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, as Mexican officials describe it, 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.
April 17, 2017
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.
FEB. 5 Shortly after leading the New England Patriots past the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in the biggest comeback in the game's history, Tom Brady realizes his 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. 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.
In the throng on the field after New England's victory, 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. Brady took the 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. When he returned to his stall, the jersey was gone.
"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. 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.
That 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.
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.
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's seen the tape, 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 the law enforcement source, "Somebody was standing next to the cookie jar."
FEB. 13 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 and out of the Houston PD's grasp.
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.
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 reporter 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 from the Glazer video standing right next to the black bag in Brady's locker.
The culprit seemed to have 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, with 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."
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. They stopped on 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. Wagner noticed a premier item front and center in one shot: A No. 12 jersey from Super Bowl XLIX, with grass stains matching those on 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 initial subject of the investigation had been Tom Brady's Super Bowl LI jersey. Now, authorities were seeking to recover the quarterback's Super Bowl XLIX jersey as well.
The next step was clear: Start making plans to go to Mexico.
FEB. 21 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 the tabloid, 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 shoeshine 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 his 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, in sometimes scurrilous fashion.
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 lawyers at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.
Patriots security had communicated to the FBI that, from their standpoint the goal was simply to get the jersey back. 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.
But there was a significant issue: determining the jersey's value in Mexico, where no significant market for game-used NFL jerseys exists. "If I were his lawyer, I would say the value of the thing is $200," says Samuel González, a security analyst and former head of the organized crime unit of the federal prosecutors office. "Then [prosecutors] would have to prove the value is $500,000."
In addition, 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—a high-profile caper that no one would be eager to prosecute.
MARCH 8 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.
But 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.
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 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 in November.
Palafox, who works for the Mexico City newspaper 24 Horas, says he struck up a friendship with Ortega during rides from their hotel to the Houston convention center. Palafox says Ortega 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. Palafox says Ortega also had with him a silver helmet wrapped in plastic that included signatures from all but two of the 50 Super Bowl MVPs. Ortega 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 surprised 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.
Ortega had begun his career "covering" Super Bowls quietly, interacting little with fellow members of the international media. "He would not mingle with the reporters," said one longtime Mexican sportswriter, who asked not to be identified. "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.
The night of the Super Bowl in Houston, Palafox was energized; he'd just covered his first NFL title game, 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 media 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's 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.
"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."
MARCH 12 At 5:40 a.m., Mexican law-enforcement officials arrive at Ortega's doorstep. They have a search warrant for his home 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 over 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.
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 back at the embassy, the trash bag and the helmet represented the culmination of a weeks-long transcontinental search.
In less than two days, the Agencia de Investigación Criminal (Mexico's closest equivalent to the FBI) 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."
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.
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 Ortega's visa has been revoked, according to a Department of Justice source. He resigned from his job on March 14, two days after the raid, and the NFL says he has been banned from its 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 spokesman 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 for 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 city (March 14).
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. 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, team owner Robert 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.
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."
"B, did someone take my jersey?" Brady asked a Patriots equipment assistant. "I PUT IT IN MY BAG. I ABSOLUTELY, 100%, PUT IT IN MY BAG."
"We had him identified—that wasn't the point," says one investigator. "It was now at the point of WALKING THAT POLITICAL MINEFIELD AS DELICATELY AS WE COULD."
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