Sources: Winston items not validated
written by ESPN Darren Rovell
Five sources who spoke to "Outside the Lines" on the condition of anonymity said that James Spence Authentication got the items only after competitor PSA/DNA backed out of the February signing with Winston. PSA/DNA did so after being told that it couldn't witness the quarterback signing the items in person, sources said.
The batch of Winston autographs were discovered in the JSA online database in October. James Spence, the company's owner, said in October that he had full confidence that those autographs were authentic, and he reiterated it again this week, through company lawyer Stacy Biancamano.
Winston has never been disciplined for anything related to autographs, and he has not personally addressed the autograph situation.
Spence has repeatedly declined to reveal the identity, or identities, of the customers who submitted the signed Winston items for authentication. But five sources told "Outside the Lines" that the submissions came from individuals who all got their items from a single signing arranged by a Florida memorabilia dealer named Donnie Burkhalter.
Those five sources said that in the first week of February, Burkhalter arrived in Tallahassee to conduct the signing. Burkhalter had taken orders from at least five autograph wholesalers, sources said, which, when counting the pieces Burkhalter was taking for himself, would have equaled more than 1,000 autographs.
Sources told "Outside the Lines" that Burkhalter told those who initially paid for the Winston autographs that the signing came about thanks to his relationship with former Florida State running back and current Atlanta Falcons player Devonta Freeman.
Freeman, through his agent Tony Fleming, acknowledged to "Outside the Lines" that the running back did a signing with Burkhalter after his eligibility expired and confirmed that Burkhalter wanted Freeman to approach Winston earlier in the year, which he did. But Fleming said that his client said Winston told him no, and that's where his involvement ended. Because Burkhalter was relatively new to the memorabilia business, autograph authentication company PSA/DNA had agreed to authenticate the items only if one of its authenticators could be present to see Winston sign them, sources said.
An official with the company flew from New Jersey to Tallahassee to witness the signing and stayed at the hotel where the signing was to take place, sources said. Burkhalter and some of the wholesalers of the signing had set up a couple of rooms full of Florida State gear for Winston to sign when he arrived.
But Winston didn't show up, sources said.
Burkhalter denies that much of this happened. He told "Outside the Lines" that he has gotten items signed by Winston but has never compensated him. He said he never told anyone that Freeman set up an autograph signing and doesn't recall setting up items in a hotel for a Winston signing. He said February was a long time ago, but he didn't get anything close to 1,000 pieces signed by Winston for anyone.
Sources said that hours into waiting for Winston to show, Burkhalter told those in attendance that Winston had decided he couldn't do a signing in the hotel room and instead preferred to do it in an apartment. The conditions? The authenticator and Burkhalter could not be there to witness the signing.
So, sources said, Burkhalter loaded the Florida State items into his truck and returned later with the items signed, telling those waiting back at the hotel that he had to give the batch of items to a person who then got the items signed inside the apartment.
Those who had invested in the signing -- paying Burkhalter between $30 and $40 per autograph -- were very suspicious, sources said.
Under the new signing conditions that occurred, PSA/DNA decided it could no longer vouch for the authenticity of any Winston autographs, a company official said.
Sources said the company had been building a database on Winston's signatures, but that there were enough variations in his signature on various items that the company didn't feel comfortable.
A few days later, Burkhalter and those who had allegedly bought the Winston signatures were in a Tampa, Florida, hotel room getting the items authenticated by JSA, which was holding an event in the area to authenticate various non-Winston items collectors had brought in.
Burkhalter and the wholesalers brought their own Winston items in, and JSA passed them all.
"JSA is confident in its authentication based on a comprehensive exemplar file and a 10-person authentication panel who independently score the autographs," Biancamano told "Outside the Lines."
Biancamano said the company had Winston exemplars on file that JSA officials had previously seen Winston sign in person, and that all 10 people on its authentication panel said the Burkhalter items were authentic.
"Outside The Lines" showed one of the few known authentic representations of Winston's autograph -- taken from a media statement Winston signed two months before the autograph signing -- to two autograph experts.
One, Rich Albersheim of Albersheim's Historical Memorabilia and Autographs in Las Vegas, said it would be tough to determine authenticity because he wasn't comfortable with the lack of verified Winston representations or exemplars in the marketplace.
The other, Ron Keurajian, a Baseball Hall of Fame autograph specialist, said that in his opinion, "These Winston autographs from the supposed signing are done by more than one hand. His authentic signature is very unstructured, which makes it harder to authenticate, but there are many here that actually are structured very well."
PSA/DNA officials said that because they did not accept the job, company policy precluded them from publicly taking a stance on the authenticity of the Winston autographs.
For his part, Burkhalter said he has never forged a Winston signature. "That's the most farfetched part of this entire story you are telling me," Burkhalter told "Outside the Lines."
On Oct. 14, Florida State officials acknowledged that they were looking into the autograph situation, but head football coach Jimbo Fisher said Winston, after his team's game against Syracuse, told the coach he had not accepted any money for autographs.
Since then, the school has not commented on the state of its inquiry. Last week, Florida State sports information director Rob Wilson said the school would not be commenting on the status of where the investigation stands.
Representatives within the NCAA did not return messages seeking comment. An ACC office spokesperson told "Outside the Lines" that "by general practice and procedure, we would not comment on discussions between our office and a member institution."
Winston's attorney, David Cornwell, has declined to comment.