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.
In recent years Hart has worked principally on medical malpractice cases in which she authenticates records -- or exposes fraud. In 1990, for example, she helped a teenage mother win $23 million in a lawsuit against a Melbourne hospital that allegedly had refused to admit her infant, who later suffered brain damage from spinal meningitis. A note on the emergency-room nurse's medical chart indicated that when the mother called the hospital to complain that her infant had a high fever, the nurse told her to admit the child. But Hart searched the hospital's records and obtained another copy of the medical chart. It showed no note from the nurse.
Also in 1990 a Miami woman died of heart failure after a doctor allegedly failed to admit her to a hospital for tests. Two notations in the doctor's records suggested that he had advised her to enter the hospital but that she had refused. Hart examined the doctor's writing using a sophisticated video scanner that employs sensitive filters to detect even slightly different chemical compositions of ink. She concluded that after the woman died the doctor added statements to exonerate himself. "When the only thing that's in a different ink is an exculpatory statement blaming the patient, that becomes very good evidence for a plaintiff's attorney to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this doctor is not like your doctor. Your doctor wouldn't alter a medical record. This one did.'"
In 1995 a Miami woman sued her doctor alleging that he had failed to properly test and treat a malignant lump in her breast. But her medical chart showed no evidence that the tumor had been detected. Hart examined the records using an instrument called an ElectroStatic Detection Apparatus (ESDA), which can reveal faint indentations on sheets of paper. Her conclusion: The physician in fact found the lump during an examination but erroneously diagnosed it as a benign fibroid tumor. Later he allegedly removed that page from the patient's file.
The ESDA, however, re-created the doctor's misdiagnosis by highlighting the indentations his pen had left on the chart's following page. Hart testified in court that the physician had altered the records. During the course of the trial the woman died, but the jury awarded her family six million dollars. "The courtroom is the real test," Hart says. "It's the test of whether you did all the work you were supposed to do and anticipated all of the questions."
Not all of her clients allow her to testify. During a recent Boca Raton dispute over an inheritance, for instance, Hart authenticated the signature on an agreement that assigned the bulk of a man's estate to a female acquaintance. But Hart discovered that the agreement itself was a fake; someone had typed it onto a piece of paper bearing the deceased's true signature.
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When Hart produced her report, however, the attorney for the female acquaintance asked that she testify only to the signature's authenticity. She refused. Undaunted, the attorney hired a more acquiescent expert.
Three years later, when the case finally came to trial, the new expert inexplicably carried Hart's report with him to the witness stand. The opposing attorneys discovered it, demanded to read it, and then asked Hart to testify for their clients. "That's what so incredible," she recalls. "Why did he bring it in the courtroom? The lawyers asked him if it was an authentic signature, and he said, 'Yes it is.' He didn't lie, But he didn't tell the truth either."
Not everyone who alters a document and then tries to hide it is a lawbreaker, Hart allows. Some simply make unwise judgments. Her own son recently presented his parents with a wrinkled report card, explaining that someone had pulled it out of his hands and crumpled it. But when his mother studied it closely, she discovered eraser marks over his attendance record. Her son hadn't wanted her to know that he had skipped school. "You think it's a childish prank," she says, "but I had two certified public accountants try the same thing two days ago.