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Meet Tommy Trotta: the thief who stole Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Carmen Basilio memorabilia

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

There may be no honor among thieves but there are some ground rules. Among them: don't steal what you can't turn around and sell. A gang of burglars from Pennsylvania learned this the hard way. Over the course of two decades, they snuck — and smashed— their way into a string of hallowed sports venues and small museums throughout the United States…making off with championship rings, jewel-studded belts, and dozens of trophies. But they couldn't fence their loot on the shadowy sports memorabilia market without catching too much attention. So what DO you do once you've lifted Yogi Berra's World Series rings? Tonight, the theft ring's mastermind—having come clean to the authorities and served some time—gives up the game to 60 Minutes.

Here he is. Perhaps not the guy you'd cast as the lead in a heist movie. Tommy Trotta on a family pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he wasn't just making memories that day….he was running reconnaissance.

Tommy Trotta: I would walk in these places and I would try to have either my niece or nephew. So I would kinda guide them over, if I wanted to see a door or window, and then I would kinda film, how far do I have to run after I get through this door.

Jon Wertheim: You're bringin' the kids like you're--

Tommy Trotta: Bringing the kids. I'd be like–

Jon Wertheim: --like you're tourists?

Tommy Trotta: --"Come on, let's go over here." And then boom, get it on film. But not filmin' them. No, I want that window. I want that door. 

Thomas "Tommy" Trotta
Thomas "Tommy" Trotta 60 Minutes

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

Jon Wertheim: Needless to say, they do not suspect you are casing the joint and doing your surveillance.

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

He sure acted like one. Here he is in 2012. After smashing through a window and into the U.S. Golf Museum in New Jersey, he made off with the great Ben Hogan's trophies. Middle of the night, unarmed. It was the M.O. Trotta would replicate scores of times confounding investigators for a quarter century.

Tommy Trotta: Certain fans really don't like me.

Now 48, Trotta grew up outside Scranton….a sports fan, baseball in particular—his grandparents took him to Yankees games. He also grew up a thief. He says he still believed in Santa, when he began stealing….Values, he says, he got from his late father…

Tommy Trotta: Our first salmon trip, for example. My dad's from-- he's from Jersey. Not-- not so much of a fisherman, right? And everyone's catchin' fish around us, except us. So we decide to-- we sneak up to the hatchery at night. So 3:00 in the morning, here we are with just nets and then scoopin' 'em right out of-- because all of the salmon are coming up. 

Jon Wertheim: --that's one way to catch fish.

Tommy Trotta: Stole a bunch of salmon, yeah. 

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

An exhibit devoted to Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson, winner of 373 games, went on display at a nearby college. It featured a jersey commemorating the 1905 World Series. The woman running the display allowed visitors, including Trotta, to get up close…. 

Tommy Trotta: So she opens up this little glass case, slides it, takes the jersey out, hands it to me, I'm holdin' the jersey. Right away my head's spinnin'. So I'm thinkin' who I'm gonna call and who's gonna help me with this. 'Cause it was only gonna be on display for one day.

Jon Wertheim: So it's spinning not because you're in awe of this, it's spinning because you're thinkin'--

Tommy Trotta: There's no time. 

Jon Wertheim: Why'd you take the jersey?

Tommy Trotta: It's a good question, Jon. To have it, to try to sell it one day, you know? Of course, it's priceless.

Jon Wertheim: What do you think you could've gotten for it?

Tommy Trotta: For how much attention on it-- it was a real tough sell. Even at 10% would've been probably over $100,000. Just for somebody to look at and maybe wear, which I did wear it. I had it on.

Jon Wertheim: You had it on?

Tommy Trotta: Yeah, I wanted-- you know, I wanted to see-- I heard he was a big guy, Christy Mathewson. The fact that he wore it-- during the game, I got a kick. I'm a big fan. You know? I'm a fanatical baseball fan. 

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

What kind of a fan—a self-professed Yankees fan, no less—would target Yogi Berra? The star catcher won a record 10 World Series rings. When he wasn't posing, Yogi wore one and kept the other nine here at his Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey….that is until a rainy October night in 2014. Trotta had been planning the job for months.

Tommy Trotta: Now the Yogi Berra cases were somethin' special. It was-- it was a special kinda bulletproof glass that was never gonna shatter. So that's the one we used-- I had the grinder with-- a rescue blade. And I actually cut-- cut the cases open, reached in, grabbed the rings, went to the other case, pyramid cut the-- to get the-- the two MVP plaques out also.

Alarm blaring, police were already on their way as Trotta ran across this field to meet his getaway driver.

Tommy Trotta: We were a second away from gettin' caught. Get back to the house, laid the rings out. I wanted to try 'em on.

Jon Wertheim: Did you?

Tommy Trotta: I tried 'em all on. I just put 'em on just to see. And then the next thing that we did, we start with-- to dismantle 'em.

Jon Wertheim: What did you do with the rings?

Tommy Trotta: Cut 'em, melted 'em. 

You heard right. Trotta and crew retreated to this rural Pennsylvania garage to melt down Yogi Berra's rings. He says they melted down much of their loot, the stuff that was too hot to sell, and brought the gold and gemstones to Manhattan's Diamond District, where a dealer paid the gang in cash, no questions asked. For all that priceless Yogi Berra memorabilia, Trotta says they got $12,000. 

A journalist by trade, Lindsay Berra has devoted her life to preserving the legacy of her beloved grandfather, who died less than a year after the break-in. The case went cold for years. Meanwhile, the Yankees replaced the stolen rings. Eventually she came to learn what had become of the originals.

Lindsay Berra: I just burst into tears. It was just so incomprehensible to me that that was the upshot of-- of this whole thing.

Jon Wertheim: That these rings--no longer existed. 

Lindsay Berra: That they had been destroyed. It just made absolutely no sense to me, it still makes absolutely no sense to me, and I don't think it will ever make any sense (laugh) to me.

Lindsay Berra
Lindsay Berra 60 Minutes

Jon Wertheim: U.S. Attorneys value these objects more than a million dollars, and you find out these have been melted-down for about $12,000.

Lindsay Berra: Yeah. It's baffling. And you go through all of this trouble to plan for months. And then you sell the stuff that you steal for-- 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. And it's callous and disrespectful and dumb.

Hard to argue. Sports memorabilia may be a $25 billion market, but demand dries up fast when the objects are so obviously stolen.

Jon Wertheim: What's the business model here?

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

Jon Wertheim: But –so you say you're doing this for the money but it sounds like in some of these cases it-- it wasn't about the money. It was something--

Tommy Trotta: Just to--

Jon Wertheim: --deeper--

Tommy Trotta: --touch history, a lotta times.

Jon Wertheim: So I'm-- I'm trying to reconcile. You clearly appreciate the history. But then…

Tommy Trotta: I'm meltin' stuff down. Yeah, that was the lifestyle this warped way of thinkin', it was just normal for us. 

Jon Wertheim: These are Yogi Berra's World Series rings.

Tommy Trotta: Believe me, that job-- that job still-- it-- that-- in all the jobs were s-- historical significance and-- and the importance of these items. But that one bothered me out of most of 'em.

Tommy Trotta
Tommy Trotta 60 Minutes

That's saying something…In 2016, he drove to the Roger Maris Museum in North Dakota, and stole the Yankees slugger's MVP plaque…He never did hit Cooperstown, but 70 miles away at the Boxing Hall of Fame, he lifted the belts of middleweight champ, Carmen Basilio. At the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, New York, he took 14 trophies. But as it turned out, Trotta's biggest job didn't involve sports at all; it was set in his backyard, and came with unlikely entrée into the art world.

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

Scranton's Everhart Museum houses taxidermy and folk art, along with dozens of paintings. In 2005, it had two main attractions, Andy Warhol's "La Grande Passion" and "Springs Winter" by Jackson Pollock.

Tommy Trotta: Get into the museum, pitch black. 

Jon Wertheim: You know this place?

Tommy Trotta: Know the place so good. And open the door, to the right was the Pollock and the Warhol, basically blindfolded I'm doin' this. Take 'em off the wall, run down the stairs, out the door, toss 'em in the back of the truck, get in, tell them guys to go, and off we go.

Jon Wertheim: How did you know what two paintings to take?

Tommy Trotta: Warhol's big, you know? It's a big name. Pollock is-- is especially big. I mean, I-- I seen the Pollock movie. 

Jon Wertheim: Did you realize the painting's value when you took it?

Tommy Trotta: No. I-- I thought hundreds of thousands.

Try millions. But it was the same old story for this bunch. They didn't have a buyer lined up; and it's hard to move prized artwork after a publicized theft. So Trotta says he and his crew hid the art—along with the Christy Mathewson jersey—(items they couldn't melt) at a home belonging to two of the alleged accomplices.

Jon Wertheim: When was the last time you saw this Jackson Pollock--

Tommy Trotta: Last time-- last time I seen the Pollock? 2017, 2018. It was in a house in-- Union, New Jersey.

Jon Wertheim at alleged stash house
Jon Wertheim visited the Union, NJ house where Trotta said he hid stolen objects. 60 Minutes

So, off we went to that house in Union, New Jersey. No answer at the door. No sign of the stolen art….still, when the ringleader gives directions to what he claims was a stash house, you know the plot is unraveling for the Great American Sports Museum Thieves…How'd they get caught? You know how it goes: the gang went bush league, got sloppy. Here's 2016 surveillance video of Trotta using a snowplow to rip an ATM from a local grocery store. When Trotta was pulled over for driving erratically two years later, police found his trunk filled with crime gear, including gloves matched to that ATM job.

Jon Wertheim: Thirty years of-- of secrecy and of stealth. And all of a sudden.

Tommy Trotta: It's all down.

Jon Wertheim: What's that like for you?

Tommy Trotta: When it's over, it's over, you know?

Yes, he steals Yogi Berra's rings and mangles Yogi Berra's quotes…Trotta was taken into custody. Police began matching him to a string of home burglaries. Inside a county jail, he made a deal. In exchange for reducing a sentence that could have spanned decades, Trotta would lay out for investigators all those unsolved museum heists. He also gave up his longtime crew: the lookouts, getaway drivers and gold melters. The ringleader turned chief government witness.

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, sadly, the melting of Yogi Berra's rings. It doesn't say what happened to the missing loot like the Mathewson jersey, the Warhol, the Pollock. Investigators declined our request for comment, citing the pending trials. We put the question to Trotta and, inasmuch as a career thief can be believed…

Jon Wertheim: Do you have any idea where it is?

Tommy Trotta: No. Right now, no. I don't think it's destroyed. Nobody would be that stupid. It's probably gonna pop up one day.

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

Tommy Trotta: How we justified it is hey, nobody's gettin' hurt. But I never looked at it like-- sittin' in jail 51 months, emotionally, I destroyed people. I know this now.

Jon Wertheim: Fair sentence?

Tommy Trotta: I do regret hurtin' everybody I stole anything from. The Yogi Berra family, like, what-- everything he accomplished in life, 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. I'm not.

Jon Wertheim: Do you think Yogi would forgive him?

Lindsay Berra: I mean, I kinda do. Grandpa was such that if you owned-up to your mistakes and you showed remorse, he would certainly forgive you. And I suppose I could do that. But I-- I-- I'm still mad that the stuff is gone.

Produced by Nathalie Sommer and Kaylee Tully. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matt Richman.

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