I met Kevin Nelson a couple years ago at the sentencing hearing for Stan Fitzgerald and his family. It was in San Diego, and SCD editor T.S. O'Connell was with me, and I couldn't believe a third reporter was there. I assumed he was from the local newspaper, covering the courts, because who else besides SCD cared about what happened to Stan Fitzgerald?
Nelson did, and he told us why - he was writing a book about Operation Bullpen, the FBI's now decade-long investigation into fake autographs. I was curious how much national interest there would be in such a book, and honestly I never thought there would be that much, which is why I never wrote one myself. Why would people want to read a book about forgery crooks who lived high on the hog for years while polluting our industry with up to a million fakes? I'm not in the book field, though, and people who should know obviously believe there's a market there, so the book was financed ... and I'm glad it was.
This will not be your standard-fare book review/preview, because there's no mystery to give away - if you read SCD, you already know the ending: 63 convictions (so far), beginning with an undercover operation, and headlined by one of the largest multi-site national raids in FBI history on Oct. 13, 1999, when hundreds of agents raided more than 60 sites in five states.
Then there was a Phase 2 that involved a trading card counterfeit operation, and a few smaller-volume autograph forgery rings. They are touched on in the book, but only as a sidelight near the end.
Indeed, this book was like the last Star Wars movie - we know where it goes. The book simply gives us detail about the paths the forgers and their distributors took to get there.
I should pause long enough to give the details: The book officially releases Oct. 13, on the anniversary of the raids, and its title is simply Operation Bullpen. It is published by Southampton Books, and the easiest way to order it or to find out more information is at www.operationbullpen.com. The cover price is $18.95.
I don't want to simply extract the highlights of the book and repeat them here, and to get a feel for the color provided by Nelson's skilled storytelling abilities, you can see the excerpts that ran in the Sept. 8 and Sept. 15 issues of SCD. The summary of the book is aptly described on its cover: "The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History." Nelson utilized dozens of interviews with the FBI and IRS agents involved, but more importantly interviews with the subjects themselves. I believe Nelson is the only reporter to sit down with forger and central player Greg Marino, and he also interviewed the other key people in the ring who have been generally more accessible, including Wayne Bray and Shelly Jaffe. Both were your typical dealers-gone-bad once the money got good, a common theme among those who wound up being heavily involved. Many were struggling to get by, and when forgeries provided a lofty lifestyle, it became too much to refuse.
The book shows the personal side of the key people involved, and focuses quite a bit on the wives involved, while not naming those who had no knowledge of their husbands' activity. I learned in the book, and in talking to the FBI since finishing it, that virtually all of the married couples involved in this ring are still married, which surprised me, though I'm not sure why. And in at least two cases, wives who were known accomplices were saved jail time by husbands who took the fall for them.
For many of the people involved in the forgery ring, this truly seems to be a story of good people gone bad. For many, it seems to me, it's a story of bad people gone (temporarily) rich. I will let you decide, as I have in my own mind, who is who.
I'm hoping that at least the following people read the book:
? Industry professionals. This book should be required reading for dealers, distributors, licensors, trading card employees and similar industry workers. It is mandatory reading for our staffers, for instance. It provides a history of where we've been as an autograph industry in the past decade-plus, and helps provide some context regarding what we face in the coming years.
? Serious autograph collectors. People who are in this hobby for life need to read this book. It won't be pretty at times, and it won't be fun at times, reading about people who created so much of a problem for your hobby. But you owe it to yourself to learn as much as you can about the truth.
? People who love a good book. I can recommend this book simply because it's a well-researched, interesting book about how greed can literally turn your grandmother into the kingpin of a forgery operation.
Now I'm not exactly the most neutral person to ask for a book review. I was far too involved in so much of this for that - as an investigative reporter for Sports Collectors Digest since 1995, this was like reading my biography. I will give you a more personal reaction to the book - and list the most important and/or interesting things I learned from it - in a future column.
So trying to remove my personal interests in the subjects and give as objective a viewpoint as I can, I do believe that many hobbyists will be glad they read this book, and they'll have trouble putting it down, as I did, even if they've never met or spoken to those involved. I'm glad the publishing company decided to produce this book, and I'm glad, for more than personal reasons, that an accomplished researcher and writer like Nelson decided to spend years putting such a comprehensive project together.
It's a book that needed to be written, and it's a chapter of our hobby's history that needed to be exposed. If nothing else, here's hoping that if we can prepare ourselves with knowledge like you'll find in this book, nobody will be able to write anything like it about us again.