SportsCollectorsDaily.com talks with Kevin Nelson, author of "Operation Bullpen", offering insight into the soon-to-be released book about the biggest autograph forgery scam in history.
Operation Bullpen details the rise and fall of the California-based group that bilked consumers out of over $100 million during the 1990s.
SportsCollectorsDaily.com obtained an advance copy of the book and among the many fascinating, bizarre and troubling stories it weaves are the large number of fakes the ring dumped into the TV home shopping markets during the ring's operation.
One passage detailed more bogus items that made their way into the shopping channel market via Stan Fitzgerald, New York-based proprietor of the largest fake memorabilia outlet, "Stan's Sports Memorabilia". Gloria Marino, mother and business manager of the now-infamous forger Greg Marino, "speculated that Stan the Man had made $10 million in the racket."
One member of the ring, 'Big Rickey' Weimer "agreed this was possible, saying that Stan had made gargantuan money selling gargantuan amounts of crap on cable TV."
'Big Rickey' added that "he had sold lots of crap on cable too".
The book details how greed was the basis for the number of people attracted to the forgery game. Some of the players in it were card and memorabilia dealers who saw others making money from authentic and fake signatures.
Dealer Shelly Jaffe, who spent six months in jail for his role, is quoted in the book saying he "couldn't make an honest living. I'd pay 90 bucks for an item. I'd go to a show and the guy at the table next to me would be selling four of the same items, clearly fakes, for twenty-five bucks apiece. Forgeries were becoming so prevalent you either quit the business or you joined them. I joined them."
"Master forger" Greg Marino claims to have signed at least one million bogus autographs during the operation.
Despite the size and scope of the fraud that was perpetrated on an unsuspecting public, only a few of the conspirators served more than a few months in jail.
The following is an interview SportsCollectorsDaily.com editor Rich Mueller conducted via e-mail with author Kevin Nelson:
Q) We were amazed by a number of claims in the book, including Greg Marino’s estimate that he forged more than one million autographs in his criminal career. How much of the fake stuff produced by the ring is still out there in the marketplace or in people's homes?
a) Nobody knows, and nobody will ever know. Quite a bit, I would think. One thing to note about Greg: He is not a person who is prone to exaggeration. So all that bad stuff he signed has to be somewhere. The FBI confiscated some of it, but they’d be the first to tell you that the bad stuff they got was only a small percentage of what was produced.
Q) How much bad stuff was sold on the home shopping channels?
A) That's one of the many things about the book that are surprising to people. People can understand how crooks might be able to move things through the online auction sites. But there is an assumption that the signed material being sold on TV was vetted by experts and therefore was legitimate. Well, as the Bullpen guys showed, this assumption was false. They moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in fakes over the home shopping channels.
Q) Stan Fitzgerald was the biggest retailer in the original Bullpen ring. What is he up to these days?
A) My understanding is that he has gone to prison, but he may be out by now. If you hear from him, or if he's reading this, tell him to drop me a line. I'd love to talk to him.
Q) How did you contact the ring members and what was their reaction to you?
A) I used a variety of channels to reach them. They were wary of me at first, and I completely understand why. By the time I called them, many of them had done their time in prison and were making a fresh start on their lives. And here I was, showing up to talk about those old, bad memories. But they opened up to me, and I’m grateful to them. Same with the FBI agents who worked the case.
Q) What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
A) The most difficult part was also the most interesting. With many of the incidents in the book, I’m dealing with several people’s perceptions of the same event. For instance, the big sit-down at Coco’s, one of the most dramatic moments in the case. I talked to seven different people who were there that day. So I had to blend each person’s memory of what happened into one coherent, believable and truthful story. And since the book came out, I’ve heard from both the FBI and ring members, and both have said I got it right, that I was accurate. So I’m happy about that.
Q) Were you surprised at the minimal amount of jail time the ring members received in spite of ripping off so many innocent people?
A) I disagree. Several in the gang each went to prison for more than a year, in some cases longer. And everyone in the conspiracy suffered for what they did. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But it is true, some people did serve more time than others, and that’s part of the story of the book. Justice does not always fall evenly.
Q) What’s been the reaction to your book so far?
A) It’s been incredible. The book has just come out, and we’re getting a terrific response, especially from collectors. What’s really surprised me is how much emotion it’s generating. I’ve already heard from collectors who feel burned by what these guys did and they’re glad this story is being told. The head of a prominent auction house in the industry e-mailed me saying that he’d been in the business thirty years and he was blown away by what was in the book, saying that he learned things he didn’t know and that every collector should read it. That’s what I think too.