It's Authentic When Linda Hart Says It's Authentic

And when it's not, even acclaimed investigative reporters eat crow

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and their licensing agents wanted a federal judge to stop a Coral Gables entrepreneur from selling autographs they claimed were bogus. To prove that such an extreme step was warranted, the golfers hired an expert who declared that some of the memorabilia sold by Bruce Matthews in fact bore forgeries of the men's signatures.

On the basis of that expert's report, the judge issued an emergency order temporarily barring Matthews from marketing the signed golf paraphernalia until their authenticity could be determined at a court hearing.

But Matthews, who owns Gotta Have It Golf Collectibles on Biltmore Way, insisted that every one of the autographs was genuine. To prove his assertion he hired an expert of his own: Linda Hart, who examined the signatures under a stereo microscope at her Kendall laboratory and compared them to those found on the golfers' tax forms and business papers. The autographs, she concluded, were authentic.

This past week Matthews's attorneys used Hart's findings to successfully challenge the golfers' expert in court. "She helped us tremendously in exposing the flawed analysis of the other side," says Teresa Ragatz, the Miami lawyer who represents Matthews. "She's very thorough."

It was not the first time Hart has been consulted to authenticate documents critical in high-profile disputes. Last month she made news when she helped defuse a bomb about to be detonated by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. In his forthcoming book about the Kennedy administration, The Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh had intended to include startling new revelations regarding JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Based on letters and contracts provided by a New York City source, Hersh was prepared to assert that the president, his brother Robert, and Monroe had signed agreements designed to maintain the veil of secrecy over the president's alleged affair with the star. The documents also appeared to confirm rumors of JFK's relationship with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana.

The New York source, Lawrence X. Cusack, told Hersh and others that he had found the documents in the archives of his late father's law office. Cusack's father, reputed to be among Kennedy's informal advisers, had left behind a trove potentially worth millions.

Hersh was cooperating with ABC News in the preparation of a documentary based on his book when a producer sought independent verification of the papers' authenticity. A call to the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners in Fairfax, Virginia, led ABC to Miami and Linda Hart.

Hart studied five letters and legal papers for about three weeks. Her findings: They were created on a model of IBM typewriter that wasn't manufactured until ten years after Kennedy's death. Furthermore, the correction tape used to fix the documents' typographical errors wasn't invented until 1972. Hart, who collects antique typewriters as a hobby, recognized the inconsistencies almost immediately. "She came in with a mobile lab and unpacked and went about her work very methodically and thoroughly," recalls ABC senior producer Marty Smith. "It took only a short time before she found problems. As she said: 'It was a crude forgery.'" (Another examiner noted that the documents included zip codes, which were not in use at the time.)

Hersh sheepishly admitted he'd been duped, and ABC put Hart on 20/20 to talk about her expose. (The segment aired September 25.)

Becoming a forensic detective was not Linda Hart's original career goal. She migrated to the profession in the Seventies as a result of philosophical differences with her bosses at the U.S. Postal Service's regional office in Atlanta, where she worked as an inspector. "I just had a different point of view," she recounts. "One time I investigated a case where a man, who I was supposed to charge with mail fraud, had run an ad in the paper that said: 'Send me a dollar and I will tell you how to save money.' Then he sent back a postcard that said: 'Don't answer any more ads like this.' I happened to have felt it was a great public service. My inspector in charge thought it was not. I was reprimanded. I was in a constant state of reprimand."

In 1973, after scoring well on an exam, Hart went to Washington, D.C., to train at the postal service's laboratory. Two years later she took a job in the Metro-Dade Police Department's crime lab, where she met her husband-to-be, a firearms expert. After four years there, she launched her own business as one of just two professionals in Dade County (and only 250 nationwide) to be officially certified as a documents examiner.

During her first court case as an expert witness, she testified for the defense in a murder trial in which her husband testified for the prosecution. Her side won.

Now she owns Hart Questioned Document Laboratory, one of the most sophisticated private forensic labs in the nation. An associate, Lamar Miller (the other certified examiner in Dade County), shares the office space; they both pay costs of the equipment. She regularly travels to conferences across the country to upgrade her skills; she earns $200 per hour as an examiner and $250 per hour to provide courtroom testimony.

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