Calif. pitcher who allegedly ran huge counterfeit ring on the run


Byron McLaughlin was a California boy through and through. He was born in Van Nuys, went to Santa Monica High and eventually briefly played for the Angels. His baseball card shows him with shaggy brown hair, a dead ringer for “SNL” star Kevin Nealon. 

But McLaughlin’s surfer dude looks belied a dark life that would take him around the world — and eventually on the lam.

The warning signs were already showing during McLaughlin’s playing days. 

He first caught on as a free agent for the Montreal Expos in 1974. After bouncing around the minors for a few years, he was signed by the Mariners. In 1979, McLaughlin, then just 24, took a short August break for his wedding in Mexico. He left his usual gear and luggage with the team. Unluckily for the Mariners team trainer, McLaughlin’s carry-on ended up in his possession on an LA road trip. The trainer threw the bag onto the conveyor belt, where it was immediately flagged by LAX security. When the bag was opened, a .357 magnum was inside. No one got in trouble — security took the Mariners’ word for the mix-up — but the news became public and McLaughlin reportedly chewed out the trainer for the bad press. 

McLaughlin was no star. He was converted from outfielder to pitcher, and bounced back and forth between the majors and minors in the late ’70s and early ’80s, compiling a 5.11 ERA in 129 MLB appearances. His frequent stretches out of big-league ball included stops in San Jose and Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican League. His time in Mexico would become the most consequential of his life. 

In 1983, McLaughlin announced he was retiring from baseball. In a furious interview with the LA Times, he blamed the Angels for wearing him down. “They hurt my arm, they abused me and this is what I get for busting my butt,” he said. “I asked for my release so I can play for someone else, but they won’t do it. So I’m gonna quit.”

“This is how they deal with bad boys,” he added. 

Pitcher Byron McLaughlin's baseball card from his years with the Seattle Mariners.

Pitcher Byron McLaughlin’s baseball card from his years with the Seattle Mariners.

Screenshot via

In short order, McLaughlin would also learn how law enforcement dealt with bad boys. A year later, an undercover cop met McLaughlin at a Carlsbad restaurant. There, investigators say he tried to sell 11 ounces of cocaine for $24,000. He was promptly arrested, and a warrant was issued when he failed to show at a court appearance.

McLaughlin’s long life on the run was underway.

His baseball career over, he got into the counterfeit game. According to federal indictments that would later be filed against him, McLaughlin made business contacts while playing in Mexico. Those contacts put him in touch with counterfeit shoe manufacturers in South Korea. There, the fake shoes were made, boxed up and shipped out. McLaughlin allegedly served as the middle man between the factories and his associates in Mexico. There, trucks shipped the sneakers across border points into the U.S. 

The biggest shoe companies in the world took notice. Fake Reeboks, Nikes, Adidas and Vans were flooding the market. In 1989, customs officials in Nogales, Arizona, found hundreds of boxes of Vans shoes. When they opened a box, they realized they were knockoffs. Customs officials reached out to Vans. To their surprise, Vans told them they already knew about the problem. 

The shoe industry is typically cutthroat, with each brand trying to steal a slice of the pie from its competitors. But things were bad enough that Reebok, Converse and Vans decided to combine forces. Reebok’s lawyer, Harley Lewin, ran point for all three companies, sending undercover PIs posing as buyers and sellers into McLaughlin’s sphere. Lewin told the New Yorker that they estimated half of the counterfeit shoes coming out of the entire country of Mexico could be tied back to McLaughlin’s ring. 

FILE: A border station at the U.S.-Mexico border in the city of Nogales, Arizona, seen in 2017.

FILE: A border station at the U.S.-Mexico border in the city of Nogales, Arizona, seen in 2017.

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A parallel investigation run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection found McLaughlin living far beyond the means of a failed professional athlete. A federal indictment said he had millions of dollars in his offshore bank account and a cushy home and flashy cars in Coronado. In 1990, the Department of Justice made its move. The district of Arizona, which handled the case, sought charges for 18 people associated with the shoe ring. McLaughlin was indicted on charges of trafficking in counterfeit goods, money laundering and making false statements to customs officials. The charges carried a prison sentence up to 20 years.

But McLaughlin was already gone. 

After posting bail, McLaughlin reportedly left the country to live it up in France. Lewin told Sports Illustrated that McLaughlin called him almost weekly for a while, taunting phone calls teasing his location or asking Lewin to meet with him for dinner. In the late 1990s, Lewin took him up on the offer. While on a trip to Paris, Lewin got McLaughlin to agree to a meeting; Lewin says they met at a ritzy hotel and spoke for a while about the conditions that would entice McLaughlin to face the music back home. “He’d float and float, and dangle and dangle,” Lewin told SI. “But when it came time to do something concrete, he just wouldn’t do it.”

After an hour, Lewin gave up. McLaughlin has remained in the wind ever since. He’s avoided the media and never spoken on the record about the allegations. Attempts to extradite him back to the states have all failed. A request for comment from the Department of Justice’s Arizona district was not returned by publication time.

There have been rumors. McLaughlin spotted on the French Riviera, in West Africa, on the Ivory Coast. 

“Most of the time when you hear about trouble with professional athletes it’s drugs or some sort of altercation with the police or a domestic dispute — that sort of low-level but terrifying activity,” Lewin said in 2018. “Byron was anything but that. He was confident, sanguine, smart.”

If he’s still out there, McLaughlin would be 67 today.

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