The sweeping criminal charge against John Rogers is sprinkled with details on some schemes of the alleged serial fraudster while overlooking others.
In September, the U.S. attorney accused the former North Little Rock sports memorabilia and photo dealer of committing bank fraud among a string of felonious deeds that bilked at least $10 million from lenders, investors and customers.
The low-ball math associated with that dollar total and the omission of other alleged crimes are considered the fruit of plea-bargain negotiations, according to lawyers familiar with the case.
Noticeably absent from the eight-page filing in Chicago’s U.S. District Court is mention of a $1.5 million loan that some believe Rogers lied to get.
Officials at Jacksonville’s First Arkansas Bank & Trust claim that he used the loan to fraudulently finance the purchase of a film and photo collection owned by David Hoffman of Santa Cruz, California.
The timing of the loan four years ago has created suspicion that Rogers fraudulently used a portion of the loan to buy an even more renowned archive: the Burke-Brace Collection of major league baseball photographic negatives.
John Rogers didn’t make the first sales pitch for the photo archive amassed by George Brace and his mentor and partner, George Burke, who died in 1951. He was among a line of interested parties who sought to strike a deal over the years with George Brace and, later, his daughter Mary.
Mary Brace said Rogers won her confidence with his glowing admiration of her father’s work and his awe-struck adoration of the baseball history he captured. Brace thought Rogers was someone who loved the collection as much as she did.
“It was an art with him,” Brace said of his charming salesmanship.
Rogers made repeated runs at acquiring portions of the epic collection of an estimated 250,000 original negatives, images of practically every National and American League player who set foot in Chicago’s Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park between 1929 and 1994.
“He wanted to buy only the select images, the most valuable,” said Mary Brace. “But I didn’t want to break up the collection.”
Each time Rogers talked with Brace or visited her home, he modified his proposal in hopes of coming away with the prize.
“Later, he told me, ‘All I want is digital images,’” she said. “’You can get the negatives back. All I want is the images.’”
But in the end, Rogers replicated a deal he had worked to buy newspaper photo libraries around the country. Rogers offered Brace cash plus a digital library with all the images and identifying metadata in exchange for the archive.
“He told me, ‘The digital images are going to be all on one website for your dad, to honor him,’” Brace said. “It was going to be a wonderful display to my father and his work. It sounded great, but nothing came of it.
“I wanted to keep it for the children and our grandchildren. He told me everything I wanted to hear, but it was all lies.”
The $1.35 million cash component of the deal for the historic Burke-Brace cache didn’t play out either. Rogers paid only $585,000.
Brace received $400,000 up front in June 2012 and $100,000 six months later. The remaining $850,000 was to be paid in annual installments of $85,000 due every April 1 from 2013 to 2022.
According to her lawsuit against Rogers, he made the first of those 10 payments in 2013. He then defaulted when the second came due in 2014, barely two months after federal agents raided his business and home.
Choice Negatives Gone
In June 2014, Brace became the first in a line of creditors to sue Rogers in Pulaski County Circuit Court. She landed a summary judgment of $765,000 against Rogers nine months later after he failed to respond to her lawsuit.
Her legal victory proved hollow. Brace couldn’t even regain possession of tens of thousands of her father’s negatives that were under court-ordered protection. She was blocked from regaining ownership by other creditors who held superior claims.
“Like so many others who were schmoozed by John, she didn’t make a UCC filing to perfect her lien,” said Roger Rowe, a Little Rock attorney representing First Arkansas Bank & Trust.
Without a timely filed Uniform Commercial Code lien claim, Brace’s stake in her father’s archive was drowned in a sea of competing creditors.
“My lawyers tell me I can take the judgment and frame it and put it on the wall because that’s all I’ll ever get,” Brace said.
The sting of unkept promises from Rogers could be lessened if Brace accepts that the cash she did receive represented more than fair market value.
“She was grossly overpaid,” said Michael McAfee, court-appointed receiver for the business assets of Rogers. “I’m told the marketable value of the collection was $250,000-$300,000.”
An estimated 150,000 negatives remain from the Burke-Brace Collection at the Sports Card Plus-Rogers Photo Archive facility, McAfee said. He is hopeful a pending sale will close in the near future.
“This would be the third time we got close to selling it,” McAfee said. “There’s a lot of interest in it, but it’s for pennies on what John paid for it. The choice negatives are gone.”
Rogers began selling Burke-Brace negatives with images of the most sought-after baseball players soon after taking possession of the collection.
‘He Was a Crook’
Mary Brace’s signature on the sales contract is dated June 22, 2012. That’s the same day First Arkansas Bank & Trust loaned Rogers $1.5 million.
The stated purpose of that loan was to help pay for the $2 million acquisition of the Hoffman collection. The loan was supported by a sales agreement that Rogers provided the bank — a bogus contract, bank officials would later claim.
“In our last conversation, he said he was always amazed that the banks let him do it,” Hoffman said.
According to a copy of the sales agreement from Hoffman, the actual purchase price was $325,000. And despite the more-than-adequate loan, Hoffman didn’t even get the full amount.
On Nov. 21, 2014, he sued Rogers in Pulaski County Circuit Court to collect $80,000 owed on the sale of his collection.
“The last time I talked with him was maybe around April 2014,” Hoffman said. “He called me and said he couldn’t pay me any more. He said the feds were after him and that he may have to go to jail for a few years. He felt bad.
“I got the feeling that he didn’t want to screw me. He saw me as an artist. He wasn’t unkind, but he was a crook.”