A Massachusetts dealer-collector thought he had lost something exquisite through the mail, but thanks to patience, persistent detective work and some good luck, some valuable rookie cards soon will be back in his possession. And a former postal clerk is awaiting sentencing for stealing a package that contained sports cards worth at least $68,668.
The 37-year-old dealer knows where the cards are now — the list includes a 2003-04 LeBron James Upper Deck Exquisite rookie patch card numbered 13/23 and a 2007-08 Kevin Durant Exquisite rookie patch card — but since they are evidence in a federal court case, he’ll have to wait.
It’s a saga that began Jan. 20, 2015, a long story with elements of cloak and dagger thrown in for good measure.
“Have a seat and get a beer,” said Eric, who operates buynicecards.com, a website that focuses on buying, selling, trading and consigning high-end sports cards, and requested that his last name be kept anonymous.
But first, a recap.
Late last week, Venecia “Melissa” McLaren, 30, of Dorchester, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to theft of mail by a postal service employee. U.S. District Court Senior Judge Mark L. Wolf scheduled sentencing for April 25. According to Eric, one of her duties involved shuttling mail from Roxbury to West Roxbury.
Here is what happened, pieced together through a conversation with Eric and through court records.
In January 2015, Eric said he gave some cards to a friend in Boston to have them graded at an onsite event hosted by Beckett Grading Service. The LeBron James card received a grade of 8, while the Durant graded out at 8.5. Eric’s friend mailed the cards back in two boxes to West Roxbury, Massachusetts via insured Priority Mail Express.
“Two of the biggest cards in my collection were gone,” Eric said. “My friend had put both of them in one box.
“I realized immediately that they were gone. I called my post office in West Roxbury and they told me to call the Roxbury post office. I was getting bounced back and forth between post offices like a Ping-Pong ball.”
Both postal offices, Eric said, “threw their hands in the air,” so he went over their heads and contacted the inspector’s office.
“I was grasping for straws,” he admitted.
“I had really good documentation,” he said.
After filing a police report, Eric had to play a waiting game. “The detective told me not to worry, that the cards would surface,” he said.
After a month, Eric still hadn’t seen his missing cards. He posted on the forums at Blowout Cards and asked for help, posting photographs that showed plenty of detail and the serial numbers. “I’ve tried to declare the cards as stolen with my local police but they have been resistant because they are saying it is a post office issue,” he wrote in his initial post on February 9, 2015.
On March 9, five of Eric’s cards surfaced on a non-eBay selling site called Offerup.com.
“She was listing cards worth thousands of dollars for a couple of hundred.”
Eric went back to the police, who insisted it was a postal issue. Then a friend in Chicago stepped forward, a man who had a close friend in the FBI. “He told me to call a number in Boston, so I called the next morning and talked to a guy,” he said. “Early in the afternoon a lady called back.
“Both of them were very in tune. They cared. I had a glimmer of hope.”
Back to the court records. Prosecutors said that after McLaren stole the package, she gave her sister, Ophelia McLaren, of Queens, New York, a portion of the contents to sell with the understanding that the two would share the proceeds.
Eric was getting closer to finding his cards, but a local postal investigator told him not to contact McLaren. Instead, the investigator established undercover web-based accounts to communicate with the sisters.
In the meantime, Eric said he got a message on his Instagram account that read “Call me. I know the person who has your cards.”
Eric dialed the number.
“He says ‘I found your cards, I sold some of them to a local dealer in Boston. I’ve got one with me right now. Just come and get it’.”
That was another Exquisite, a 2007-08 Durant rookie card patch autograph parallel numbered to 25.
Eric then called the investigator, who advised him not to meet with the caller. He went anyway, “expecting to meet a scary dude,” but instead talking with “a gentle giant.”
“I met him in front of a convenience store. I told him I should pay him (for the card) and he said no, he felt guilty about having it.”
Nine cards had been sold to the unwitting dealer by the suddenly conscious-stricken man for “hundreds of dollars, not thousands.” Those were confiscated by officials later as evidence in McLaren’s trial.
After retrieving that one card, Eric got a call from the “gentle giant” who had some key information regarding Melissa McLaren.
“I went home and I found her Facebook page,” the man told Eric, “and (in one of her photographs) she is wearing a postal worker’s shirt.”
“I said, Holy Cow,” Eric said.
Investigators then moved in to catch the McLarens. Melissa McLaren sold three of the cards to an undercover agent in Boston and offered to sell a fourth, according to court records. She was then placed under arrest. On that same date, McLaren’s sister and brother, Lennica McLaren, were arrested after they attempted to sell four of the stolen trading cards to an undercover agent in New York, court records show.
Ophelia and Lennica McLaren have since pleaded guilty to larceny charges in Queens County Criminal Court.
Of the 23 cards Eric lost, 18 have been recovered and are now in federal custody. While they were insured, he’d prefer having all of them back.
And while he doesn’t have physical possession of the cards yet, Eric at least has some peace of mind.
“I went from not getting anything back to getting back the two biggest cards,” he said.