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OPERATION STOLEN BASE

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How—and why—did a frustrated indy league player named CLIFF PANEZICH engineer one of the biggest sports memorabilia frauds of all time?

You do not need to go far in professional baseball to experience a stranger asking for your autograph.

In the summer of 2008 it happens to Cliff Panezich on fireworks nights, which draw less meager crowds than usual for the Sussex Skyhawks of the independent Canadian American Association. Between the final out and the start of the pyrotechnics, kids line up, pens in hand, in the front row just past the first base dugout at Skylands Stadium in Augusta, N.J.

It is imperative to sign quickly. The clubhouse spread disappears fast, and the savvier veterans will book it toward the grub, leaving the rookies to oblige the kids. As a backup catcher trying to get by on $1,000 a month, Panezich—who grew up in a blue-collar family near Youngstown, Ohio, and who has just been passed over in the June MLB draft following his senior season at NAIA Martin Methodist in Pulaski, Tenn.—can't afford to miss any kind of free meal. He has big league aspirations, but his closest brush with affiliated ball so far is a workout in May with the Pirates. (Panezich did make an impression on one of the Bucs' scouts, at least. "He was ballsy, a guy who controlled his environment," says Dave Rettig. "And he had a sense of entitlement to be a catcher.")

Here in the Can-Am League, Panezich is just some 22-year-old with a cortisone-injected right arm that is killing him and a name that he assumes the local kids don't even know. That they still want his autograph is fascinating to him. He views autographs solely as commodities—things to be obtained and sold. And he is well aware that right now, the demand for a Panezich-signed ball is nonexistent.

THE CALL that wakes Det. Brian McGivern in the early hours of Oct. 11, 2013, seems, at face value, to be another instance of small-town criminal mundanity. Two addicts have been pulled over at around 1:15 a.m. in a gold Chevy Impala; a crack pipe is found in their armrest, and they fit the description of suspects in a string of property thefts from cars around the area. McGivern, at 38 a buzz-cutted and chipper 13-year veteran of the force, is one of just two detectives in the police department in Canfield, Ohio (pop. 7,284), a speck of a suburb eight miles southwest of Youngstown.

He is pretty sure that he already knows how this one will end: with the recovery of a slew of credit cards, Apple products and power tools. What he doesn't know is that he's pulling at the first thread in unraveling the biggest white-collar case of his life.

The gift cards will be the trail. Nineteen of them turn up in the addicts' car and wallets, and then a search warrant for their motel room yields even more—cards for Walmart and Home Depot and the like, purchased with stolen credit cards. McGivern's investigation finds that the addicts have been unloading the gift cards to a Craigslist buyer in exchange for cash. Typical, addiction-fueled behavior.

But then McGivern works with detectives from three nearby towns, tracking surveillance footage of the purchases eventually made with those gift cards, and a not-at-all-typical pattern reveals itself. Why did two different gift-card users—the Craigslist buyer, Steven Durkin, and another unidentified white male—each exit a Walmart store with a shopping cart full of footballs and baseballs? And why was a third man, Anthony Sattarelle, stopped outside a separate Walmart, right around the same time, for stealing a cart full of baseballs?

McGivern wonders, What is going on here?

Sattarelle eventually tells investigators that he was given $120 to steal the Walmart balls by C.J. McCormick, an associate of Durkin's. McCormick, Sattarelle explains, is involved in some kind of sports memorabilia business.

McGivern is neither a sports fan nor a memorabilia expert. The lone autographed item in his Canfield office is a poster for a minor league hockey team that once held a fund-raiser for a fallen police officer. He asks around in other departments, inquiring whether anyone knows anything about a memorabilia ring in the area. Then, in January 2014, he gets a call from the FBI's Boardman, Ohio, office. "There's an agent up here who says he's working on a sports memorabilia case," the man says. "Are you still doing something with that?"

McGivern finds himself on the line with veteran FBI agent Anthony Sano. "We're starting to I.D. some low-level guys," McGivern tells Sano, "but we have this [surveillance] picture of a guy at a Walmart, and we have no idea who he is." Sano sends an image to McGivern's phone to see if they have a match. On McGivern's end, a head shot of a twentysomething white male, pulled from Ohio's Bureau of Motor Vehicles database, pops up on his screen. "That's the guy," he says.

"That's the target of our investigation," says Sano, who at this point is working off of a vague tip: Someone is selling fake signed sporting goods out of Austintown, Ohio—and that someone played farm league ball.

The photo is of one Clifton J. Panezich.

IT ALL STARTED, Panezich will eventually say, with a working road trip: a 12-hour drive from Ohio to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in December 2009. Panezich and Adam Bollinger, a Chick-Fil-A truck driver whom Panezich met while chasing autographs outside of hotels and stadiums across Cleveland, had agreed to split the costs of an expedition to Alabama, where the No. 1--ranked Crimson Tide football team was preparing to play in the BCS National Championship Game against Texas. Panezich's sole source of income at the time was a legit autograph business on eBay that he called Athletic Connections Sports Memorabilia, and he knew that Tide items were in high demand.

It was Panezich's first year as an adult that he wasn't playing baseball. He'd fared well enough in his 2008 Can-Am League debut with Sussex—his OPS was .944—to earn an invite to a minor league free-agent workout with the Phillies. But an exam of his throwing arm at the Cleveland Clinic later revealed two partial tears in his rotator cuff and one in the labrum. After a failed attempt to rehab and play in the independent Continental League in Texas, Panezich opted for surgery that was expected to sideline him for two years.

"It was depressing for Cliff," says his mother, Rose, who believes it was even harder on her husband, Frank, a former steel mill electrician whose own pro ball aspirations were derailed first by a knee injury and then by his 1965 enlistment in Vietnam, shortly after high school. "[Frank] thought he might live his baseball dream through Cliff. Then he had to give up on that too."

Bollinger recalls his partner being resigned to the fact that his baseball career was effectively over. "When that was your plan in life and it rapidly turns on you," he says, "you're like, What do I do now?"

Panezich and Bollinger arrived in Tuscaloosa during winter break, when the football team wasn't practicing, so finding players required improvisation. The first member of the Crimson Tide they say they encountered—and asked to sign, outside of a dorm—was cornerback Marquis Johnson. The two collectors had 40-odd white-paneled footballs, each emblazoned with Alabama's logo, laid out in the rear bed of their SUV, and "[Johnson] signed a few," Panezich says. "[He] talked about getting paid to do the rest.... We paid him up front and ... he recruited everybody else to come and sign. He'd go into the dorm, grab a couple guys—$20, $30, $40, depending on who the player was—and they'd all come sign 40 team items."

Panezich says Johnson was paid roughly $200, but "not everyone took money. [Defensive tackle] Terrence Cody was probably the biggest. He got paid to sign all the team stuff—and then we heard he was interested in making some more money. So he came out and signed a bunch of mini helmets that he inscribed, like 2X ALL-AMERICAN, or 2 BLOCKED FGS AGAINST TENNESSEE, very specific stuff." Panezich recalls that they paid Cody around $400 total. (SI obtained cellphone video from Panezich that shows Johnson, fellow cornerback Rod Woodson and tight end Colin Peek autographing items; Panezich says that Peek, as well as running back Ali Sharrief and QB Greg McElroy, signed but declined compensation in order to comply with NCAA rules. Cody, through his agent, declined to comment. Says Johnson: "I never got paid. I don't know [Panezich]." Woodson could not be reached for comment. When asked if the school had knowledge of the signings, an Alabama spokesman said, "As part of our comprehensive compliance and education program, we routinely review all situations of potential concern and address matters such as these with all of our student-athletes."

Altogether it took Panezich and Bollinger nearly a week to gather the signatures they wanted, and Panezich says they shelled out more than $1,000 to players—but he figured the investment was worth it. He'd seen a team-signed Bama ball sell on eBay for roughly $800 earlier that month. Even if his own fetched just $500 apiece, "we were in pretty good shape," he says. But once Panezich made it back to Ohio and listed the items on eBay, he says he found a marketplace newly flooded with what he believed to be forgeries—most selling for less than $150.

"It rubbed me the wrong way," says Panezich, who hadn't seen any other graphers on Alabama's campus. "Not only the money—it was also my time. I spent a week away from family and friends during Christmastime, and I barely made a profit."

Here, he will later say, was the impetus for a business-driven pivot to forgeries. Panezich will tell the FBI that Bollinger is the one who first inked extra Alabama balls in December 2009; Bollinger (who will go uncharged in the case) will tell SI he never, in fact, forged autographs at all.

Either way, by February 2010, Panezich was passably signing and selling his own items. His first forged signatures mimicked players from the 2009--10 Kentucky basketball team. Panezich had once been kicked off UK's campus while hunting (free) John Wall autographs; now Panezich could print as many 8-by-10s of Wall as he wanted, sign them, and sell them on eBay for at least $50 apiece. He was, effectively, printing money.

In 2012, when Panezich moved to Houston to resurrect his baseball career in the independent Pecos Spring League, he brought along three associates from Ohio—McCormick (whom he met playing poker), Jason Moore and Joey Cummings—and they shared an apartment. The forgery business was doing enough volume that it could support assistants who managed the printing, eBay listings and shipping.

Panezich would come home after Pecos league games, and his roommates would have a stack of items waiting for him to sign with names like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper—twentysomethings whose playing careers were on a starkly different trajectory. Panezich, meanwhile, was paying for his Pecos roster spot in hopes of getting seen by scouts. He told people he was getting by as an eBay entrepreneur. The forging part, he hoped, would remain a secret.

OPERATION STOLEN BASE—that's what Sano named it—is in full gear by January 2014, as a collaboration between the FBI and several Ohio police departments. Sources are starting to emerge.

One of McCormick's ex-girlfriends (who will not be implicated in the case) details for investigators how Panezich recruited McCormick into the business. She says she has witnessed Panezich forging items, calls him an "expert" and says that together the two men have sold items through scores of eBay accounts they created using the names of friends, relatives and acquaintances. An aunt of Panezich's (who hasn't been implicated) also calls police: eBay has mailed to her a tax form that references $64,000 in profit she says she knows nothing about. In February she provides investigators with a ball, inscribed with what appears to be Mike Trout's autograph, that a buyer mailed to her, intended as a return.

But it isn't until investigators subpoena eBay for access to any account whose profits flow to Panezich, McCormick or Jason Lenzi (a former high school acquaintance of Panezich's who works for Huntington Bank, where 26 PayPal-funded accounts have been opened in either Cliff's or Rose's name) that the magnitude of things takes shape. By November 2014 investigators have discovered more than $1 million in eBay sales to 16,000-plus potential victims across the U.S., Mexico and Canada—and they believe there's plenty left to find.

From his Canfield office, McGivern monitors Panezich's increasingly audacious social media activity. Since October 2013, Panezich has been living outside of Las Vegas—where he has also helped relocate his mother, father and nonagenarian grandmother—and he's enjoying the lifestyle upgrade from downtrodden Youngstown. In one Facebook post Panezich throws a fistful of cash into the air—"making it rain," as McGivern will later describe it. In another, Panezich captures the neon-lit interior of a vast automobile, writing, "Escalade limo for 3. Sure!"

What Panezich doesn't know is that McGivern and Sano have been ordering trash pulls from outside of Cliff's and Rose's Nevada homes. And what investigators turn up in the garbage—fake certificates of authenticity matching those used in recent eBay autograph auctions, plus scratch paper on which someone has been practicing forged autographs—allows them to make their final move.

JUST BEFORE 8 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2014, one FBI agent, two police officers from Canfield and 11 from the Henderson, Nev., P.D. surround a Spanish-tile roof rental home in a Henderson subdivision. There is little expectation of danger, but McGivern's anxiety level is off the charts. If the search warrants that the investigative team are about to serve—at this two-story house on Sandhill Sage Road, as well as Panezich's parents' house nearby, plus Lenzi's and two McCormick addresses in Ohio—are dead ends, McGivern knows he'll never live it down.

A Henderson lieutenant peers into a street-facing garage window and starts to laugh. "Kid," he says to McGivern, "wait till you see this." Inside are towers of assembled USPS Priority Mail boxes, stacks of ink-jet photo paper and heaps of NFL and college football jerseys.

The cops knock on the front door of 832 Sandhill Sage, and Panezich opens it wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He is immediately handed a warrant. McGivern introduces himself: "I didn't fly across the country to ask you a couple of questions. I already know everything you're involved in."

What investigators find inside is part bachelor pad—neon miller lite sign, pool table, golf clubs; hats and mail scattered about—and part memorabilia warehouse. Autographed items are littered everywhere, covering even the floor of Panezich's master bedroom: blue Tim Tebow Florida jerseys signed on the white numbers; Spalding NBA basketballs bearing Kobe Bryant's and LeBron James's forged signatures; a Wilson NCAA basketball with Wall's graph. McGivern's crew finds a stack of certificates of authenticity from Worldwide Authentics Memorabilia (ITEM DESCRIPTION: BARRACK [sic] OBAMA OFFICIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL) and, in a plastic bucket, a ball with a signature that resembles the 44th President's.

Panezich insists that some of the autographs are real—he says he's purchased a collection of authentic items from one of his houseguests, James Beltrame, who's visiting from Wisconsin. But investigators believe the vast majority of items have been signed by Panezich.

On the desk in his bedroom police find metallic-ink pens and Sharpie markers in clear plastic cups. They turn up texts on Panezich's iPhone explicitly discussing forgery. They seize additional stacks of certificates of authenticity—with phony business names like Gameday Sports Authentics—that are being printed in-house, plus more than 30 burner cellphones with names written on their cheap, black casings in yellow or purple ink. (One of Panezich's assistant-roommates in Henderson, Stephen Mulichak, tells police that eBay requires its accounts to be linked to a phone number. When anyone calls a phone attached to a male name, Panezich answers; when anyone calls a female-named phone, Rose—who also helps with shipping—answers.)

What McGivern's search team does not find is much in the way of money. (Authorities do seize $18,200 rubber-banded inside a zippered envelope under a guest-room mattress, but Beltrame claims that belongs to him.) This is surprising given the volume of eBay transactions and the fact that Operation Stolen Base has turned up two Nevada bank accounts under Rose's name that received $174,531.97 in PayPal profits before being cashed out.

Investigators do know, though, that Panezich is prone to heavy cycles of gambling, both on sports and on poker. Among the items they photograph in his bedroom are frequent-player cards for an assortment of Vegas casinos. One of his former roommates in Henderson, Daniel Marino, will later tell investigators about a time Panezich responded to a five-figure losing streak by "locking himself in his room and signing hundreds of balls to make up for it."

Altogether it takes the search team nearly 16 hours (over two days) to log and wrap and load all the evidence at the Sandhill Sage house onto eight pallets. Afterward, McGivern and a few officers grab dinner at a nearby restaurant that's playing Monday Night Football on TV. McGivern is so exhausted that he passes out in his hotel bed by 8 p.m., never having made it to the Vegas strip to press his luck.

THE MOST surreal autograph session of Panezich's life takes place a month later in a conference room in the FBI's office in Boardman. He wasn't arrested during the raid, but he's since agreed to be interviewed under proffered protection in hopes of improving any future plea deal. The FBI and the Mahoning County prosecutor's office have decided to pursue the case under Ohio's version of the RICO Act—rather than bring federal charges—because of the number of potential defendants at the local level. (More than 20 other people, mostly in Ohio, are suspected of being involved in selling the forged items.) This makes Martin Desmond, a Mahoning County assistant D.A., one of the lead interviewers.

"I'm curious," Desmond tells Panezich from across a conference table. "I want to see how good you are."

Panezich shoots a look at his lawyer, Robert Duffrin—Is this really happening?—and is reminded that he's under protection. He grabs a pen and a legal pad and asks Desmond to name an athlete.

"LeBron," Desmond says, assuming Panezich will then ask to look at an example.

"Number or no number?" Panezich replies.

"Number."

"Six or 23?"

"Do both."

Panezich signs two variations—one the way James signed it during his first stint with the Cavs, the other the way he did it in his Heat years. One of the Ohio policemen at the table fires up his iPad and finds a real LeBron, and they all compare it with Panezich's work.

To the investigators' untrained eyes, it's difficult to tell the autographs apart.

I GUESS YOU could call it a talent," Panezich says of his forging skill. "But maybe curse is a better word for it."

He says this at a table in O'Charley's restaurant in Boardman while he eats chipotle chicken fingers and french fries. This is April 10, 2017, the night before his sentencing hearing in Youngstown. He flew in from Las Vegas a few hours ago.

Panezich says that forging required practice at first—maybe 10 to 20 tries before he put a name to a ball—but that he became so proficient at it that eventually he could do 100-plus signatures from memory. And while it was once like a party trick, where he could be talked into signing someone's Andrew McCutchen jersey in a Youngstown bar, it eventually felt like a job.

"There were so many people who relied on [me]," he says, trying to argue that his extended operation was less a criminal enterprise than it was freelancers who sold his forgeries and kept 60% of the profit, often to sustain opiate or gambling addictions. "Every day I woke up to streams of text messages, like, I need this many items. I didn't really want to be doing it."

By now Panezich has pleaded guilty to one first-degree, three second-degree and four third-degree felonies, ranging from telecommunications fraud to money laundering, and he's agreed to a sentencing recommendation of three to seven years. Over dinner Panezich tries to explain how his mother got involved. Initially, he says, Rose was out of work in Ohio, caring for Frank, as well as her own mother, "and that's when I was like, 'Just do this [shipping work] for me, and whatever bills need paying I'll pay.' I can't put an exact time on when she knew what was going on, because it was never really spoken about. She just helped, and it evolved."

Panezich says they never had a conversation about the morality of forging. They never talked about it with his grandmother, who passed away in 2015, and they definitely never talked about it with Frank, who exhibited symptoms of Alzheimer's ... and who would never learn his son's fate. In December 2016 Frank checked into a Las Vegas hospital for a routine colon procedure, had an allergic reaction to medication—and died three months later.

By now Panezich has a new lawyer, Percy Squire, who represented former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in multiple cases, and Squire is hopeful that his client might receive a delayed sentence so he can help settle affairs in the wake of Frank's death. Panezich even believes there's a chance he could get probation rather than jail time.

The latter seems unlikely. One coconspirator, Jason Moore, has already accepted a three-year sentence, and he did little more than sell items that Panezich or McCormick signed. (Moore tried his hand at forging in Youngstown too, but Panezich says the signatures were so sloppy that "they looked like a child did them." Panezich worried that the substandard work would draw heat, so whenever he saw Moore's shoddy graphs on eBay he'd bid to win the auctions and then refuse to pay.)

All Panezich has with him is a black duffel bag containing one black dress shirt and a pair of black dress pants, three white T-shirts, two white thermal undershirts, three pairs of white boxers and four pairs of white socks; one full sweatsuit, headphones, a phone charger, a prepaid phone card and some legal paperwork.

The dress clothes are for court, but Panezich plans to wear all of the whites underneath, in layers. "When you go [to jail]," he says, "they let you keep the whites you have on." The sweatsuit he's carrying in case of a miracle—if somehow he isn't sentenced to jail time he'll have a change of clothes. And, he says, "I'm getting back on a plane as soon as possible, because I hate this place."

THE SENTENCING hearing opens in the dark-wood-paneled, mostly empty, fourth-floor courtroom of Judge Maureen Sweeney just before 11 a.m. on April 11, 2017. Mahoning County Assistant D.A. Ralph Rivera, who's at the prosecutor's table alongside McGivern, sets up an easel and poster boards that spell out the scope of Operation Stolen Base: more than 27,000 eBay items sold and more than $2 million in sales, which the state says makes this one of the largest eBay fraud cases in domestic history. The prosecution attributes $1.4 million of the sales to Panezich, and the bulk of the rest to McCormick, who branched out on his own as a forger in Youngstown. On Rivera's organizational chart of mug shots, Cliff and Rose sit at the top. "It all starts and ends with Mr. Panezich," Rivera tells the judge.

When Panezich—in his black dress clothes with the whites underneath—stands to give his allocution, he's a catcher trying to regain control of the game. "Your honor," he begins, "I just want to say, I think I was misportrayed in the court." He offers an apology and an explanation: "It started as a legitimate business, and it snowballed into what you see before you...." But he has also written a sentencing memorandum that argues the prosecution has only proved he's responsible for $600,000 in eBay sales and that forgers in similar—albeit federal—cases received six months in jail, not the three-to-seven years he's facing. He tries to present himself as a small player in an industry that's widely plagued by forgeries, rather than someone who has personally defrauded thousands of naive buyers.

Sweeney is unmoved. She sentences Panezich to six years, with his earliest release in five. He briefly closes his eyes, processing his fate. The bailiff cuffs his left hand first, behind his back, and then his right, before leading him out the door. The whole hearing takes just 20 minutes and 28 seconds. (Panezich will eventually appeal the sentence.)

There is little to divvy up in the aftermath. Investigators have yet to uncover a stash of money. Panezich says that between rent, bills and Vegas clubbing and gambling, there's not much left, and McGivern believes him, saying, "I think [he] just blew all of it."

McCormick, who later receives a three-year sentence, has no money either; in his hearing he states that he's struggled with addictions to pills and gambling.

The most successful party, in the end, appears to be eBay, which would have earned more than $300,000 on auction and PayPal fees on $2.4 million in sales. Although eBay cooperated in the case, a company spokesman declined to answer SI's questions about whether it had contacted potential victims or returned any of the fees.

The $18,200 in rubber-banded cash (plus another $155.33 in other currency) that was seized from the Sandhill Sage house will get split up between the Canfield P.D. and the Mahoning County prosecutor's office. On May 12, Canfield police announce a plan to donate the sporting goods in evidence to charities. All of the autographs—the Trouts, the LeBrons, even the Obama—have been scribbled over with a marker.

Rose, meanwhile, continues to live in Henderson and receive regular collect phone calls from Cliff, who's in Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio. "I'm O.K.," she tells her son during one conversation. "I mean, I'll be all right—I'm a survivor—but of course I'm not O.K. My husband's dead, you're in jail, and I'm alone."

She's still in the process of recovering items that were taken into evidence during the raid of her house. She'd like to reclaim her son's jerseys from the various teams he played on and a Lucite cube containing a collegiate baseball with the inscription, TO GRANDMA, HOME RUN #9, 3-13-08. Investigators did not need that one, in the end. It was the lone ball with an autograph that they were certain was authentic: #18. CLIFF PANEZICH.

In the Can-Am League, Panezich is just some 22-year-old with a cortisone-injected right arm. That the local kids WANT HIS AUTOGRAPH is fascinating to him.

By November 2014, investigators have discovered MORE THAN $1 MILLION in eBay sales to 16,000-plus potential victims.

"I guess you could call it a ta lent," Panezich says of his forging skills. "But maybe CURSE IS A BETTER WORD FOR IT."

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