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Traffic stop leads police to thief of Yogi Berra World Series rings and Andy Warhol artwork

Thief says he melted down Yogi Berra rings
Thief says he tried on, then melted down Yogi Berra World Series rings | 60 Minutes 13:33

Over the course of decades he stole millions of dollars worth of sports memorabilia and artwork from museums. But a traffic stop would put an end to the heisting career of Thomas Trotta.

In 2019, Trotta was pulled over for driving erratically outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. Police found evidence in his trunk, including gloves, linking Trotta to the 2016 theft of an ATM that he'd ripped out of a grocery store using a snowplow. 

From there, police linked him to a string of home burglaries. While in custody he began laying out for investigators the details of unsolved museum heists, including the thefts of Yogi Berra's World Series rings and of artwork by Andy Warhol. He also gave up his longtime crew: the lookouts and getaway drivers. In exchange, Trotta received a reduced sentence.  

"How we justified it is 'hey, nobody's getting hurt,'" Trotta said in an interview. "But I never looked at it like, sitting in jail for 51 months. Emotionally, I destroyed people. I know this now."

How Trotta's crime spree started 

Trotta, 48, grew up outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was a sports fan and especially loved baseball. His grandparents took him to Yankees games. 

Trotta also grew up a thief. He said he still believed in Santa when he began stealing. 

Tommy Trotta and Jon Wertheim
Tommy Trotta and Jon Wertheim 60 Minutes

Trotta remembers going on a fishing trip with his dad and sneaking into the hatchery at 3 a.m. to scoop up salmon with nets after they couldn't catch fish. 

Later on, Trotta ran with a crew of neighborhood friends who, in time, would become his alleged accomplices. He said they soon went from robbing pay phones to burglarizing homes. Theft became his full-time job. Marrying his two passions, Trotta pulled his first sports memorabilia heist in 1999.

An exhibit devoted to Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson, winner of 373 games, went on display at Keystone College in Factoryville, Pennsylvania. It featured a jersey commemorating the 1905 World Series. The woman running the display allowed visitors, including Trotta, to get up close. She even took the jersey out of the display case and let Trotta hold it. 

"Right away, my head's spinning," Trotta said. "I'm thinking who I'm going to call and who's going to help me with this. Because it was only gonna be on display for one day."

He went back later that night for the jersey and, after stealing it, Trotta says he felt compelled to try it on.

"The fact that he wore it during the game, I got a kick," Trotta said. "I'm a fanatical baseball fan."

With time, Trotta developed an M.O. He would visit the venues he planned to target, sometimes bringing along his niece or nephew, as if they were tourists on a family trip. He would film the objects he was targeting, taking note of nearest doors and windows. Trotta said no one ever suspected he was casing the museums. 

"Not in a million years. I have a dorky look to me, I know this," Trotta said. "I don't look like a criminal at all."

Much like an athlete, he'd prepare for the job by spending hours watching tape, reviewing his own shaky footage of potential targets and the closest exits. 

"Certain fans really don't like me"

Trotta may be a sports fan, but many other sports fans are no fans of his. 

In 2012, Trotta smashed through a window at the U.S. Golf Museum in New Jersey and made off with the great Ben Hogan's trophies. In 2016, he drove to the Roger Maris Museum in North Dakota and stole the Yankees slugger's MVP plaque. 

Tommy Trotta
Tommy Trotta 60 Minutes

He never did hit the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, but 70 miles away, at the Boxing Hall of Fame, he lifted the belts of champ Carmen Basilio. At the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, New York, he took 14 trophies.

In October of 2014, Trotta, a self-professed Yankees fan, stole nine of Yogi Berra's World Series rings from the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in New Jersey. Two MVP plaques and seven other championship rings were also taken during the heist, according to the indictment against Trotta.

The alarm blared as Trotta ran across a field to meet his getaway driver. "We were a second away from getting caught," he said. 

Trotta tried all the World Series rings on to see how they'd look. He said he and his crew then cut and melted the rings inside a rural Pennsylvania garage and brought the gold and gemstones to Manhattan's Diamond District, where a dealer paid cash, no questions asked. For all that priceless Yogi Berra memorabilia, Trotta says they got $12,000.

It was valued at over $1,000,000, according to the indictment.

Trotta said he and his alleged accomplices melted down much of what they stole — the stuff that was too hot to sell. Sports memorabilia may be a $25 billion market, but demand dries up fast when the objects are so obviously stolen. 

"A quick $12,000. As bad as that sounds, I didn't look at it like rings," Trotta said. "It was money. It was cash."

He now admits it was a "warped way of thinking."

Lindsay Berra, a journalist who has devoted her career to preserving the legacy of her beloved grandfather, said she burst into tears when she heard what had become of the stolen rings. She said it didn't make sense to her then and it still baffles her now. 

Lindsay Berra
Lindsay Berra 60 Minutes

"You go through all of this trouble to plan for months, and then you sell the stuff that you steal for pennies compared to what it's actually worth? And, not to mention the fact that you're destroying historical artifacts with significance so much beyond the gold and diamonds that they're made of," she said. "It's callous and disrespectful and dumb."

From sports memorabilia to artwork

Trotta's biggest job didn't involve sports at all. In 2005, Scranton's Everhart Museum was displaying Andy Warhol's "La Grande Passion" and Jackson Pollock's "Springs Winter." 

"It really is a fortress," Trotta said. "But they had kind of an Achilles heel in the back of the museum. They had two glass doors."

As a local, Trotta knew the museum well and was able to navigate it in the dark for the theft. 

"Get into the museum, pitch black," Trotta said. "It's like being in a coal mine."

Trotta took the paintings from the wall, ran down the stairs and out the door. He tossed them in the back of a truck and told his getaway driver to go.

He knew Warhol and Pollock were big deals. He thought the paintings might be worth hundreds of thousands. Together, they were valued at millions. 

Where's the loot?

Trotta and his ring of thieves didn't have a buyer lined up and it's hard to move prized artwork after a publicized theft. So Trotta said he and his crew hid the art, along with the Christy Mathewson jersey, inside a Union, NJ home belonging to two of the alleged accomplices.

Last summer, federal and state authorities announced a sweeping indictment. Eight of Trotta's alleged accomplices were charged with conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork. Four have pleaded guilty. The other four pleaded not guilty and will face trial this year. 

The indictment details the melting of Yogi Berra's rings. It doesn't say what happened to the Mathewson jersey, the Warhol, and the Pollock. Investigators declined a request for comment, citing the pending trials. 

Trotta said he has no idea where the missing loot is today. 

"I don't think it's destroyed. Nobody would be that stupid," he said. "It's probably gonna pop up one day."

Where's Trotta now?

Trotta finished serving his state sentence of more than four years last June. He is still working nights, but now it's a job at a warehouse. He's awaiting sentencing on a federal charge of theft of major artwork.

"I do regret hurting everybody I stole anything from," Trotta said. "The Yogi Berra family … everything he accomplished in life, OK, he didn't need someone like me to do what I did. But it can't take away what he did. He's the hero. I'm not."

Trotta was arrested on theft charges last week in connection with a police report filed in Lackawanna County. The report lists items allegedly stolen from a house in January. The charges have been withdrawn. 

For her part, Lindsay Berra thinks her grandfather might have forgiven Trotta.

"Grandpa was such that if you owned up to your mistakes and you showed remorse, he would certainly forgive you," she said. "And I suppose I could do that, but I'm still mad that the stuff is gone."

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