Bullpen & More, by Kevin Nelson

Posts Tagged ‘Autographs

Operation Bullpen Keeps Making News

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BY KEVIN NELSON I continue to be amazed—and flattered—by the attention that my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, continues to receive nearly four years after publication. In an interview this month in Collectors Weekly, Sotheby’s consultant and Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar says:

There’s a book about the FBI’s Operation Bullpen, which, in 1999-2000, broke up a ring of forgers across the United States. They estimate that $100 million worth of fake autographs got into the market, and were distributed by all the big sellers. Forged signatures included Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, DiMaggio, and Mantle.

That book was Operation Bullpen, and as I keep writing articles and blogs about forgery for Autograph and other sites and publications—in fact I’ve got a long piece coming out soon about literary forger Forest R. Smith, III—some in the collecting business have come to associate me with the FBI. Why, I’m not entirely sure. I got firsthand accounts and interviews from both the crooks and the FBI in Operation Bullpen; that’s what makes the book so unusual—the story is told from both sides (and fairly too. Both the forgers and law enforcement have praised it as a balanced, accurate account of the crimes.)

Nevertheless, the other day I was doing a story about a collector and I wanted to talk to the dealer who was planning to represent him when he put his collectibles up for auction. The dealer, at first, was a little wary about talking to me because he wondered, mistakenly, if I was involved with the FBI.

Believe me, folks, I’m a writer. And a journalist. If I were in the FBI I’d be getting paid a lot more. And I’d have to wear a suit and tie every day to go to work. But I’m not. I’m just a guy who wrote a book about forgery—here, check out my author’s website if you want to learn more.

Honestly, I figured I’d write Operation Bullpen and then move onto other books and topics, which I have. But I keep writing about forgery and other types of collector crime because it remains an endlessly fascinating subject, with breaking new developments all the time. The dealer eventually relaxed, we had our interview, and I filed the article with the magazine that assigned me to do it.

That’s the way it works in the writing biz—nothing more to it than that. But a writer lives and dies by his sources, and if you’ve got a question or tip about forgery or collecting crimes, drop me a line. I’m interested.

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Written by Kevin Nelson

August 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Jim Bellino: Reality TV Star and Counterfeit Authenticator

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BY KEVIN NELSON. March 19, 2010. Of all the crooks in the crooked memorabilia racket, the hardest ones to catch are authenticators of dubious repute. If you doubt this, consider the case of Jim Bellino, a former authenticator who was the target of an FBI investigation during Operation Bullpen and who is now appearing on a reality television series, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

Described by Bravo TV as “a self-made entrepreneur and businessman,” Bellino is certainly all that and more. He is married to Alexis, one of the Orange County housewives, both pictured here. Since his appearance on the show, he has become the focus of Internet gossip for his past activities in the memorabilia business. I wrote about Bellino in my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, and I have spoken many times with the FBI agents who investigated him.

“He was close mouthed, a tough cookie to crack,” said John Ferreira, the FBI undercover agent who posed as a memorabilia dealer and bought thousands of dollars of fake Babe Ruth-signed baseballs and other forged material from Bellino.

Based in the city of Orange in Orange County, Bellino ran a company called Forensic Document Services, which authenticated-that is, certified as legitimate-fake autographs produced by Greg Marino and other forgers who were part of the national ring that ripped off American consumers for $100 million before the FBI brought their fun to an end in 1999.

The Chicago FBI first identified Bellino as a subject of interest, and later the San Diego FBI probed his activities in Operation Bullpen. According to Tim Fitzsimmons, the FBI case agent who oversaw Bullpen and Ferreira’s undercover investigation, Forensic Document Services was certifying “ungodly” amounts of forgeries and then selling them.

The FBI, in fact, combined with slugger Mark McGwire, then playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, to concoct an elaborate scheme to see if they could get Bellino to admit, on tape, that he was selling forgeries. “The scheme,” as I write in my book, “had a few steps to it.”

First Ferreira wrote and signed a $20,000 check made out to McGwire’s charitable foundation for children. He never made this contribution; it was a sham. On the memo line of the check, it read, “Charity.” The FBI made a poster-sized copy of the check so it was big enough for two people to hold and the names and the amount could be seen clearly. Ferreira and Fitzsimmons then drove up to the Long Beach office of Jim Milner, McGwire’s business agent who managed the foundation and was also in on the scheme. Milner and Ferreira held the check between them and smiled as Fitzsimmons took a picture of them. Additionally, Milner composed a letter on foundation stationery, later signed by McGwire, thanking Ferreira for his generous gift.

The FBI then arranged for Ferreira and McGwire to pose for a picture together, which further bolstered Ferreira’s cover and lent him legitimacy (it was hoped) in Bellino’s eyes. With all this material in hand, Ferreira, secretly wired with recording equipment, paid a visit to Bellino at his office in Orange:

The feds next moved to their target. Since Ferreira’s usual demeanor had been a bust with Bellino, his colleagues argued for a change in approach-harder, tougher, more like a criminal. The ever-agreeable UCA said he’d give it a whirl, and on his next visit to Forensic Document Services he came on like a major asshole. Swearing and bragging and dropping the f-word all over the place and parading around with the two signed McGwire balls and the pictures of him and McGwire and him and Milner with the $20,000 check, Ferreira said he knew that all the garbage he was buying was bad and that all his customers knew it too. So to cover his ass he had dumped a load of money into Big Mac’s foundation. You know, to help the kids. All that crap.

Trying to close the deal, Ferreira told Bellino he should do the same-make a donation-because he was dealing lots of forgeries too, right?

If he was, he wouldn’t say. The cookie still would not crumble. All this tough talk made Bellino nervous or, as the agent put it, “hinked up.” Failing once more to crack his subject, Ferreira took his balls and photos and left, and the hinked-up owner of Forensic Document Services was undoubtedly happy to see him go.

Despite all the effort the FBI put into investigating Bellino, the cookie never did crumble. He never admitted anything on tape because, he said, he was innocent. He was not selling forgeries. One last excerpt from my book:

Though his authentication firm, Forensic Document Services, closed its doors after the bust, Bellino told a reporter that he was “neither tried nor convicted of any crime because I never would knowingly buy or sell an illegitimate or forged autograph.” Feeling sure he would be vindicated if his case went to trial, he declined to take the matter to court, citing the high cost of litigation and the length of time involved. Instead he accepted a deal with the government that gave him probation and expunged his record. He cannot, however, return to the memorabilia business without obtaining an order from the court.

In the FBI’s informal list of Bullpen subjects and the sentences they received, this is what it said about Bellino: “charged/probation/expunge/ban.” In other words, the feds barely laid a glove on him.

Autograph authentication remains an imprecise science and a rather dodgy one at that. For an authenticator only gives his opinion on whether a signature is legitimate or not, and as the FBI concedes-and the certificate itself states-his opinion may be wrong. So since it’s only his opinion, an authenticator can certify “ungodly” amounts of fraudulent material and it’s still very, very tough for investigators to prove in court that he is breaking the law.

Pretty nifty little racket, no? Sounds like it might make a good reality TV series.

Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him here.

Hall of Fame Planning Exhibit on Operation Bullpen

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is planning an exhibit on Operation Bullpen, possibly for next year. I just wrote an article about it for Tuff Stuff and Sports Collector’s Digest, explaining how the FBI and Hall of Fame started working together on the exhibit and how my book, Operation Bullpen, played a part in all of it. One of the things I talk about is how the Mother Teresa baseball (below) may become part of the exhibit, with the general public getting the chance to see it for the first time. There’s also some good stuff in there about how the FBI cracked the case, and you can read it right here.

Mother Teresa ball

Written by Kevin Nelson

July 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm

More Forgeries of Hall of Famers

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One of the nice things about blogging software is that it allows you to track the number of hits you receive on your site, and what articles are the most popular. Judging by the number of hits I received on “Forging Hall of Famers,” lots of people enjoyed seeing the fake autographs of Lou Gehrig, Christy Mathewon, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. By popular demand, then, here are a few more forgeries of Babe Ruth, a combo ball of Willie McCovey and Hank Aaron, and Eddie Murray, all seized by the FBI during Operation Bullpen:

Babe Ruth Ball CloseupMcCovey ball

Eddie Murray combo signed

Written by Kevin Nelson

May 18, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Big Reaction to Operation Bullpen Excerpt in Autograph Magazine

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The April issue of Autograph Magazine carried an exclusive excerpt from Operation Bullpen, and it generated a big reaction from readers. Here is a brief sampling of what two people said:

“As a subscriber for a few years now, I found the article on Operation Bullpen outstanding…These ‘authenticators,’ who are mostly ‘opinionators,’ along with Auction LOAs, ineffective postal inspectors and the list goes on, send chills or should to everyone. Autograph should have a standing wall of shame.”—Dennis Bishop, via email

“The current issue of Autograph is excellent. Congratulations. You did incredible work in the right direction and I very much appreciate the quality of the articles, especially the Operation Bullpen case.”—Markus Brandes, Kesswil, Switzerland

The editor, Kimberly Cole, adds: “Thanks to all the readers who in praising the April issue. Operation Bullpen was a particular favorite. The author, Kevin Nelson is hard at work on a follow-up story for us.”

The working title of that piece is “Whistle Blowers: Passionate, Committed, and Out to Stop the Forgers.” I’ve now finished it, and it is scheduled to appear in Autograph in the July issue. Here is a Neil Armstrong forgery on stamps, provided to me by John Reznikoff, who is interviewed for the piece.

Neil Armstrong forged stamps

Written by Kevin Nelson

May 18, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Kevin Nelson Interview on ESPN

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KN on ESPN

I appeared on ESPN’s “The Hot List” in an interview about the Operation Bullpen scam. Watch it here.

Written by Kevin Nelson

May 18, 2009 at 6:02 pm

A Regular Joe

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Recently I heard from Travis Roste, who runs joeheavyweight.com, a boxing memorabilia website (“Boxing for the regular Joe,” as he calls it). Travis lives in Minnesota and although we’ve never met, I know he’s an upright guy because he actually asked for permission to post some passages from Operation Bullpen on his site, rather than just going ahead and doing it as many people would. Travis, who has a wife and two daughters, is a crusader against forgeries, but at the moment he has more immediate concerns, as his email explains:

“Hi Kevin. This is Travis. I found another fake Ali signed photo with Ali, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier in it, and I was wondering how many different pictures did Olson fake? [Note: John Olson was a big boxing and Ali forger who has since repented.] I have at least eleven different examples of photos with the Olson fake on it. Plus the Wepner-Ali photo that would make twelve. And I am sure there are more. olsons-ali-01
“I got laid off from my job a couple weeks ago. I was a shipping specialist for a company, so while looking for a new job, I am working on the website a lot too. I like to write a lot, and have some boxing columns on the website. I envy you a lot since writing is your business. What is it like? See you later, Travis.”

And this is what I said in reply:

“Travis, I’m sorry to hear about you being laid off. That’s pretty discouraging. I don’t think I’ve ever known a time where so many people I know are without work, including lots of writers. The writing biz is about as crappy as everything else at the moment. I have two book proposals sitting in the offices of New York publishers-and that’s what they’re doing: sitting. Anything having to do with the printed word is being hit hard and publishers do not appear to be buying much of anything from writers, as far as I can tell.
“The best thing about writing is that I get to do what I love and connect with people like you. Don’t get discouraged. Take care of those girls, and we’ll get more into those Ali fakes at a later date. Kevin.”

P.S. For anyone else caught in Travis’s situation, you may want to check out an article I wrote for and about unemployed fathers some years ago, during our last recession. It’s called “Coping at Home After Losing a Job,” and it’s the second article on the list at dadmag.com. Read it here.

Written by Kevin Nelson

April 29, 2009 at 6:25 pm