through charity auctions in which the trafficker splits the profits with the charity. At charity auctions, buyers often overpay for items and do not question the authenticity of the memorabilia. Traffickers also sell forged items through trade publications, television shopping networks, trade shows, retail businesses, and the Internet.
  • Before purchasing autographed memorabilia, especially "vintage" or deceased athlete/celebrity memorabilia, ask questions about the history and circumstances relating to the autograph. Be wary of far-fetched or elaborate stories that are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. Common false stories suggest connections to an athlete or "runners" employed to get autographs. Whenever possible, attempt to verify the history and circumstances of the autographed items before making the purchase.
  • If an individual is seeking an autograph of a current player, send a request for an autograph directly to the athlete's team. Include a letter requesting that the enclosed item be autographed along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope or container. Only send photographs, cards, or baseballs. Large items such as bats and jerseys should not be sent directly to the athlete. In the letter requesting an autograph, request information relating to where you can purchase authentic autographed items if the athlete does not sign autographs through mailed requests. The athlete or the team may direct the buyer to a company that has an autograph contract with the athlete.
  • To counter the forged memorabilia problem, many athletes and celebrities are either creating their own autograph company or are signing exclusive contracts with specific sports memorabilia companies. Dealing directly with the athlete's company or with an exclusive contract company will greatly reduce the likelihood of purchasing forged memorabilia.

Other organizations that have assisted in this investigation include:

  • The Upper Deck Company
  • New York City Department of Consumer Affairs
  • Major League Baseball
  • San Diego Padres
  • EBay
  • San Diego Police Department
  • Oceanside Police Department
  • California State Attorney General's Office

Seized Items

Seized Items Value
U.S. Currency $409,838
Bank Accounts (3) $239,330
Bank Account (1) $101,000
Miscellaneous Items of Jewelry $56,274
Authentic Items of Miscellaneous Sports and Celebrity Memorabilia $50,000 (estimate)
Fraudulent Items of Miscellaneous Sports and Celebrity Memorabilia $10,000,000 (estimate)
1999 Maxum Vessel $34,000
1997 Harley Davidson Motorcycle $6,350
1983 Ferrari $33,000
One Residence in San Marcos, California $195,000
One Residence in Escondido, California $700,000
E-Trade Account $35,000 equity
Total Value $11,859,792


Disposition of the Evidence

The majority of seized autographed sports equipment will be donated to local charities after the items have been marked as forgeries.