Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story

Here's an excerpt from the Introduction to Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. It begins with the most notorious single forgery created by the ring -- the Mother Teresa baseball . . .

The order came in through Rino Ruberti, the blue-eyed, blond-haired handsome man who had been coming on strong in the racket, especially since taking over Stan the Man's account. In just one month Rino -- pronounced "Reno," like the city -- had written $200,000 in new business from Stan and more was on the way.

This order was a little strange, though, so strange that Rino wasn't sure if Greg would fill it.

Greg was Greg Marino, "the master forger" (as the media invariably referred to him later), who had filled some very strange orders over the past five years but nothing quite like this one. It was for five baseballs -- official Rawlings World Series baseballs, to be exact -- all to be signed on the sweet spot with the autograph of Mother Teresa.

"It shocked me when they asked for it," said Marino, who was not easily shocked. "I never thought anyone would be interested in a Mother Teresa forgery. On a baseball, no less. I'm thinking, Who the hell can they be selling these to? But at that point it didn't matter. It was all the same to me."

Little did Marino know that when he filled the order -- apparently signing three Mother Teresa photos as well as the balls -- he was creating some of the most sensational, and unique, counterfeit products in the 2,000-year history of forgery. Marino also could not know that as he was doing this, an FBI undercover investigation -- code-named Operation Bullpen -- was planning to come down on his head.

On October 13, 1999, four hundred federal agents staged coordinated morning raids across five states on sixty homes and businesses -- one of the largest one-day takedowns in FBI history, breaking up the biggest, most profitable forgery ring in the annals of American crime. They raided Greg's house, Rino's, Stan the Man's and a whole bunch of others, seizing $10 million in forged goods and a half-million in cash on that day alone. It was one for the record books.

Seven months after the takedown, the FBI, IRS and United States Attorney's Office held a joint press conference in San Diego to crow about the results of their investigation. This was when the Mother Teresa ball hit the news. The existence of a ball -- a baseball! -- with the fake signature of a future saint on it was too juicy a tidbit for reporters to pass up. CNN "Headline News" led with it. The Associated Press featured it at the top of its wire service story. Barbara Walters used it in her lead-in for "20-20," and it popped up again on a companion piece by "Prime Time Thursday." More evidence that the ball had touched something in the national consciousness, Jay Leno did a riff on it on "The Tonight Show" and the characters in "Dilbert" joked about buying and selling a football signed by Jesus.

The Mother Teresa forgeries excited so much comment not only because they seemed so absurd, but also because they provided an insight into the men and women involved in the ring -- their "brazen" and "outrageous" nature, as Readers Digest put it. The ring in fact produced lots of brazen and outrageous work. They were the McDonald's of forgers, cranking out hundreds of thousands of forgeries and peddling them on eBay and the Internet, the cable TV home shopping channels, mail order, auctions, card shows and retail shops in every state in the Union. In all, say government investigators, the Bullpen ring ripped off American consumers for more than $100 million.

But interestingly, the gang members at the center of this conspiracy were not people one would normally associate with a gang at all. Rather they were, in legal jargon, Category Ones -- people who, for the most part, had never received anything more serious than a traffic ticket. These high-flying, incredibly successful crooks were decent blue collar and middle class folks who loved their children, drove them to school in SUVs, held backyard barbecues, enjoyed sports and the movies, paid taxes, and otherwise lived fairly ordinary lives.

What made them run wild on the other side of the law was the lure of easy cash -- mountains of life-altering, gloriously untraceable cash. Many in the ring were just scuffling along, trying to make a living and not doing a very good job of it. This forgery thing was their one chance in life for a big score, and they grabbed it.

"They were," said one of the agents who busted them, "a bunch of loose-knit guys who were just scraping by. But they became, by far, the largest and most prolific forgery ring ever uncovered by the FBI."

How did they come together? And how did the FBI bust them? For the full story, read Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Order your signed copy today!