By Kevin Nelson
At the risk of exaggeration, Tim Fitzsimmons might be described as the Babe Ruth of forgery investigators. He is the FBI special agent who led the Operation Bullpen investigations during the 1990s and early 2000s, when the FBI busted dozens of counterfeiters and their allies who were producing, distributing, and selling hundreds of thousands of fake autographs for tens of millions of dollars across the country.
The biggest of these forgery operations was based in southern California and featured at its center the man whom Fitzsimmons has called “the world’s greatest forger.” Greg Marino not only produced voluminous amounts of fakes, he did so with an expertise that astounded the special agents who were tracking him and ultimately brought him down. Both Marino and Fitzsimmons, as well as retired FBI agent John Ferreira, who served as undercover agent for Operation Bullpen, appeared on camera in “The Counterfeiter,” a new installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series,
“The Counterfeiter,” which debuted in May and will air again in the future on the network, was directed by New York filmmaker Brian Biegel. The documentary recounts the sensational criminal exploits of the Operation Bullpen gang and includes, most notably, Marino showing on camera how he so easily and skillfully reproduced the signatures of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and other sports and celebrity superstars.
“The Counterfeiter” has stirred interest anew in the Bullpen story, a story that has never really gone away since the original bust in 1999, and so SCD invited Kevin Nelson, author of the book on the Bullpen ring, to interview Fitzsimmons. Here are his thoughts on the state of autograph forgery today, what the industry has done to prevent frauds, and the enduring appeal of the Bullpen story.
SCD: You’re well known in the collecting industry as the FBI special agent who led the bust of the Operation Bullpen forgery ring and other forgery rings in the 1990s and early 2000s. Why was the Bullpen ring so unique?
Fitzsimmons: Operation Bullpen was investigated in two phases for almost ten years. In the first phase there was a core ring with an extremely talented forger. Of all the forging operations investigated, none approached the scope and sophistication of the Wayne Bray/Greg Marino ring. Theirs was uniquely an organized crime operation in the forgery world.
SCD:Operation Bullpen has generated endless news stories, documentary TV programs, a book, and now, 18 years after the original bust, “The Counterfeiter” on ESPN. Why do you think the public remains so fascinated by the ring?
Fitzsimmons: With respect to the Bray/Marino part of the investigation, once again theirs was uniquely organized crime. We had to get a wiretap to get to them. No one else required that. They and their associates operated as a silent brotherhood; [their] crime was full time for many years producing millions of dollars, which turned into fancy cars, boats and vacations. There were drugs and gambling. It was like a Hollywood script, which they were also forging en masse (Hollywood items)—kind of ironic.
SCD: While Greg Marino is the focus of “The Counterfeiter,” many other individuals were involved in the ring. Do you stay in touch with any of them and if so, what can you tell us about them? Have they, like Marino, paid their debt to society and moved on with their lives?
Fitzsimmons: Everyone charged paid their debt through a combination of forfeitures, tax penalties, jail sentences, and forms of cooperation. There were over 60 individuals who all seemed to move on with law-abiding lives. I worked with several people during Phase II of the investigation. Three of those people stand out that I have stayed in touch with and am actually proud to now call friends. We spent thousands of hours over 15 years of working and their lives over that time have been model, very impressive.
SCD: The forgers produced tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of autograph fakes. The FBI confiscated some but clearly many are still out there. Is there a solution for getting rid of all the Greg Marino and other fakes that still exist in the marketplace today?
Fitzsimmons: The forgers absolutely produced hundreds of thousands of forgeries; we confiscated approximately 100,000 alone in the nearly 100 searches we did over the years. Unfortunately there are still a lot out there and items are still being produced by other forgers. The celebrity world is really bad, because they mostly do not do contract signings that are securely tracked. Vintage sports autographs that predate secure signings are also a problem. The best safeguard is to establish a documented chain of custody and demand that as a buyer.
SCD: You mentioned in the film that one of the positives of the FBI’s investigation was that the collecting industry has since improved its authentication efforts. How are those programs working, in your view? Are forgeries as rampant today as they were in the 1990s prime of the Bullpen ring?
Fitzsimmons: Witnessed signings that are securely tracked are the solution going forward, they do work. There are so many autographs that are not covered in this manner, so forgers have fertile ground, especially in the celebrity world and vintage sports. I don’t think forgeries are as prevalent, but they are still a huge problem.
SCD: What should a collector do if they suspect that an autograph they would like to buy online is fake?
Fitzsimmons: The old adage is the best one: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This requires investigating/questioning by the buyer. A good forgery properly priced will fool the unquestioning and beat a third party authenticator who only checks price and quality; a buyer has to check out the chain of custody as well as the seller.
SCD: At the end of “The Counterfeiter,” Greg Marino comments that as far as he knows, there are no forgery rings today that can match the huge scale of theirs. Then he adds, “But who knows? There could be.” Do you think there are large Bullpen-style forgery rings in operation today?
Fitzsimmons: Except for the Bray/Marino ring, all of the other forgers we convicted operated as solo operators. They started that way and never changed. The organization Bray (and Marino) set up with a bogus third party authentication company, sophisticated production of unique vintage items, and a large nationwide distribution network was bound to unravel. It just became too big and generated too many rumors in the industry. As Greg Marino said, it could happen again, the payoff is big, but so is the risk to become that big and sophisticated.
SCD:Finally, on a personal note, what are you doing today? Are you still an FBI special agent who investigates forgery?
Fitzsimmons: I have passed the age for mandatory retirement as an FBI agent and retired a few years ago to accept a contractor job with the FBI. I am fortunate that I can still do fraud investigations for the FBI, but under my contract I now focus on maximizing what the government forfeits from fraudsters.
Afterword: After finishing this email exchange, Fitzsimmons thanked SCD and this writer for our interest in these issues. In my years of covering the Bullpen story, my impression of Fitzsimmons is that he is a classic G-man who truly cares about stopping the crooks and helping the public avoid being scammed by them.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History.