Police in Largo, Fla., arrested a 40-year-old man they believe orchestrated a scam to sell fake Babe Ruth signed baseballs to pawn shops and second hand stores throughout the state. Marc Szakaly of Land 'o Lakes was taken into custody at his home and booked into the Pasco County Jail on Wednesday night. Five hours later, he was out on $50,000 bond. He's been charged with organized fraud.
Investigators say Szakaly would take one of the baseballs, which was artificially aged to appear vintage, and a somewhat convincing but phony PSA/DNA letter into shops and tell employees he had a family emergency and needed quick cash. Typically, an offer of $1,000-1,500 was made and accepted. Authentic Ruth balls in mid-to-lower grade sell for much more and it appeared to the stores that they had made a quick score of a rare piece of sports memorabilia.
It was only later the new owners realized both the ball and the COA were modern replicas. Police say Szakaly's use of baseballs made by manufacturers who didn't start producing them until after Ruth's death was a tell-tale sign they weren't real. One shop even sent an email to Sports Collectors Daily, complete with scans and a copy of a COA, hoping to find a buyer. We contacted investigators hoping to provide a lead but our call wasn't returned.
We reported on the growing number of cases back in May, and followed up after more local media reports surfaced in June. Still, the case remained open as detectives with several different agencies realized the same crime was being committed over and over again in counties around the state. Despite the strikingly similar approach, police say Szakaly was able to perpetrate the crime again and again until this week. 19 law enforcement agencies across the state eventually became involved in the case.
Investigators haven't said where the break came, but it's clear it took them awhile to piece it together. Amazingly, 35 pawn and second hand shops may have fallen victim to the scheme over several months before Szakaly was finally arrested. Police fear there may be more victims, possibly private collectors who may not realize what they've bought is not the real thing. They're urged to contact Largo Police at (386) 943-7866.
It's not the first time Szakaly has had a run-in with the law. In 2002, the Indiana native was charged with switching two fake diamond for two real ones at a jewelry store near Cincinnati.
WTSP-TV in Tampa talked to victimized shop owners and a law enforcement officer: