The name John Ferreira may not ring a bell for autograph and sports card collectors at first. But Ferreira was the FBI undercover agent for Operation Bullpen, the three-year federal investigation that brought down this country’s biggest forgery ring.
And now Ferreira, who has retired from the FBI, is running his own sports card and memorabilia shop in Eugene, Ore.
The shop is called A&J Sportscards, and it’s a 2,000-square-foot space that may be the most unique card establishment in the United States. For no other shop has an owner that spent 27 years with the nation’s leading law enforcement agency and who is an expert in both collecting and forgeries.
“I think the hobby has improved tremendously because of the FBI’s work in Bullpen,” says Ferreira. “Because people realize that you’ve got to be careful when you buy. But my opinion is, there’s still a lot of bad stuff out there because a lot of it was done in the 1990s and a lot of people are still holding that stuff and don’t know it.” He adds, “I look at things all the time online. This morning I saw a Tiger Woods autograph that I didn’t think was real. You gotta be careful.”
Ferreira knows whereof he speaks in this regard because as Operation Bullpen’s undercover agent he saw tons of the fake material produced by chief forger Greg Marino and others in the national ring that bilked collectors of an estimated $100 million in the 1990s – and that continues to have repercussions for the hobby today.
I wrote the book on the case, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, and I recently called Ferreira to get an update on the hobby from his perspective, and find out why he had decided to leave law enforcement to go into the memorabilia business.
Ferreira loves collecting. “I’ll always collect,” he says, and that was one reason why he got the assignment to be Bullpen’s undercover agent, or UCA, in FBI lingo. The Bureau needed an agent with an expert knowledge of autographs, and Ferreira, with hundreds of thousands of cards and autographs in his private collection, fit the bill.
Besides his shop on West Sixth Avenue in downtown Eugene, he operates a website, www.lindsayduck.com, and an eBay store that sells, among other things, the autographs of his good friend and fellow Oregonian, Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr.
The one-time Red Sox second baseman, who’s now 90, leads an active, independent lifestyle and is “strong as an ox,” says Ferreira. The two men chat frequently on the phone and Doerr regularly drops into A&J’s to sign things. Doerr and Ferreira have gone to Cooperstown together a few times to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, including last year when Tony Gwynn was inducted. On that day the former San Diego Padres star was coming out of a hotel elevator at the same time that Ferreira was going in. Ferreira stopped him, congratulated him on his honor, and explained that he was the undercover agent in Operation Bullpen.
Gwynn knew about Bullpen because he had played a small role in it himself, identifying forgeries and helping to publicize the problems associated with signed memorabilia. In one memorable interview on ABC-TV’s “20/20,” Gwynn helped to expose the forgeries being sold by Doc and Phil Scheinman, the father and son team that operated Smokey’s Sportscards in Las Vegas. The Scheinmans – Doc received house arrest for his activities in the ring, while his son got 10 months in prison – were one of Greg Marino’s biggest customers and sold counterfeit material across the United States.
Gwynn never met Ferreira during the case, because the latter was undercover, but he was pleased to meet him at Cooperstown. Others pleased to see him were the Hall of Fame officials who are planning an exhibit next year on forgeries and the Operation Bullpen case. As reported earlier in SCD (“HOF planning ‘Bullpen’ exhibit,” April 11, 2008), the Hall is working with the FBI on the exhibit. Ferreira sat down for an interview with the museum’s chief curator and has offered the Hall memorabilia of his that pertains to the case.
When I was doing research on the book, I traveled to Eugene to interview Ferreira, who showed me see some of his autographs and cards, some of which he collected as a boy. Like many collectors, he’s concerned that many kids today have been priced out of the hobby. “The hobby has changed,” he says. “It’s gone from being a kids’ hobby to where kids can’t even afford cards now. Only grown-ups can invest in them.”
Ferreira’s “huge collection” of cards and autographs helped him move easily over to A&J Sportscards after his retirement from the Bureau in early 2006. His years of buying and trading, his friendship with Doerr, and not least, his background as a special agent gave him a boost when he started dealing with local collectors and dealers.
“They knew I was FBI,” he laughs, “so no one could sell me a forgery.”
Buying and selling on eBay and the Internet, as opposed to dealing with someone in person, is a whole different ball game, of course, and Ferreira is keenly aware of it. “People are more cautious nowadays,” he says, adding quickly, “but a lot of people are not cautious. No one can tell me 100-percent that an item is authentic. It’s all an opinion. But there are good opinions from reliable authenticators. You gotta get an opinion from someone you trust. Be picky.”
Ferreira mainly deals in “autographs and relics and rookies and high-end products,” as he says. He buys cards from the card companies, “where the companies certify they’re authentic.” He does not tend to buy signed photographs – not signed by superstars, anyhow. “I stay away from the big names,” he says. “Forgers focus on the big names because they give them more bang for the buck.”
Since the publication of my book, I’ve received emails from collectors and dealers at www.operationbullpen.com, asking me about forgery-related issues. Lately I have heard comments about an ongoing FBI investigation – not related to Operation Bullpen, but a new case – centering on an active dealer and auctioneer in the east. I asked Ferreira about this and he said, “I have no clue. I haven’t heard of anything.”
Of course, even if he did know something, he wouldn’t say anything about it because it’s FBI policy not to comment on ongoing investigations. But Ferreira no longer works for the Bureau and isn’t up to date on current cases.
Ferreira’s involvement with Operation Bullpen began in late 1997, when he sought to infiltrate the Southern California-centered network of forgers and dealers that were distributing hundreds of thousands of fakes through card shops, eBay, the cable TV shopping channels and many other outlets. He posed as a dealer named “John Freitas,” set up a bogus company in Oceanside, near San Diego, and went about the business of trying to get the crooks to admit, on hidden tape and video, that they were knowingly dealing counterfeits. As part of his undercover identity, the normally clean-cut Ferreira adopted a slightly scruffy appearance with a goatee – a look that startled Bobby Doerr when Doerr saw him in San Diego during the case.
“Bobby came down to San Diego (where he played minor league ball before going up to the Red Sox) to throw out the first pitch for a game,” says Ferreira. “I met him at his hotel in an undercover capacity, and I went out to dinner with him.” If Ferreira had been spotted with Doerr by any members of the forgery ring, that would have been all right, because such a meeting would have been consistent with his cover as a memorabilia dealer.
Of course, Ferreira could not tell Doerr anything about the case at the time. All that came out later when, in October 1999, the FBI busted up the ring with perhaps the biggest one-day takedown in Bureau history. Four hundred FBI and IRS agents conducted coordinated morning raids across five states on 60 homes and businesses, seizing $10 million in counterfeit goods and a half-million in cash on that one day alone. During the takedown, Ferreira stayed at an FBI office in San Diego County and even talked on the phone to one of the counterfeit dealers he helped to bring down, saying that it wasn’t personal, that he was just doing his job.
After the first phase of Operation Bullpen ended – there was a second phase of the case that Ferreira was not involved in – he returned to Eugene to oversee “the largest domestic terrorism case in the United States,” as he put it. This case, code-named Operation Backfire, began in late 1996 with the burning of a Forest Service vehicle by the Earth Liberation Front and the razing of the $5 million Oak Ridge Ranger Station near Eugene. Ferreira doubled as the case agent for Operation Backfire while posing as John Freitas for Operation Bullpen, flying back and forth between San Diego and Eugene for two years, working both cases and getting stressed out.
“I was overworked, pretty stressed out,” he admits. “While I’m down in San Diego being the undercover agent for Bullpen, I’m making calls all the time to Eugene setting up interviews and meetings and figuring out what our next step is going to be. Then I’d go home and be the lead agent for Backfire.”
Operation Backfire ended with the arrests in 2006 of nearly a dozen Earth Liberation and Animal Liberation members who were accused of numerous acts of domestic terrorism, including the $12-million arson of Vail Ski Resort in 1998. As with Operation Bullpen, an inside member of the group decided to cooperate with the FBI and this led to the eventual busts – and ultimately, to the lead agent’s retirement as well.
“I waited until Backfire was basically put to bed,” he says. “I’m done with police work.” And now, he’s into cards and autographs full time.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him at: www.operationbullpen.com.