A man accused of selling fake Babe Ruth autographed baseballs to Florida pawn shops made an estimated $40,000 with the scheme.
Marc A. Szakaly, 40, from Land O’ Lakes, was arrested at his Pasco County home on Wednesday and charged with organized fraud. He posted $50,000 bond and was released from jail Thursday.
The Largo Police Department began an investigation in March with 19 law enforcement agencies in 15 counties — including Lee and Collier — identifying at least 35 cases of fraud involving Szakaly.
In April, a Bonita Springs pawn shop purchased a baseball supposedly signed by Babe Ruth. That ball came with what later proved to be a phony certificate of authentication with a serial number that had been used in several transactions across the state.
However, Lee County Sheriff’s Office officials did not confirm Friday whether or not they believe Szakaly was involved in that case.
A Largo pawn shop first notified local police after learning it had purchased a forged Babe Ruth baseball and fake certificate of authentication.
“The pawn shop had paid $1,500 to the guy,” said Lt. Michael Loux with Largo Police, who said a new buyer wanted the ball authenticated before purchase. A company called Professional Sports Authenticators determined that autograph was a fake.
Loux said Szakaly used his real name and thumbprint in each of the 35 cases Largo police connected. He used the same fake certificate of authentication with each of the forged balls and sold them for $1,500 to $3,000 a piece.
“We have no idea how he was forging signatures,” Loux said. “We didn’t obtain a search warrant or get into his house.”
Lewis Johnson of Gold Coast Pawn in Bonita Springs paid $1,000 for a phony Babe Ruth-signed baseball in April. The seller described himself as a Realtor from Tampa who purchased the ball for $5,000, but needed cash fast, Johnson said at the time.
Johnson compared the signature to examples on the internet, and everything looked fine, he said previously.
A man who answered the phone Friday at the Bonita Springs pawn shop declined comment.