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Bullpen: A Dramatic Work of Art

In the early 1990s, Angelo Marino, 67, found a new genre for his art talents. He painted pictures of various sports figures such as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Cal Ripken Jr. As a result of Operation Bullpen's latest bust, a sting that allowed FBI agents to seize approximately $10 million worth of forged memorabilia, Marino also became one of the nation's most notorious forgers. He and 19 others, including five forgers, among them family members, have pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering, trafficking in counterfeit goods, tax offenses or conspiracy. This is a story of many dramatic turns and villains.

In a 72-page pleading filed in federal court in the Southern District of California, prosecutors revealed how Angelo Marino would "get some of the sports figures" to sign a limited number of his lithographs. He would then "pad" his profits by forging additional signatures onto his lithographs. John Marino, 36, would then buy photographs of athletes and Greg Marino, 38, would forge the celebrity's signature. Greg Marino mastered not only signatures attributed to Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Sosa, McGwire and Gwynn, but Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Mother Teresa. The Marinos signed numerous cut signatures on aged pieces of paper, which were taken from old books found at thrift shops. Greg Marino even used ink produced during the celebrity's lifetime to write the signatures. Much of this creativity took place in his parents' living room or dining room. The Marinos excelled in their illegal practice by poring over an extensive library, reportedly thousands, of photocopied examples of genuine celebrity signatures. Marino would use the exemplars to carry out his forgeries "unless he had memorized the signature" of the celebrity he was forging.

Wayne Bray's involvement in the forged memorabilia took on so many different dimensions that one of his co-conspirators said everybody knew he was "the Godfather of the memorabilia business." That would not be the last mafia reference in this story. Bray established Sport and Celebrity Autograph Authentication (SCAA) as a way to disguise the sale of counterfeit memorabilia. The company was set up for authenticating counterfeit memorabilia produced by the Marinos. Bray also produced a red "Haiti" baseball stamp to conceal the true age of many of the baseballs on which Greg Marino was forging the signature of deceased baseball players. Stan Fitzgerald of Stan's Memorabilia in Caldwell, N.J., the focus of an earlier FBI Operation Bullpen bust, instructed Bray to move the placement of the Haiti stamp "to allow the forgeries to be placed on the 'sweet spot' of the baseball," the pleading said. Bray began supplying Stan's with bogus memorabilia as early as 1994.

To conceal the existence of the conspiracy, Bray also formed the J. DiMaggio Company, which would separate the authentication company from the company selling the counterfeit memorabilia. Other co-conspirators in this case would subsequently use both SCAA and the J. DiMaggio Company to authenticate their forgeries. Bray's reputation would get even bigger. By May 27, 1999, Bray would be "hounded" by Fitzgerald that he was getting 300 calls a day and had 20,000 customers waiting for merchandise. "Fitzgerald also discussed a large order of signatures, including 40 Babe Ruths, 24 Lou Gehrigs, 12 Roberto Clementes and 10 Satchell Paiges," the pleading stated. In January, Fitzgerald requested that Bray "quickly send him 10,000 blank SCAA certificates of authenticity." Other memorabilia would find its way to a forensic examiner in New York named Donald Frangipani. The pleading states that co-conspirator Sheldon Jaffe told Bray that "he should ship the rest of his order of counterfeit memorabilia directly to Don Frangipani so that he could provide him with certificates authenticating the forgeries as genuine." Frangipani has told Sweet Spot that he's had certificates forged and his certificates represent only his opinion and are not to be construed as a guaranteed testament to the authenticity of an item.

Co-conspirator Michael Lopez became a rival of the Marinos and felt his forgeries were so superior that he would give Greg Marino "a run for his money" doing vintage autographs. He prided himself on the fact that he had "perfected forgeries of Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth, but he was still working on Mickey Mantle." Lopez forged counterfeit memorabilia for, among others, The Hall of Fame (not the museum), B&J Collectibles, The Prince of Cards and Plaques Gallery, the pleading stated. Among the items forged were 500 Home Run Club balls. As early as 1994, Lopez also began forging memorabilia that Bray sold to Stan's in New Jersey. By July 27, 1999, Lopez had admitted that he was in the counterfeiting business "way before a lot of other people," but had to lay "low because everybody was on (his) trail." However, when he was ready to resume his forging, he wanted to remain incognito.

The forgers and dealers of counterfeit material sold product to undercover federal agents operating as the Nihon Trading Company out of Oceanside, Cal. They arranged to carry out transactions and exchanges everywhere from gas stations to parking lots for high-end restaurants and big box retailers. Thirteen months ago, on about March 1, 1999, John Marino feared that the government was onto their scam. In the course of the same conversation Greg Marino noted that Jim DiMaggio would authenticate anything when he needed money. They questioned Bray's move to get DiMaggio involved. The pleading states, "In the same conversation, John and Greg Marino also agreed that the authorities were most likely 'not gonna look at the guy who's sellin' 'em or doin' 'em (counterfeits). It's the guy authenticatin' 'em' that was most likely to be the focus of law enforcement efforts. The two brothers then asserted that the authenticators were the true crooks 'cause everybody authenticates shit.'"

During the next day, Greg and John Marino discussed the need to have an "Appalachia" meeting. Appalachia historically referred to a meeting in which all the Mafia bosses from all over the world traveled to one place in upstate New York to discuss business, court documents explained. That meeting was held at a Coco's restaurant meeting in Oceanside. Fearing the presence of federal investigators, Greg Marino told Richard Mitchell, another co-conspirator, that they should not discuss business over the phone anymore. The "Appalachia" meeting was attended by Bray, Greg and John Marino, Mitchell, Rino Ruberti and Nathan Harrison. They agreed to cease their activitivies for 30 days to distract any detection by law enforcement officers.

When business resumed, law enforcement officers were in a position to make buys of forged items. They paid, for example, $900 for a Ruth-forged ball, $75 for a ball forged with Ronald Reagan's name; last June, Richard Mitchell offered to sell a counterfeit Babe Ruth bat for $6,000.

The government's investigation in San Diego continues and it is anticipated that many additional individuals will be charged with fraud and tax evasion, officials said. The investigation was carried out through the execution of about 60 search warrants and evidence purchases. More than 400 FBI and IRS agents were involved in the operation. Not all of the estimated $10 million worth of memorabilia was forged. Among the seized items was authentic memorabilia that was worth an estimated $50,000.