Those convicted—Alyinovich; Barry Carlstrom of Hanover Park, Ill.; Richard Hall of Chicago; Timothy Lee of Sunnyvale, Calif.; Schwartz; James Studley of Rockland, Mass.; and Walsh—were sports groupies and collectors ruled not only by greed but also by passion for the memorabilia they were hawking. The sentencing of Alyinovich has been put off because of his cooperation with the investigation. Studley pleaded guilty in U.S. district court in Chicago in March and told the judge he understood that he faced a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment and possible payments of between $250,000 and $600,000, representing restitution to victims. Yet he was preoccupied with retrieving his modestly valued personal collection of pieces signed by Joe DiMaggio, Emmitt Smith and others, seized in the raid. "Can I get those seven items back?" Studley twice begged Rosenbloom outside the courtroom. "Those were real." Eventually Rosenbloom agreed.
Obsessive collectors are easy marks. "When it comes to sports memorabilia, people suspend the skepticism they bring to ordinary affairs of life," Rosenbloom says. "If somebody gave you a $50 check signed by Michael Jordan, you would call the bank. But [if someone charged you] $900 for a jersey, [you'd say] thank you!"
The Feds continue to urge the many honest sports memorabilia dealers to take steps to police their industry. "If one guy [Alyinovich] is responsible for $2.5 million, I wouldn't be surprised if the total fraud is $100 million," speculates Joshua Leland Evans, the Manhattan-based chairman of Leland's Auction House, which specializes in sports memorabilia. Barring the opportunity to see autographs signed in person, collectors ought to buy from reputable dealers. If Dennis Rodman charges $75 for his autograph, buyers should beware of one selling for $14. "If people stopped pumping money into these low-end products, it would help clean up the industry," Walker says.
The first signs of the FBI operation's impact are encouraging. Checking out Chicago-area stores, Rosenbloom and Bertocchi agree that Jordan products are less prevalent than a year earlier.
In the FBI storage facility in Chicago, the mountain of bogus memorabilia will keep Bob Walker busy erasing and obliterating signatures for many Mondays to come. The government is donating thousands of basketballs, baseballs, jerseys and caps—all stamped OPERATION FOULBALL—to Chicago's Boys & Girls Clubs and the Cabrini Green Little League, organizations selected by the stars whose signatures were forged. "Through this quality equipment we're giving children an opportunity to chase their dreams," Walker says. It will be poetic justice if one of these children discovers an exceptional talent while wearing a confiscated jersey that was supposed to sell for $600 and dunking an "autographed" $400 basketball.