SAN DIEGO — Padres star Tony Gwynn was making an appearance at the team's gift store in a suburban shopping center when he noticed something wrong: a baseball with his name scrawled on it.
A perfectionist on the field and off, Gwynn was annoyed that the signature in the display window at the Encinitas store was sloppy and nearly unreadable. Not to mention fake.
"That really fried me," the future Hall of Fame right fielder said Wednesday. "I take some pride in making my signature legible."
Gwynn complained to team management and to Major League Baseball security officials.
Three years later, Gwynn's concern has culminated in the indictments of 26 Southern Californians in what the FBI is calling the largest, most lucrative and most brazen fraud ring ever busted for trafficking in phony sports and celebrity autographs and memorabilia.
Officials say the ring produced thousands of fraudulent items, including autographs billed as being from Marilyn Monroe before Joe DiMaggio; from Marilyn and Joe; from the Marx Brothers, Hillary Clinton, Bruce Lee, Princess Diana, Albert Einstein and the Beatles. Also a guitar supposedly signed by Elvis, a football shoe said to have been inked by Howard Cosell and posters from "Gone With The Wind" with signatures of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.
It even produced Mother Teresa's signature on a baseball.
"I think that pretty much says it all," said William Gore, special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Diego.
Twenty people, including six from a single family in Escondido, were arraigned Tuesday on conspiracy and mail fraud charges and agreed to plead guilty. Six more are due to be arraigned in federal court here and 20 more arrests are expected.
The defendants include five married couples.
Merchandise that was designed to be sold for more than $10 million was seized in California, New Jersey, Nevada, Florida and Pennsylvania. Seized as profits from the ring were a classic Ferrari, a 38-foot boat, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, two homes and $500,000 in cash from the family of alleged master forgers in Escondido.
In addition, the 26 defendants face a demand from the Internal Revenue Service for $2.75 million in taxes on unreported income. The ring had allegedly been operating for six years.
"Greed is the motivation behind these crimes," said San Diego IRS branch chief Al Allison at a Wednesday morning news conference. "Whenever greed is a motivating factor, there's a role for the IRS."
In a 72-page indictment, officials said that 50% to 90% of the $1-billion-a-year memorabilia market is based on fraudulent goods.
The case, dubbed Operation Bullpen, also makes clear that even items sold at stores owned or authorized by Major League Baseball teams are not necessarily authentic because store operators can be hoodwinked by dishonest distributors, authorities said Wednesday.
At the press conference, the head of security for Major League Baseball said that the commissioner's office is working with the Arthur Andersen accounting firm on a system of authentication so parents can be sure that the signature on a ball or cap or picture bought for junior at the ballpark or an official store is real.
"We're going on the offensive, we're going to put the spotlight on this," said Kevin M. Hallinan, executive director for security and facility management for Major League Baseball.
Asst. U.S. Atty. Phil Halpern, the lead prosecutor on the case, said there is only one way to ensure that an item is authentic: Be present when the star signs his or her signature. The ring duped customers by providing bogus certificates of authenticity.
"The more certificates, the greater chance the item is phony," Halpern said.
U.S. Atty. Gregory Vega told reporters that the case has left him worrying whether the framed, signed photos of Gwynn and Michael Jordan that he bought some years ago for his sons are real.
After receiving Gwynn's tip in 1997, baseball officials notified federal law enforcement authorities, who launched a painstaking effort to bust the ring. The FBI had been concerned about fraud in the memorabilia industry since Operation Foulball in the mid-1990s uncovered scams in which forged sports items were sold in Chicago.
In Operation Bullpen, proving the autographs were not authentic took undercover informants, a dummy company, wiretaps and 60 search warrants, the FBI said Wednesday.
Eventually, investigators seized a fake George Washington signature and an abundance of Ronald Reagan autographs, produced to anticipate a rise in demand after his death, according to the indictment.
On the wiretaps, defendants were heard joking that Wilt Chamberlain was able to sign autographs even after his death and that Mickey Mantle had "one arm out of the grave" signing his name.
In just one month, the ring provided phony signatures on more than 10,000 baseballs, the indictment said. Jerseys, pictures, balls, bats, boxing gloves and other seized items now fill a 10,000-square-foot warehouse rented by the FBI.