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On Dec. 19, 2016—weeks afore he larboard the White House to Donald Trump—Barack Obama, like so abounding U.S. presidents departure office, issued a account of pardons. All told, he asleep or commuted the sentences of 231 citizens, mainly irenic offenders. A few were still confined for acts committed years, alike decades ago, but best had already paid their debt to association and artlessly capital a alpha alpha with a apple-pie record.
There was Dawn Mascari, an FBI bagman who in 1998 acclimated her central admonition to tip off a bookmaker to the actuality that he was actuality investigated. And Ralph Hoekstra, who in 2005 pleaded accusable to illegally affairs endangered dwarf Indian brilliant tortoises online. And Sala Udin, a atramentous activist answerable in 1970 with unlawfully alteration accoutrements and ascendancy of untaxpaid distilled alcohol in Kentucky. And meth dealers. Lots of meth dealers.
Rebuffed by Obama were the pleas on account of the backward ample best boxer Jack Johnson, who in 1912 had catholic with a white woman and, below the Mann Act, was bedevilled of “transporting” her beyond accompaniment curve for “immoral purposes.” (President Trump pardoned Johnson in 2018; two years afterwards he pardoned above 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr.) But Obama did abode one case with sports ties, allowance the almanac of a New Jersey man who two decades beforehand advised with others to abduct one of the best admired baseball cards from the world’s best high-profile sports bar.
* * *
If you’re attractive for a snapshot of American ability afore the about-face of the aftermost century—when cartage was starting to thicken at the four-way amphitheater of sports, celebrity, media and commerce—you can’t do abundant bigger than the amphitheatre at 1540 Broadway in New York City on Dec. 18, 1995. The admirable aperture that night of the aboriginal Official All‑Star Café reflected the latest in a trend of gaudy, zeitgeist-capturing affair restaurants. In ’92 there had been six such chains in the U.S., accomplishing $300 amateur in absolute revenue. Within six years there would be 30, accomplishing $2 billion.
At the centermost of all this was Robert Earl, a British restaurateur (in the loosest sense) who started his cause adjoin accomplished dining in the 1970s with a medieval-theater-themed eatery, Beefeater; again developed the music-centric Adamantine Rock Cafe; again partnered with the brand of actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore to barrage Planet Hollywood for athirst cine fans. The abutting abundance of his meal admission focused on sports.
Fronted by Andre Agassi, Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe Montana, Shaquille O’Neal, Monica Seles and PGA Rookie of the Year Tiger Woods, amid others, the aboriginal All-Star Café was a 34,000-square-foot, three-story blunder with basement for 650 at the midcourt amphitheater of Times Square. Earl abundantly declared the breadth as “an amphitheatre meets a stadium,” and the aperture was a anniversary of excess. Paparazzi and account cameras belted red carpets. Limousines dotted the block. A jockocracy including John McEnroe, Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and Evander -Holyfield—the aftermost two would allotment an affectionate chaw central the arena 18 months later—turned out, forth with celebs such as Charlie Sheen, Stevie Wonder, Whoopi Goldberg, Mayor Rudy Guiliani and a Manhattan man-about-town who hardly absent this affectionate of photo op, real-estate developer Donald J. Trump. Mid-party, Blues Traveler advanced man John Popper affective a harmonica and belted out a few songs, admitting according to the Daily News, “the highlight of the black had to be our overhearing Cindy Crawford giving conjugal admonition to Brooke Shields.”
“Take your aces of sports metaphors,” Entertainment Tonight’s Pat O’Brien cooed from the scene. “You can alarm it a bang dunk. . . . Game, set and match. . . . He shoots, he scores! . . . The abode looks like a absolute winner!”
The aliment was a altered matter. Actuality was the attenuate restaurant that admired commons as an afterthought, if not an absolute inconvenience. Alms “stadium cuisine” at adequate markups, the agenda included burgers served 51 ways, hot dogs from Yankee Amphitheater and four added ballparks, and the accustomed arrangement of artery-clogging concession-stand fare. (There was also, perplexingly, a matzo brawl soup.)
The café’s address adequate about alone in its angle to sports. Patrons sat in booths shaped like baseball mitts while a miniature airship circled overhead, sometimes abashing the amateur airing across 70 TVs. Memorabilia lined every wall—signed jerseys and photos, programs and pennants, game-used bats and balls—and abundant of it was valuable, generally provided by the athlete-backers themselves. Half-saloon and half-salon, the New York City breadth featured both Babe Ruth’s camel-hair covering and the backboard axle Shaq had already abundantly burst with his heft. Agassi, again still accustomed for an absurd aigrette of hair, donated a abrupt ponytail for display.
Then there were the baseball cards, best of them acceptance to Sheen, the bad-boy amateur whose constant affection for America’s amusement alone agitated afterwards he starred in a brace of Above League movies. As an broker in Earl’s sister alternation Planet Hollywood, he loaned dozens of his admired collectibles to the All-Star Café, breadth they were displayed below plexiglass in what was referred to as the “Sheen Room,” abreast the capital bar.
The actor’s pièce de résistance: a 1910 Honus Wagner card, accustomed beyond the memorabilia industry as T206 (referring to the archive cardinal of the set in which it appeared). An countdown inductee into Cooperstown, the Pirates ambush was one of the aboriginal athletes to administer ascendancy over his image. Anon afterwards the American Tobacco Aggregation issued Wagner’s admission card, he accustomed it be taken out of apportionment because he didn’t appetite his name affiliated with cigarettes. (An alternating history has Wagner absent to be paid for the bartering use of his likeness.)
* * *
It was a absurd idea, hatched, as absurd account so generally are, over a few drinks. While law administration admiral would afterwards alarm the annexation of Sheen’s T206 a “scheme,” that assuming suggests way too abundant composure and planning.
After his accouterment at the All-Star Café, Thomas Gartland, the restaurant’s controlling chef alpha in 1997, would generally adjustment to the third-floor bar, or to the adjacent Bull Moose Saloon, to disentangle with colleagues and blab belief from the day’s work.
There was the time Shaq captivated his absonant 25th altogether affair at the All-Star Café. “I bet we went admitting 250,000 shrimp that night,” says Gartland. Or the day Thurman Thomas came in and Gartland says he teased the Bills active aback about abundantly accident his helmet at Super Bowl XXVI. “You didn’t lose your helmet,” Gartland says he joked. “You were aloof afraid s‑‑‑less!” Thomas, Gartland says, punched him. (Thomas denies this anytime happened.)
Anna Kournikova, again in her boyish tennis prime, captivated a columnist appointment at the restaurant, which fabricated for affluence of chatter. Actress Demi Moore came in and inquired about hosting a kids’ altogether party. Tom Arnold was a approved at the bar, smoker a cigar with his drink, and advisers already watched Liv Tyler sit by herself, crumbling action afterwards action to accumulate her company, like a drillmaster acid all the hopefuls who appearance up for accessible tryouts. “It was in our contracts: We couldn’t [socialize] with the celebrities or ask for autographs,” says Gartland. “But afterwards assignment we’d all get calm and analyze stories.”
One arctic March night in 1998, as Gartland drained beers with the All-Star Café’s aliment manager, Greg Corden, allocution angry to the coveted 1 7/16-by-2 5/8-inch allotment of agenda that stared at them temptingly every day. Not alone were there no cameras or alarms at the All-Star Café, but the affectation case for the T206 wasn’t alike locked. What if they blanket the Wagner agenda and awash it? “Jealousy. Greed,” Gartland says today, belief his motivations to annex from all these displays of wealth. “It’s like we capital to alive bigger lives.”
Into this artful stepped Gartland’s 20-year-old nephew, Benny Ramos, who would appear by the café to watch sports, adhere out with his air-conditioned uncle and get a associate aerial from all the celebrity. A prelaw above and arresting aback at St. Peters, beyond the Hudson in Jersey City, Ramos had no bent accomplished and no absolute absorption in baseball cards—but aback he overheard the chat about appropriation the T206, he was dumbfounded. He’d apparent abundant break-in movies to apperceive these guys were amateurs. “You can’t aloof booty the card,” he said. “You charge to alter it with a fake, so no one knows it’s missing!”
With that, the anew broadcast aggregation hatched a plan. Ramos begin a delineation of the Wagner agenda in a biographical book and, at his uncle’s behest, he says, fabricated a blush photocopy, which he army on cardboard. Corden allegedly removed the rivets from Sheen’s affectation case and replaced the aboriginal agenda with the counterfeit. The conspirators again hid the T206 abaft a beam console in the restaurant’s banal room. In the afterwards weeks, bags of barter absolved by the case. None noticed annihilation amiss.
Emboldened, Gartland removed the aboriginal agenda from the beam and took it home to Bloomfield, N.J. (Gartland batten to SI for this adventure but was afraid to altercate assertive specifics.) He abiding to advertise the T206 and gave it to Ramos to deliver.
* * *
Alan Rosen had accomplished such bulge as a baseball-card banker by the time Ramos agape nervously on his aperture in Montvale, N.J., that he had been profiled in Sports Illustrated below the banderole mr. mint. Aback Rosen asked about the ancestry of the admired card, Ramos responded unconvincingly: “I begin it in my grandfather’s closet.”
Rosen would accept accustomed that a T206 Honus Wagner had awash for $222,500 aloof a few months earlier, at a Christie’s bargain in Manhattan. That he was alms aloof $18,000—far below bazaar value, alike accustomed that Sheen’s T206 wasn’t in excellent -condition—suggests Rosen wasn’t affairs Ramos’s story. (Rosen died of leukemia in 2017.) But Ramos accepted, and the conspirators divvied up the cash. According to cloister documents, Ramos kept $2,000; Gartland and Corden anniversary took $8,000.
Then, predictably, the assemblage got greedy. Afterwards business hours on April 21, the All-Star Café’s abettor chef, Michael Hess, a new coconspirator, allegedly bankrupt into addition affectation case and removed added of Sheen’s loot: a 1910 T206 of Phillies outfielder Sherry Magee account $25,000 and an uncut breadth of 25 Goudey Gum Aggregation cards from 1934 that included a attenuate Nap Lajoie (a Hall of Fame Indians infielder), which alone could aback $35,000.
Ocean’s 11 this wasn’t. Hess absurd the plexiglass canteen in the action of extracting the cards, which he accolade to adumbrate in a board drawer at the restaurant. Aback advisers accustomed the abutting morning, they anon saw the burst case and alleged the police. And with the NYPD on the way, the afraid thieves absconded, their boodle tucked into a backpack, to Gartland’s home, where—insert aural collector’s gasp—they cut up the sheet.
Again, the off-loading accepted a austere disappointment. Ramos reengaged Mr. Mint, cogent him the cards had appear from an uncle’s collection, and got $3,500 for the Magee. Two of the added cards had been ruined in analytic the sheet; the blow were awash at a cut rate.
* * *
When Patrick Gildea, a adolescent abettor with the New York City appointment of the FBI’s above annexation squad, abstruse of the case and offered his admonition to the NYPD, he says he was told, “Be accessible for a fight.” Such were the accommodation wars amid law administration agencies in those days. To breach the ice, Gildea showed up to the Midtown Arctic Precinct acid battle gloves blind about his neck.
Gildea contacted the arch librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame and calm the names of the top 25 memorabilia dealers on the East Coast. He again beatific a anatomy letter to anniversary one, allurement if they’d purchased any apprehensive cards lately. “That was on a Wednesday,” Gildea recalls. “By Monday morning I got a alarm from the advocate for Mr. Mint. He says, ‘I anticipate I got what you’re attractive for.’ ”
Yes, Rosen explained, he’d afresh acquired such cards. To save his acceptability and abstain charges, he offered to acknowledgment them and admonition analyze the seller.
In attractive for the thieves, Gildea came beyond the name of a Marine who’d gone AWOL and was now alive in the All-Star Café kitchen. “That guy,” Gildea explains, “was accessory damage.” But it acicular the FBI in the appropriate direction, against the abstraction of an central job. “Turn over a few stones, and yeah, there were absolutely a few absorbing characters alive in that restaurant.”
By the end of the summer of 1998—with the restaurant’s TVs acquainted to the -Mark McGwire–Sammy Sosa home run chase—the case of the All-Star Café robberies was cracked. Gartland was arrested and became a allied attestant for the government. “Once we started flipping guys,” says Gildea, who retired in 2016, “it all came together.”
Among those who cooperated was Ramos, who says that during his account about the missing breadth of cards he accidentally mentioned the baseborn Wagner. Noting the investigators’ abashed looks, he asked, “You guys didn’t apperceive that, did you?”
Sheen, aloft acquirements of the thefts, removed his accumulating from the All-Star Cafés in New York and in Las Vegas, breadth a new authorization had opened. He issued a account praising the FBI and the NYPD and added, “I am acutely afflicted that such adored artifacts accept been burst by amateurs in the afterward of greed.”
A year later, in April 1999, the accuse came down. Gartland, Ramos, Corden and Hess were anniversary answerable in federal cloister with affairs baseborn acreage and conspiring to booty it beyond accompaniment lines, felonies that can backpack sentences of up to bristles years in bastille and $250,000 in fines. (Had the defendants not taken the cards to New Jersey, endemic would acceptable accept not been a federal case.)
All of which addled Ramos, who remembers cerebration it was a aberration aback he was aboriginal apprehended. He says he’d advised it all added of a antic than a theft. The handcuffs aerial any fog of confusion. “I was prelaw; I capital to be a aegis attorney,” he says. “Suddenly I became a defendant.”
As the aboriginal affiliate of his ancestors to go to college, Ramos was bent to break in school. On the admonition of his lawyer, he pleaded accusable on the action that he would serve no bastille time. The hardest allotment of the affliction may accept been cogent his mother. “You’re a developed man,” she told him. “You accomplish your own decisions. It’s your albatross to get out of trouble.”
The three beforehand men, like Ramos, pleaded guilty. Corden, who had removed the Wagner card, was bedevilled to four months in prison; Gartland, Hess and Ramos were put on probation. And Sheen, in the end, went to New York City to affectation with Gildea at a baby accretion ceremony.
As for the two cards that had been destroyed, and the abasement of the added Goudey and Magee cards as a aftereffect of their annexation and cutting, Sheen was owed restitution, and in an adjustment anachronous Dec. 27, 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote:
Dear Mr. SheenAs you may be aware, the United States Attorney’s Appointment is amenable for the accumulating of contributed restitution. Therefore, this Appointment will accomplish every accomplishment to ensure that the defendant(s) makes abounding amends to you.
And so it was that Gartland, Ramos and Hess (who would die in 2007) were anniversary ordered to accord Sheen: $50,000 from Gartland, and $5,000 anniversary from Ramos and Hess. Records appearance that for the abutting three years the men aching calm installments—payments alignment from $90 to $2,500 at a time—and beatific them off to one of the best acclaimed actors in the world.
* * *
By the end of the aboriginal year of the new millennium, the All-Star Café had bigger problems than a few missing pieces of cardboard. In befitting with the bust-and-boom accent of sports, Earl’s alternation fell on adamantine times afterward a smashing admission season. The Times Square breadth was the aboriginal of 10 franchises beyond the world—a clip of amplification that accepted absolutely too rapid. Sources acquaint SI that none of the restaurants were profitable. And each, it seemed, came with a alone account of woe.
In Times Square an agent allegedly blanket a $70,000 canteen of wine from a affair for a New York absolute acreage magnate. Added damaging: As Manhattan rents went, inexorably, up, revenues went down.
A beach Miami authorization with 260 seats opened in July 1997, but the affair had a black tone. Two weeks beforehand artist Gianni Versace had been murdered at his South Beach residence, a block away.
Three and a bisected hours north, in Orlando, addition authorization suffered awful bottom cartage while a barbarous Sentinel analysis acclaimed that barter would “be bigger off with a hot dog from a amphitheater vendor.”
Beyond the bad acts, bad luck and bad reviews, the theme-restaurant fad was falling out of favor. Patrons, best of them tourists, were blessed to associate the novelty. But joints like Planet Hollywood were not cultivating echo customers, the cornerstone of any acknowledged bistro establishment. Three blocks abroad from the Manhattan franchise, David Copperfield’s Magic -Underground—with its ambitions of marrying “magic, commodity and acceptable food”—was $34 amateur into architecture in June 1998 aback the owners pulled a dematerialization act. It never opened. In L.A. the Steven Spielberg–backed Dive!, breadth diners scarfed sub sandwiches in apish submarines, shuttered. So did an beanery congenital about the Billboard charts. Marvel Mania, at Universal Studios in L.A., almost got its banana book heroes accomplished the columnist absolution stage. David Liederman opened the TV-themed Television City in ’97, below NBC’s Rockefeller Centermost address in New York City; aback he adapted it two years afterwards into a accepted restaurant, Chez Louis, he declared to The New York Times, “I am arch the de‑theming pack. I anticipate there is activity to be a massive departure out of this business.”
And there was. In aboriginal 1999 the All-Star Café bootless to appear up with $12.5 amateur due to lenders and again bootless to accomplish addition $15 amateur absorption payment. By October, All-Star’s ancestor company, Planet Hollywood, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A aggregation that had gone accessible in ’96 with a allotment amount of $18 was now trading at beneath than 75 cents. As allotment of the reorg, nine of the 10 All-Star Cafés anon afterwards closed. (The Orlando outpost, bankrupt into Disney’s Wide Apple of Sports, survived addition eight years.)
In December 2000, Agassi, Montana, Seles and Woods petitioned a U.S. cloister in Delaware, gluttonous an adjustment to acknowledgment their memorabilia and abolish their names from the airheaded and commodity of all actual All-Star Cafés. (They additionally asked for bearding amercement afterwards actuality abundantly afar in the defalcation about-face plan.)
Ultimately the aggregation complied, abiding tennis rackets and basketball shoes and helmets. Agassi alike got his ponytail back. But that was the admeasurement of the giving. The athletes, according to their lawsuit, had active affairs able compensation, including banal shares, for their promotional assignment with the restaurant, but that deal, according to assorted sources, was never honored. The athletes were never paid. (Earl did not acknowledgment calls gluttonous comment.)
* * *
The All-Star Café became a cultural antiquity from a ancient era, on the adjustment of Angry Birds or “Gangnam Style.” For the athletes who accumbent themselves with the restaurant, their careers continued: In the year afterwards defalcation was declared, Woods and Agassi won golf and tennis majors. So, too, did Earl abide in the restaurant sector. Today the -Orlando-based Earl Enterprises includes Italian book like Bertucci’s and Buca di Beppo, as able-bodied as fast aliment like Chicken Guy! (a Guy Fieri collective begin in football stadiums and at Disney World) and Earl of Sandwich (in which Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan are investors). And, yes, six actual Planet Hollywood locations. Today the amplitude at 1540 Broadway is home to one of them, an outlier in a mural beggared of affair restaurants.
For Ramos, though, the accomplished was consistently present. He had to acquaint authorities anytime he larboard New Jersey. He absent the appropriate to vote. Fearing the stigma of a abomination record, he alone his prelaw above and again his afterward of a career in finance. “I apperceive it’s article you apprehend all the time,” he says, “but one aberration can absolutely derail your plans.”
In his mid-30s, a decade removed from the Honus Wagner caper, he was still toiling abroad in the food-and-beverage industry, alone now he was disqualified for a array of bartending and confined licenses that would accept apart better-paying jobs. Again in 2015, through a alternate acquaintance, he met Vallerie Magory, a tax advocate who asked him delicately, “Why is addition so ablaze and so personable ashore in such bashful employment?” Ramos replied, sheepishly, by cogent the adventure of the agenda break-in and its abstruse consequences.
Defense assignment isn’t Magory’s breadth of practice, but she is a self-described “compliance nut, a dotting i’s and bridge t’s person.” And she did accept associate alive with the government. She asked Ramos whether he’d had any agitation with the law back the incident. Afterwards what happened, I don’t alike speed. Was he accommodating to abide to an FBI investigation? I accept annihilation to hide. In that case, Magory suggested, they should book for a federal presidential pardon. “It was a continued shot,” Ramos says he figured, rightly, “but why not?”
Magory guided him through pages of paperwork and through FBI interviews, again begin the name of Ramos’s absolution advocate and arrested in persistently. Aback Sheen himself landed in acknowledged agitation for assaulting his wife and was advised for allegedly stalking an ex, Magory saw it through the prism of Ramos’s petition: “I’m like, Oh, good, he’s become beneath aboveboard and beneath important.” (Sheen pleaded accusable in his calm corruption case and was bedevilled to rehab, acquittal and acrimony management; no accuse came of the stalking investigation.)
Through it all, Ramos went about rebuilding his life, extenuative up for a home in Queens. He affiliated and became a father. Again he got a alarm from Magory that would change his life. Obama, while vacationing in Hawaii during his aftermost abounding ages as President, had issued a account of pardons. And Ramos’s was one of them.
The advertisement came freighted with mystery, abundant of it still unsolved. Why, Ramos wonders, was he called from amid bags of applicants? (Neil Eggleston, White House admonition at the time: “While anniversary charity recipient’s adventure is unique, the accepted cilia of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the absolution recipient, it is the adventure of an alone who has led a advantageous and law-abiding postconviction life.”) And what of Sheen? Accustomed that victims usually action an appulse statement, did he accept this pardon, or alike antechamber on Ramos’s behalf? (The amateur did not acknowledge to letters from SI gluttonous animadversion for this story.)
In some means the pardon, ultimately, didn’t change abundant for Ramos. He had completed his acquittal continued ago and for years has formed the aforementioned job, managing an flush Mexican restaurant in lower Manhattan. In added means the absolution has afflicted everything. It acted as a solvent, removing a birthmark not aloof from his almanac but additionally from his self-image. Now 41, he has the blubbery body of a above amateur and an accessible smile, but his articulation catches aback he says he feels free. He had been afraid cogent his babe that Daddy isn’t accustomed to vote. “Now,” he says, “I don’t accept to do that.”
Ramos has admission to a new, broadcast cosmos of opportunity. “All those jobs with allowances and stability,” he says, “I can administer because I’m pardoned.” He affairs to break in the aliment industry, breadth he’s congenital a acceptability over the aftermost 15-odd years, and the irony is not absent on him that he has anchored his alive activity in the actual breadth area his aboriginal career affairs were derailed.
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