Prosecutors say the sports card collection was supposedly filled with gems, including dozens of Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky rookie cards and vintage pieces featuring Hall of Fame baseball legends Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
The centerpiece was a rare, near-mint Babe Ruth card from 1916 when he pitched for the Boston Red Sox. A real card in that condition would be worth $4 million.
But federal agents say the cards were fake and included items in resealed wax packs, part of a fraud concocted by Muskegon-area resident Bryan Kennert, 57, who is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court Tuesday for perpetrating a fraud involving counterfeit cards. If real, the cards would have been worth $7.3 million, according to an expert valuation federal investigators obtained.
Court records, analysis by baseball card authenticators and a handwritten letter chronicle a life of crime that started more than 30 years ago, spread to China and ended in an antique mall near the shores of Lake Michigan. The documents also detail a federal investigation involving undercover agents, a hidden tracking device and victims who spent more than $43,000 on what they thought were rare vintage sports cards before discovering the truth.
“Nearly worthless,” said sports memorabilia authenticator Steve Hart, who helped uncover the fraud. “One hundred percent complete garbage.”
The case is the latest involving forged or counterfeit sports memorabilia, a crime that has boomed during the pandemic and as authentic sports cards and items fetch record prices, including Mantle’s 1952 rookie card auctioned in August for $12.6 million and a Jordan jersey auctioned this month for $10.1 million. The Kennert case comes two years after FBI agents, in a separate case, raided a forgery factory hidden deep in the woods of northern Michigan where investigators say a skilled artist produced phony artwork and sports memorabilia.
“Since the pandemic, we have seen a tremendous rise in fraud issues related to the (trading card) hobby,” said FBI Special Agent Brian Brusokas, who specializes in investigating fraud involving sports collectibles and art.
“I suspect it is because of the spotlight that has been shined on the hobby as a result of the high dollar amounts being paid for sports collectibles,” he added. “It draws people into the hobby at every level, not just the high end.”
The scheduled Tuesday sentencing marks the latest low for Kennert following a history of arrests and convictions for fraud and trafficking in counterfeit products between 1987 and 1996.
In 1992 and in an earlier court case, Kennert was convicted of importing counterfeit baseball cards from Hong Kong and selling them as legitimate, according to the government. Kennert had been an Oakland University student and his roommate’s dad owned a print shop in China. The father made counterfeit cards for Kennert, according to court records.
China move creates problems
After serving his sentence, Kennert moved to China, worked as a supervisor at a toy factory and fell in love.
“Tragically, Mr. Kennert’s joy was cut short when his love was killed in a car accident,” defense lawyer Joanna Kloet wrote in a sentencing memo. “Bereft, he moved back to the United States and lived with his mother.”
Trouble soon returned.
In 2014, FBI agents in Grand Rapids investigated Kennert after he was accused of trying to auction a box of 1969 Topps baseball cards that had been opened and resealed, according to court records.
“Ultimately, the cards were discovered to be fraudulent before they were sold,” Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Scott Bauer wrote in a search warrant affidavit.
During the 2014 investigation, agents questioned Kennert and he admitted the cards were phony, according to Bauer.
“Kennert told the FBI he worked in China in 2007 and 2008 and during that time made contacts with various counterfeiters of sports cards, coins, and US currency,” the agent wrote. “Kennert provided these individuals with advice on quality and strategies. Kennert stated he smuggled suitcase loads of currency from China to Hong Kong.”
Kennert also told investigators he specialized in dealing sports cards and sold the items by using shell companies and false identities, the agent added.
“Kennert told the FBI he made enough money in China that he did not need to work upon his return to the United States,” Bauer wrote.
Moving counterfeits to a mall
Around 2018, Kennert rented a small booth at the Anything And Everything antiques mall in Muskegon and stocked it with baseball cards.
Andy and Mary Frisinger were shopping for baseball cards in 2019 when they walked past Kennert’s booth, investigators said.
During a six-month period in 2019, the couple spent $43,355 on what they thought were authentic vintage baseball card packs, including ones that had not been available on the collector’s market for 11 years, Bauer wrote.
“Upon receipt of some of these packs, Andy Frisinger noticed the packs appeared to be glued back together, and a Michael Jordan rookie card discovered in one of the packs was too large to fit into a standard protective case,” the agent wrote.
After the discovery, the couple met with Hart, an expert in unopened vintage sports cards and owner of the firm Baseball Card Exchange.
Hart reviewed purchases by the Frisingers, including baseball cards from the 1930s, Topps football cards from the 1960s and a 1986/87 Fleer basketball pack that included a Jordan rookie card.
Hart concluded the packs had been “tampered with and resealed,” according to court records.
“According to Hart, the resealing was done poorly and consistently, leading him to conclude that it was done by the same person,” the Homeland Security agent wrote.
The cards, if authentic, would fetch approximately $200,000. But the cards the Frisingers bought were worth a fraction of the amount, according to Hart.
The Frisingers did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“Upon hearing this, Mr. Frisinger did not call Mr. Kennert to discuss what he had been told, or to demand his money back for those items,” Kennert’s lawyer Joanna Kloet wrote in a sentencing memo. “Instead, he called upon the federal law enforcement authorities to avenge his deal.”
‘Very sorry’ for ‘past mistakes’
Behind the scenes, Homeland Security agents were conducting a “clandestine” investigation, the defense lawyer wrote.
They conducted live surveillance at his Norton Shores home and hid a GPS tracking device on his car in June 2021 that let investigators track Kennert’s movements, his lawyer wrote.
“They watched his weekly comings and goings,” Kloet wrote, “even when he went to his doctor’s office.”
Investigators raided Kennert’s home in July 2021. They seized 10 boxes of sports cards and sports memorabilia, a bag of counterfeit cards and framed baseball cards, according to a search warrant inventory.
Kennert “told investigators he intended to sell everything in his house at an upcoming estate sale,” prosecutors wrote.
“Mr. Kennert acknowledged he felt very sorry about his past mistakes,” his lawyer wrote in a sentencing memo.
Kennert told agents he had decided to stop committing crimes.
“He had a morale change, and he burned most of the counterfeit items from China,” his lawyer wrote.
After seizing cards from Kennert’s house, investigators had the items analyzed by Phil Endris, a buyer with Baseball Card Exchange.
He compared cards and packs seized at Kennert’s home with recent sales and concluded the items would have been worth $7,326,212 if they were authentic.
$7.3M valuation challenged
Investigators found another sham Ruth card in the collection from 1916 that would have been worth $500,000 if real. Kennert had three of them.
Agents found other wax packs that would have had five-figure price tags. The nearly four-dozen Gretzky rookie cards would have been worth more than $634,000. If real, the 11 copies of Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr’s rookie card from the 1960s would have been worth almost $271,000.
“Kennert admitted he planned to sell the cards and sports memorabilia that were at his home,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Davin Reust wrote in a sentencing memo. “Indeed, Kennert told the victims of his crime that they could buy more cards from him or at his upcoming estate sale.”
Trading card fraud spans the gamut of eras, athletes and sports, Brusokas wrote in an email to The Detroit News.
“Obviously, the vintage market typically sells for more money, but younger collectors want to collect what they see on tv: their modern heroes,” he wrote. “So, it doesn’t just involve one market; both modern and vintage are hit. It’s just about the price points.”
Kennert was indicted in March on eight counts of wire fraud, each punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. Prosecutors accused him of buying packs of baseball cards that he knew were resealed and peddling them from April 2019 to July 2021 as original, authentic and unopened packs.
Kennert also obtained loose cards that he packaged and resealed, according to the indictment.
He pleaded guilty to all eight counts in May.
Kennert is challenging the $7.3 million valuation of cards seized from his home, calling it unreasonable and too high. Prosecutors are asking U.S. District Judge Hala Jarbou to consider a lower valuation of $4.3 million that was prepared initially by Endris before he conducted a more thorough study.
A plea for home confinement
Court officials are using the $4.3 million figure and a discounted rate to calculate the “intended loss” involved in Kennert’s crimes. The government’s figure would increase the range of time Kennert could spend in prison, but his lawyer argues the more accurate number is the $43,355 Frisinger spent on Kennert’s cards.
That figure justifies sparing Kennert from a prison cell and sentencing him to home confinement, his lawyer wrote.
Kloet cited Kennert’s history of mental and physical problems, including depression, a stroke, chronic kidney disease and diabetes, among other woes.
Kennert is ashamed, his lawyer wrote.
“The naïve and ambitious mistake that he made as a young man, which led to his felony conviction, has haunted him his entire life,” Kloet wrote.
In a handwritten letter to the judge, Kennert said he had avoided legal problems for almost 30 years and asked to be spared from going to prison.
“I am hoping to find employment…to pay the restitution within the time of sentence and supervised release,” Kennert wrote. “This gives the victims the best way to get the money back quickly.
“I just want to take care of my responsibilities and live the rest of my life in peace,” he added. “I will not do anything else wrong the rest of my life.”