The Great Super Bowl Jersey Caper
Two months ago in Houston, Tom Brady’s jersey was stolen from the Patriots’ postgame locker room. The investigation spanned thousands of miles, involved two nations and unfolded against the backdrop of a tense geopolitical drama. And the culprit might never spend a night in jail
Mexico City — The knock at the door came at 5:40 a.m., men in gray fatigues and bulletproof vests interrupting the silence of the gated community in the rolling hills northwest of the city center.
The neighborhood’s armed security guards had lifted the gates for Mexico’s Interpol director and members of the federal police force, who are accustomed to taking down the doors of drug dens with swift and sudden violence. This time they knocked politely; inside was a man they didn’t understand, who had in his possession something very valuable to some very important people north of the Rio Grande.
Martín Mauricio Ortega, the middle-aged director of a Mexican tabloid newspaper, answered the door in black sweats and a blue flannel, long-sleeved shirt. He was confused, startled, upset. But mostly he was shocked.
As one investigator puts it: “I don’t think he ever believed Mexican police would catch on to him.”
The saga of Tom Brady’s twin number 12 jerseys took investigators from Houston to New England to Mexico’s capital, roughly 4,000 miles of hazy legal interpretations and geopolitical intrigue. In a way, it was a fitting end for one of the most thrilling comebacks in NFL history; a mild-mannered man with extraordinary gall took advantage of the chaos around him and pulled off a heist for the ages. And he almost got away with it.
Shortly after leading the New England Patriots past the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, with the biggest comeback in the game’s history, Tom Brady realizes his game jersey has gone missing.
Of all the emotions the Patriots quarterback would feel in the wake of his fifth Super Bowl championship, agitation was not among the likeliest.
Brady had engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, clawing his team out of a 28–3 second-half hole. He’d accepted an extended congratulatory handshake from Roger Goodell, the commissioner who’d suspended him for the first four games of 2016. At his postgame press conference he’d fought off the little wobble that had crept into his voice all week at the thought of his mother, Galynn, whose oncologists had cleared her to travel to Houston for her first game of the season.
But a little after 10 p.m. CST, standing in the visitors’ locker room at NRG Stadium, Brady was the most flummoxed he’d been all night.
“Did anyone see it?!” he shouted, as caught on a Yahoo Sports video, seconds before grabbing his postgame smoothie.
The number 12 white road jersey had soaked up Brady’s sweat over the 99 plays New England’s offense had run that night. In the throng on the field afterward, the quarterback removed his shirt and shoulder pads and handed them off to a team employee, who promptly delivered them to Brady’s locker. Thirty minutes later Brady rode shotgun in a golf cart from his press conference to the main entrance of the cramped visitors’ quarters.
The locker room was still closed to anybody but the Patriots and NFL staff—or so they thought. This space, less than half the size of the Patriots’ home locker room at Gillette Stadium, would fill up quickly when the doors opened to the media, but before the storm there were just a few dozen people milling around, the smallest crowd Brady had seen all day. He took his jersey, carefully folded it and placed it into his black-leather travel bag, then headed to a sink in the adjoining bathroom to wash off his sweat-smudged eye black.
Brady had won this Super Bowl, like the four before it, in large part because of his attention to detail when deciphering opponents. To notice that his jersey was not where he’d left it upon returning from the washroom was, by comparison, an easy read.
“B, did someone take my jersey?” Brady asked Patriots equipment assistant Brenden Murphy. “I put it in my bag. I absolutely, 100%, put it in my bag.”
With cameras now rolling in the locker room, it was a question that would be heard around the world. Brady informed team owner Robert Kraft as he passed out victory cigars from a wooden box. The next day, during his regular Monday-morning radio spot with Boston station WEEI, Brady casually revealed that his Super Bowl XLIX jersey had also gone missing two years ago, after the victory over the Seahawks in Arizona.
On Monday, NFL security reps began interviewing game-day staff who’d been working in and around the locker room near the time of the suspected theft, before security personnel and potential suspects left Houston. At 2 p.m. on Monday the Houston Police Department filed a report from a complainant: Brady, Tom, 6' 4", 225 pounds and 39 years of age, for a stolen Shirt/Blouse/T-Shirt valued at $500,000.00. Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick summoned the Texas Rangers.
It was easily the most famous sweat-soaked shirt in NFL history, snatched at a SEAR (Special Events Assessment Rating) Level 1 event, the Department of Homeland Security’s classification for an occasion of significant national or international importance. These days, of course, such events are well-recorded. Fox, the network broadcasting the game, had three cameras surrounding the Patriots’ locker room, one by each of the two entrances and one just inside the door. Houston police requested footage from local news stations, including KHOU.
There was another camera rolling, too, when and where no other was allowed. The Patriots’ in-house video crew had been recording the team’s immediate postgame locker room moments all season, before outside media were let in. On the night of Super Bowl LI, according to an investigator who has seen the footage, their lens panned around the room, and on the MVP as he stepped away from his stall, and then back to Brady’s locker on the right side near the door, where, in the words of one law-enforcement source, “Somebody was standing next to the cookie jar.”
Eight days after Super Bowl LI, six investigators convene in a Gillette Stadium conference room to review locker room footage from Houston. During their meeting, one of the agents' phones buzzes with a tip.
The week after the Super Bowl was a typical one for New England: a ticker-tape parade down Boylston Street, Rob Gronkowski spiking a beer off a duck boat, a blizzard descending.
A winter storm due to arrive on Sunday, Feb. 12, threatened an important Monday morning meeting at Gillette. A weather alert had been issued on a critical FedEx parcel sent from Los Angeles to Foxborough. The contents: a USB drive containing more than one terabyte of raw footage recorded by Fox the night of Super Bowl LI.
The FedEx package made it through, but Houston Police Department officials weren’t so lucky. Their travel to the meeting was delayed because of the storm, and they didn’t arrive until Valentine’s Day. By then the case was already moving beyond U.S. borders.
Houston PD, which has publicly taken credit for cracking the case, bristled at taking a back seat to other agencies. “They tried to hijack our investigation,” grumbled one Houston law-enforcement official. “This is our city, and we weren’t responsible for that locker room, but the only blemish on the entire [Super Bowl] was this theft.” This crime occurred in Houston PD jurisdiction, but the value of the lost item and the fact that the investigation would soon extend across not only state but international lines drew in the FBI.
“This is our city, and we weren’t responsible for that locker room, but the only blemish on the entire [Super Bowl] was this theft,” said a Houston law-enforcement official.
The six past and present law-enforcement officials, two apiece from NFL security, Patriots security and the FBI’s Boston office, gathered in the conference room at 10 a.m. for a true rarity in Foxborough, a film session for which Bill Belichick was not invited. Among their résumés: stoking the cold case of the $500 million heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, wrangling a fugitive on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list and investigating the allegation that an NFL quarterback had used deliberately underinflated footballs (you know, Deflategate).
Before lunchtime, more quickly than anyone had anticipated, the group had picked out the culprit—the one person in the locker room before the doors opened who was unknown to the Patriots’ staff. The Fox footage, which the network has since released to the public as part of Jay Glazer’s original reporting on the theft, captured the suspect before and after the crime. At 9:51 p.m. he’s snapping a selfie with Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater at midfield. At 10:04 p.m. he’s tailing the Bill Belichick group headed into the locker room, slipping in just behind the coach and his girlfriend. At 10:08 p.m., with a mouthful of bottled water, he looks directly into a locker-room security camera. At 10:11 p.m. he’s lurking back against a wall, waiting. At 10:18 p.m. he’s leaving through the same locker-room door by which he entered, now holding an item under his left arm.
The Patriots’ in-house cameras closed the loop on the seven-minute gap in the Fox footage. The thief was never caught with his hand in the cookie jar—but, according to an investigator who saw the footage, it showed the man in the Fox video standing right next to the black bag in Brady’s locker.
“He looks very relaxed,” says the investigator who’s seen the Patriots’ footage. “He looks like he belongs there. He’s honed his skills over the years.”
“[Ortega] looks very relaxed,” says the investigator who’s seen the Patriots’ footage. “He looks like he belongs there. He’s honed his skills over the years.”
The culprit seemed to have had a well-practiced M.O., perfected over a decade of attending Super Bowls with a media credential around his neck. He’d never spend Super Bowl week at one of the media hotels, but rather would lodge nearby so as not to be identified as part of the press. His wardrobe for the game was a dark suit, to blend in with p.r. people and other functionaries, and a long tie that draped over his credential to obscure the clearance level indicated by its color. As for getting into the locker room early, one investigator suspected that “through social engineering or past experience [he] found it convincing to walk behind the coach.” He was not at the Super Bowl as working press but more as a glorified fan who, shortly after the theft, showed off a selfie he had snapped with Brady, the man whose jersey he’d just pilfered.
First, the investigators just had a face. Next they needed a name. In the Gillette conference room, they searched the database of 20,000 people credentialed for the Super Bowl—not just media but vendors and security as well. The criteria: male, 40 years and older, white, possibly Latino. That pared the list to about 800 candidates. Investigators went through those headshots alphabetically, one by one, until they reached the letter “O.” Martín Mauricio Ortega, director of the Mexico City–based tabloid La Prensa.
Bam, we got him.
What happened next is straight out of an episode of Law & Order. Seconds later—literally—one of the FBI Boston agents received a photo on his phone. The source was a Chicago-based FBI agent, well-known among collectors as the lead dog on the government’s probe into fraud in the multibillion dollar sports memorabilia industry. He had gotten a tip.
The informant was 19-year-old Dylan Wagner, a Boston-born lifelong Patriots fan who now lives in Seattle. In December, Wagner sold a game-worn Deion Branch jersey on eBay. He and the buyer emailed each other photos of their collections, as collectors often do, and Wagner was taken aback when the man sent 27 pictures of his robust trove. “This guy is a god in the collecting world,” Wagner thought at the time. Wagner noticed a premier item front and center in one shot: A No. 12 jersey from Super Bowl XLIX, with grass stains matching the shirt Brady had worn that night. “How’d you get it?” Wagner asked. The buyer replied that it was a long story, and he’d tell him later. Wagner followed up, wanting to know if he’d gotten the shirt legally. The buyer never responded.
The jersey hadn’t been reported as stolen at the time, so Wagner didn’t think much of it—other than to share the photo with several collector friends, one of whom works for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Boston. The day after Super Bowl LI, when the world was learning that Brady was now missing two Super Bowl jerseys, that ATF friend sent Wagner a link to a news story. Red flags went up for both of them.
The friend forwarded Wagner’s information to a contact of his—the FBI Chicago agent. By the end of that week, the Chicago agent called Wagner, requesting all the information he had—name, address, IP address, email chains, etc.
Back at Gillette Stadium on Feb. 13, the Boston agent opened the message: It was the picture of Brady’s Super Bowl XLIX jersey on display in a memorabilia room, linked to the very same man whose picture was staring back at them on the NFL security representative’s laptop.
The next step was clear: Start making plans to go to Mexico.
The initial subject of the investigation had been Tom Brady’s Super Bowl LI jersey. Now authorities are also seeking to recover Brady’s Super Bowl XLIX jersey. One suspect, two items—at least.
In August 2016, memorabilia dealer Brian Drent made plans to meet a client at Denver International Airport. Drent had turned a childhood hobby of collecting baseball cards into a business, Mile High Card Company, a high-end auction house he runs out of Castle Rock, Colo.
He had sold items to this client before—a Terrell Davis practice-worn jersey auctioned at $4,000, and pairs of cleats worn by Tom Brady, Emmitt Smith and Adam Vinatieri. This purchase was the client’s biggest one yet, a Joe Montana jersey that sold for $24,887. The client wired the money from Mexico City and made arrangements to fly to Denver to collect the jersey.
Drent waited in the passenger pickup line at DIA in his bronze BMW X5. Soon, sitting in the front passenger seat, was Martín Mauricio Ortega.
Game-used items are the most hotly coveted by collectors seeking to own a real piece of history. Before Super Bowl LI, NFL Auctions and Hunt Auctions, as part of the league’s charitable initiatives for Breast Cancer Awareness and Salute To Service, put up for bid a “rare and desirable” jersey worn by Brady during an October 2014 win against the Bills, further described as “one of a scant few documented game-used jerseys to have entered the marketplace from arguably the game’s greatest quarterback.” The winning bid was $50,000. In the moments after Brady discovered that his Super Bowl LI jersey was missing from his bag, he quipped, “If anyone sees, on eBay, a jersey for sale. . . . ”
But selling the Super Bowl LI jersey, with the world having learned instantly of its theft, would have been essentially impossible. According to multiple industry sources, it would be fairly easy for a thief to turn stolen NFL merchandise into profit, provided the theft was never publicized and the thief was willing to put his name on a letter verifying its authenticity and describing how it was acquired. Memorabilia dealers in the U.S. allow customers to sell items through their websites via a process called consignment. If the seller is not known to the auction house, he must provide several references, and in any case, he must write a letter detailing the piece’s provenance. The seller provides photographs of the item that the auction house can compare against wire-service photographs from the game in which the item was used.
As it turns out, Ortega has been buying and selling American football memorabilia online since at least 1996, traveling the U.S. to meet with a handful of memorabilia dealers, all of whom would have little means of verifying the source of the merchandise. When Ortega tried to sell what he claimed was a John Elway Broncos jersey to Memorabilia.Expert, a Las Vegas memorabilia dealership, several years ago, CEO Victor Moreno says the item, like several others Ortega had offered, did not pass inspection.
“That’s not to say it wasn’t real,” Moreno says. “It happens fairly often that we can’t verify something’s authenticity and we decline to consign it.” Authorities who recovered Brady’s jerseys were mildly surprised to find them smelling of sweat and grass; they presumed the thief would have washed the items. What they didn’t understand is that every detail that smacks of authenticity makes the item more valuable.
In the chaos of a postgame locker room, players can easily lose track of items. According to numerous memorabilia dealers, a quality source of game-used memorabilia in the past has been equipment managers who took advantage of a muddled definition of ownership for items such as jerseys and helmets.
When news of the stolen Super Bowl jersey spread in February, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs posted on Twitter that he had his Super Bowl XLII jersey taken from him. For years, Jacobs says, he’s had framed in his home what he thought was his game-worn number 27 jersey, next to his game-worn Super Bowl XLVI shirt, gifts for each of his two sons. He recalls handing his XLII jersey to an equipment manager after the game and picking it up the next day when the Giants returned to New Jersey. Two years ago, however, he received an email from a collector who claimed to have Jacobs’s entire game-worn uniform—jersey, helmet, pants and thigh pads—which he said his friend purchased from a Giants equipment manager. The collector sent Jacobs pictures that appeared to match the grass stains and paint marks shown in game photos. Jacobs now believes the jersey hanging on his wall is not the one he actually wore in the Super Bowl, but rather the backup shirt that he never put on that day. (Members of the Giants equipment staff are part of an ongoing lawsuit, with the two men who contacted Jacobs among the plaintiffs, alleging, among other claims, that the team and quarterback Eli Manning falsified game-used memorabilia. When the suit was filed in 2014, a Giants spokesperson called allegations “completely without any merit.” The Giants declined comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.)
In the chaos of a post-game locker room, players can easily lose track of items. It took two years, after all, for Brady to mention that he never found his Super Bowl XLIX jersey.
Years ago, Cowboys great Emmitt Smith discovered a cache of mall-store collectibles that had his forged signature on them. Smith started a technology company, PROVA, that he believes can help players, teams and the NFL protect the authenticity of memorabilia, including game-used items. A step beyond PSA/DNA, the third-party authentication service the NFL has used since the ’90s, Smith’s technology uses stamp-sized smart chips embedded in items. Using a smartphone app, the chips are updated to track when the item was worn, guarding against fake game-used items; it can also flag an item as stolen. The Cowboys used this technology in their jerseys last season, and now with the heightened attention on securing memorabilia, Smith is seeking to gain more NFL clients. It wouldn’t prevent a theft—but this technology makes it harder for stolen goods to be sold on the open market.
Ortega might have explored the idea of selling the Brady jersey, had its disappearance not turned into an international incident, of course. And he apparently had other unique Super Bowl items to sell. During his brief conversation with Drent at the Denver airport, Ortega had asked a head-scratching question: What was Von Miller’s game-used helmet from Super Bowl 50 worth?
Drent, a Broncos season-ticket holder, had attended that game just six months earlier. He wondered how a guy from Mexico could have the helmet in his possession so soon after the game, but shrugged it off. He didn’t know what Ortega did for a living, and he certainly didn’t suspect his client had turned that job into a free memorabilia grab. And then Ortega brought up another piece of Super Bowl gear in his possession.
“He also asked me about the other Brady jersey,” Drent says. “He didn’t ask me a value or anything on that—he just told me he had another Brady jersey from a Super Bowl. I didn’t think anything of it, the same way I didn’t give it much thought when he told me he had Von Miller’s helmet.”
Two NFL security representatives fly to Mexico City. Over the next five days, they’ll work with FBI agents at the U.S. embassy and with Mexican law-enforcement officials to formulate a plan to retrieve the jerseys, while delicately navigating a tenuous political situation.
La Prensa, the newspaper Ortega worked at for more than 30 years, is not a major power player in Mexico City. Officials there were surprised that anybody from La Prensa, much less a director and not an actual journalist, could get close enough to Tom Brady to steal his jersey. “La Prensa is the newspaper the shoe-shine man on the street hands you while he shines your shoes,” says one veteran journalist based in Mexico City. One employee of the paper’s parent company, the Mexican Editorial Organization (OEM), who was willing to discuss the inner workings of the company on the condition of anonymity, describes it as “nota roja,” a type of sensationalist Mexican news. “If you buy a newspaper you won’t buy this one,” the source says.
But whatever small measure of levity Mexican authorities found in the notion that the NFL had allowed a man with stunningly poor credentials into the inner sanctum of its national pastime was erased by a larger reality.
When veteran Mexican sportswriter Arturo Palafox heard the day after the Super Bowl that the Patriots hadn’t located Brady’s jersey, a singular fear popped into his mind: “I hope there are no Mexicans involved in this thing, because of what Donald Trump [has said about] Mexicans.”
In Mexico City, the U.S. president is a regular topic of discussion. There is little debate over Trump: He is reviled for the comments he made on the character of Mexicans when he kicked off his presidential campaign in 2015, and for his desire to build a border wall and have Mexico foot the bill. Trump’s mug adorns the front page of numerous periodicals at any given time, including, last month, El Chamuco, a collection of mature-themed political cartoons. (On the cover, the president is depicted defecating into a Mexico-shaped toilet bowl while tweeting from his seat. The headline: “#MAKE MECSICOU S--- AGAIN”.)
American officials were also cognizant of the charged atmosphere. “We had [Ortega] identified—that wasn’t the point,” says a U.S. investigator who worked on the case. “It was now the point of walking that political minefield as delicately as we could to appease everybody. We didn’t want to upset the Mexican authorities, we didn’t want to upset the Mexican people, we didn’t want to upset the U.S. embassy.”
Realizing the case’s sensitivity and need for special handling, Dick Farley, the NFL security rep assigned to the Patriots, reached out to a contact from his days as an FBI special agent in Connecticut: John Durham, the assistant U.S. attorney in New Haven. Durham moved the case forward by coordinating with U.S. attorney’s offices in Houston and Phoenix, the sites of Super Bowls LI and XLIX, and attorneys at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. The involvement of the Department of Justice and the FBI, which had taken the case from the Houston Police Department, was clue enough that this was a red ball.
Patriots security had communicated to the FBI that from their standpoint, the goal was simply to get the jersey back as soon as possible. Mexican authorities, meanwhile, wrestled with the idea of charging Ortega for the theft of the jersey, appraised at $500,000 in Houston PD’s initial report. In Mexico, the theft of more than 35,000 pesos ($1,800 U.S.) carries a minimum sentence of four years, and unlike in the U.S., prosecutors in Mexico are given far less discretion when it comes to determining whether or not to bring charges against a suspect.
The moment they execute a search warrant and find someone in possession of stolen property, they are obligated by law to seek criminal punishment, says Samuel González, a security analyst and former head of the organized crime unit in Mexico’s federal prosecutors office.
From a law-enforcement standpoint, Ortega had unwittingly committed something akin to the perfect crime. The moment he crossed the Rio Grande, he was all but assured he would never spend a day in a jail cell.
But there was a significant issue: determining the jersey’s value in Mexico. No significant market for game-used NFL jerseys exists there. “If I were his lawyer, I would say the value of the thing is $200,” says González. “Then [prosecutors] would have to prove the value is $500,000.”
Additionally, extradition of a Mexican criminal to the U.S. carries a high standard—drug dealers, murderers and the like, not jersey thieves. From a law-enforcement standpoint, Ortega may have unwittingly committed something akin to the perfect crime. The moment he crossed the Rio Grande at 35,000 feet on his 6 a.m. flight to Mexico City, with Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey in his luggage, he was all but assured he would never spend a day in a jail cell.
NFL security officials return to Mexico for a second time, to provide any last-minute assistance before the plan to recover the shirt is executed. They leave before the raid, handing the operation to Mexican authorities.
On the Ortegas’ front door, a decorative letter O hung slightly askew, joined by a cartoon bunny in overalls, carrots dangling from its right hand. When a reporter knocked, there was no answer. A next-door neighbor said she had not seen Ortega in many days (and was promptly scolded by a male companion for talking to the press). Phone calls to Ortega’s home were answered by a housekeeper who promised to relay messages. Ortega did not respond to numerous emails and voicemails.
To those who know him and worked with him, his love of football and the pageantry of the Super Bowl was no secret.
Every year for at least a decade Ortega took time off during Super Bowl week and applied for a game credential. A former employee at La Prensa who often wrote articles about the Super Bowl said those pieces typically ran with a generic staff byline until a couple of years ago when, despite the fact that the actual author was writing off the TV feed in Mexico City, the stories began to appear under Ortega’s name.
“I think he feared scrutiny from the NFL,” says the former employee, “so he started having the staff put his name on the articles.” Ortega was credited with 12 bylines in La Prensa’s Super Bowl LI coverage.
But to those who know [Ortega] and worked with him, his love of football and the pageantry of the Super Bowl was no secret.
A current employee of OEM, described a structure of lax supervision at the highest levels of the company. As director, Ortega oversaw La Prensa’s newsroom and editorial budget. He did not have an immediate boss in the same building.
His OEM superiors did not know Ortega was at the Super Bowl. A spokesperson points out that because Ortega paid his own way for Super Bowl travel they only had to approve his vacation request, and adds that he likely wasn’t exposed by his employees because he was so well liked. Indeed, Ortega was described by the former La Prensa employee as an effective manager who delved into editorial matters when they concerned high-profile political news, though his background was in accounting.
“He was very calm,” says Gabriel Pacheco, another former sportswriter at La Prensa. “He would make jokes, say hi to everyone. He made it a good working environment. He wouldn’t get mad easily or explode.”
Ortega had little taste for Mexico’s national pastime, soccer, but he loved American football.
Ortega kept a simple office, light on decor aside from a few miniature NFL helmets and pictures of his wife and two daughters. He had little taste for Mexico’s national pastime, soccer, but he loved American football. Occasionally he would bring in memorabilia items to show to the few staffers who shared his passion for the NFL. He brought jerseys and cleats and footballs autographed by Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman and other NFL legends, and showed his employees selfies he’d taken with those players. Sometimes he’d print the selfies out and have them signed upon a return visit to the U.S. As a Cowboys fan, he’d attend the occasional regular-season game, a colleague says, gaining media access to the bowels of the stadium where he could more easily approach franchise legends for autographs. He was also credentialed for the NFL’s regular-season game in Mexico City between the Raiders and the Texans, played last November.
Ortega maintained an eBay account, registered on Jan. 10, 2002. His username paid homage to the 16th century Aztec ruler Moctezuma II. Through the online auction site, Ortega has bought at least 100 items. His most recent registered purchase: a game-used Mark Sanchez Jets jersey, for $405, last May.
While La Prensa’s Mauricio Ortega was, as far as the paper’s readers could tell, attending Super Bowl press conferences hosted by the commissioner and interviewing Tom Brady at the podium, the real Ortega was lugging around a bag filled with memorabilia and hanging around radio row and the Super Bowl’s various outdoor venues, discreetly seeking autographs and photos with players.
Palafox, sports editor of the Mexico City newspaper 24 Horas, says he struck up a friendship with Ortega during rides from their hotel to the Houston convention center (Ortega stayed at the Holiday Inn while Palafox stayed at the Hilton, which had been reserved for media by the NFL). Palafox says Ortega was clear in that he was not there to cover the game or the festivities, but to collect autographs and enjoy the week as a fan. He carried a book authored by Emmitt Smith that he’d planned to have signed by the Hall of Famer so he could bring it back to Mexico City as a gift for his priest. He’d shown Palafox a Kurt Warner jersey without a signature, then came back the next day with the jersey signed by Warner. He said he’d collected plenty of similar NFL memorabilia. He carried with him a silver helmet wrapped in plastic that included the signatures were from all but two of the 50 Super Bowl MVPs. He told other journalists he’d bought the helmet for $2,000 several years ago with 10 autographs; now it was worth more than $15,000, he said. The price stunned the journalists, who knew newspaper directors in Mexico City to typically earn in the ballpark of 70,000 pesos a month, about $3,700 U.S. dollars.
“He would not mingle with the reporters,” said one longtime Mexican sportswriter. “And he looks white, with very light eyes, so we didn’t know if he was Mexican at first. We were surprised to hear him speak Spanish.”
When Ortega approached Marshall Faulk during the week, the Hall of Famer and NFL Network analyst turned him away, citing the policy disallowing credentialed media to seek autographs. “He was a little angry, but he understood the rules,” Palafox says.
Ortega had begun his career “covering” Super Bowls quietly, and with little interaction with fellow members of the international media. “He would not mingle with the reporters,” said one longtime Mexican sportswriter, who asked not to be named. “And he looks white, with very light eyes, so we didn’t know if he was Mexican at first. We were surprised to hear him speak Spanish.”
At some point over the years Ortega came out of his shell. Palafox described Ortega as “seductively charming,” having a confident and outgoing manner. He talked about his extensive memorabilia collection, and his two daughters, and how everything he had was for them and their inheritance.
Ortega was described as “seductively charming,” having a confident and outgoing manner.
The night of the Super Bowl in Houston, Palafox conducted interviews in both teams’ locker rooms and in the postgame press conference area, then ventured outside to search for Spanish-speaking fans to interview. After conducting interviews with three groups of Mexican fans, he boarded the shuttle that would take him back to the Hilton. And there on the bus was Ortega, carrying the same black shoulder bag he’d lugged around all week.
Palafox was energized; he’d just covered his first Super Bowl, and it had been arguably the greatest comeback in league history, conducted by one of its all-time great quarterbacks. He plopped down next to Ortega on the shuttle and began cycling through the pictures on his phone. He leaned in to Ortega and showed him several shots he’d taken of Brady looking perturbed and searching for his missing jersey. Ortega didn’t flinch. He pulled out his own smartphone and one-upped Palafox—he’d taken a selfie with Brady in the moments after the win.
When Palafox heard the news of the jersey the next day, he thought nothing of the memorabilia hound who had finagled his way into a Super Bowl. After all, Ortega had brought with him a gift for his priest, “so he’s a religious guy,” Palafox says.
“I don’t mind telling this story, because this man put me at great risk,” Palafox says. “I was sitting a meter away from Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey. If the police had boarded that bus and found that jersey between the two of us, we’d both be in handcuffs.”
“I was sitting a meter away from Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey,” Palafox says. “If the police had boarded that bus and found that jersey between the two of us, we’d both be in handcuffs.”
Sitting safely at his desk in the high-rise newsroom of 24 Horas, Palafox pulled up Ortega’s Whatsapp messaging contact on his computer and chuckled. Under his name and contact info, the caption read: “Por la gracia de Dios soy lo que soy,” a quote from Corinthians 15:10.
By the grace of God, I am what I am.
“Ironic,” Palafox said with a laugh.
At 5:40 a.m. Mexican law-enforcement officials arrive at Ortega’s doorstep. They have a search warrant for his home in this suburban, gated community in Condado de Sayavedra. But they will not execute it.
Dressed in his pajamas, his stunned wife looking on, Ortega was face-to-face with armed federal agents. According to a source in the Mexican government, a deal was presented: Hand over the Super Bowl jerseys and whatever else you’ve stolen, and you will sleep in your own bed not only tonight, but for the foreseeable future. Ortega fished a black trash bag out of a dresser drawer and gave it to the police, who took photos of the transaction to prove Ortega’s cooperation.
Agents didn’t tear up the floorboards, toss cabinets or pull kitchen appliances from their wall connections. They didn’t even search the lower floor. They simply asked, Do you have anything else? He did.
He made a phone call to a friend who arrived shortly thereafter. (Mexican police on the scene dubbed the physically stout newcomer Gordito, “little fat one.”) The friend brought with him an orange-and-navy-blue helmet with year-old scuff marks on the crown: Von Miller’s Super Bowl 50 helmet.
It is unclear how Ortega acquired Miller’s helmet, including whether he stole it from Denver’s locker room at Super Bowl 50. It is also unclear how he managed to get Brady’s XLIX jersey. Neither CBS, which broadcast Super Bowl 50, nor NBC, which broadcast XLIX, archived the raw locker room footage from the games.
“This is supposed to be the most secure environment of any sporting event in the world other than the Olympics, and some guy came and walked off with something valued at half a million dollars under the nose of NFL security,” says the Houston police chief.
To the Mexican authorities, the haul might as well have been a laundry pickup. They declined to search the rest of the house and departed as quietly as they’d arrived, leaving the slumbering stallions at a neighboring horse farm none the wiser. To the U.S. officials waiting back at the embassy, the trash bag and the helmet represented the culmination of a weeks-long transcontinental search that had cost hundreds of man hours and tested the geopolitical relationship between two countries.
The forensic investigators of the Agencia de Investigación Criminal (Mexico’s closest equivalent to the FBI) had never performed an analysis on a sports jersey before, but they were game to try. They acquired a copy of the Super Bowl LI broadcast and began watching, looking for telltale evidence on Brady’s jersey—scuff marks from the turf, for instance—that would help them authenticate that the shirt they had in their hands was the one the quarterback wore during the game. In addition, they checked the unique serial numbers, the quality and texture of the fabric, and watermarks unique to official Super Bowl jerseys. As they screened the game, though, they became caught up in the emotion of Brady’s second-half and overtime triumph. For some, it was their introduction to American football. “I think they had a nice time,” says one government official of the authentication process. “It was a very good game.”
In less than two days, the AIC determined that this was, indeed, the shirt that two national law enforcement agencies had gone to such lengths to recover. So, was it worth it—all the time and resources that were spent on this case?
“It is a jersey,” says Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief. “But this is supposed to be the most secure environment of any sporting event in the world other than the Olympics, and some guy came and walked off with something valued at half a million dollars under the nose of NFL security. Are there lessons we can learn and the NFL can learn from this? I think so.”
The NFL is not likely to make sweeping changes to its postgame media policies for the Super Bowl and other big events. “I don’t think it will change as far as credentialing, but it may change with respect to security around the stadium and around the locker room to make sure we can protect against that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. But, he added, closing the locker room to media is not a possibility.
González says authorities in his country would likely have charged Ortega if Brady and the NFL had requested it. “They would’ve done it immediately because of the pressure the U.S. media is putting on our government.”
If Tom Brady wanted him charged “they would’ve done it immediately because of the pressure the U.S. media can put on our government right now,” says a prominent Mexican defense attorney.
It is unclear whether Ortega has officially escaped prosecution. In some cases, suspects can be apprehended and charged the next time they visit the U.S. But, according to a DOJ source, Ortega’s visa has been revoked. He resigned from his job on March 14, two days after the raid, and the NFL says it has banned him from games for life, making it unlikely that he’ll be returning to the U.S. anytime soon. A Houston PD official still wants him extradited, but Mexican officials believe there is little chance of that happening. (Spokespersons for both the FBI and the DOJ declined comment in regard to whether or not Ortega will ever be prosecuted; upon refusing comment the FBI spokesperson noted that it is an “ongoing matter.”)
A few days after the jersey was handed over to the FBI, Mexican attorney general Raúl Cervantes Andrade made a visit to Washington to meet with U.S. counterpart Jeff Sessions. America’s chief law enforcement officer praised Andrade and his colleagues, specifically, for their assistance in two international cases: the arrest and extradition of Sinaloa Cartel drug lord Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán, a two-time prison escapee and a man responsible for dozens of deaths in Mexico and abroad—and the recovery of Tom Brady’s jerseys.
U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions praised Mexican authorities, specifically, for their assistance in two international cases: the arrest and extradition of Sinaloa Cartel drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and the recovery of Tom Brady’s jerseys.
The juxtaposition must have felt remarkably stark to the Mexican envoy in the midst of one of the bloodiest drug wars in history. During the time it took to find Brady’s jerseys and return them to the quarterback, Mexican authorities were also investigating a terrifying cascade of violence with no end in sight. Among the stories: Five dead bodies were found discarded along a highway in Veracruz state (Feb. 19); the tortured bodies of nine men and two women were discovered on the Gulf Coast (March 1); trash bags filled with body parts were found on a roadside in the coastal town of Chilpancingo (March 6); and 250 human skulls were discovered in a mass grave in Veracruz (March 14). It’s but a sampling of the terror that has gripped the country since El Chapo was recaptured in 2016 and extradited to the U.S., creating a power struggle among drug cartels in his absence, underlined by a rising human toll.
“I know it’s a lot for just a shirt,” says one Mexican official, “but the way things are right now, when you see our governments working together, it gives you hope that things aren’t really so bad.”
And yet the political pressure surrounding a missing shirt demanded swift and comprehensive action on the part of Mexico’s best and brightest.
“I know it’s a lot for just a shirt,” says one Mexican official, “but the way things are right now, when you see our governments working together, it gives you hope that things aren’t really so bad.”
And so Mexican authorities met with two FBI agents at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. They handed over two jerseys. And on March 17, FBI agents from Boston packed them into a carry-on bag and boarded a commercial flight bound for Logan Airport. Six days later, after the jerseys were authenticated for a second time, Boston FBI agents and Massachusetts state troopers transported them 30 miles southwest to the Patriots’ team facility in Foxborough.
On April 3, Brady, Kraft and the Patriots were honored with a ceremony on Red Sox Opening Day. Brady stood on the infield grass at Fenway Park and held one of the returned jerseys over his head, at which point teammate Rob Gronkowski playfully stole it and took off for the outfield. Brady gave chase. The scene ended with the two laughing and rolling on the grass in short rightfield.
They're back! Robert Kraft presents Tom Brady with the jerseys he wore in Super Bowl XLIX and Super Bowl LI. pic.twitter.com/0AsuqS1j3Z— New England Patriots (@Patriots) April 3, 2017
Before heading to Fenway that day, Kraft and Brady had held a ceremony of their own at the owner’s home. Kraft unzipped a blue bag and took out the Super Bowl LI jersey. Then, the XLIX jersey.
“It took an international trip,” Kraft said.
Brady laughed. Then he said, “That’s awesome.”
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