TWO businessmen found guilty of selling items with forged autographs of sporting stars will be sentenced today. G. Walker, owner of Sporting Icons Ltd on Watergate Row, Chester and his business partner, F. Madani, both denied 74 charges between them under the Trade Marks Act and Trade Descriptions Act.
After a six-week trial at Chester Crown Court the jury of nine women and three men took just under five days to come to their verdict.
During the trial prosecutor Andrew Thomas QC said customers paid hundreds or thousands of pounds for what they believed to be genuine stock autographed by their heroes.
The items were sold through the shop on Watergate Row, the shop's website and via eBay and included photographs and football shirts signed by Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Jonny Wilkinson and Wayne Rooney.
Walker, 45, of Mountain View Close, Connah's Quay and formerly of Blacon, was found guilty of 51 out of 53 counts against him.
The charges relate to forging the signatures of football stars such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Steven Gerrard, Jonny Wilkinson and others.
Walker was cleared of offering to supply a Liverpool FC Worthington Cup Final football shirt signed by Michael Owen and supplying a Michael Owen signed photograph.
The jury found Madani, 43, of Bramhall, Stockport, guilty of 18 of 20 charges against him.
He was cleared of selling a photograph with a fake signature of Steven Gerrard and selling 58 international caps with the Football Association Crest on them.
The prosecution was brought by Cheshire County Council's Trading Standards department.
Forensic handwriting expert Kym Hughes analysed each signature and identified 107 forged autographs.
During the trial football stars Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard and soccer legend Ian Rush all appeared as witnesses.
Walker, who lives with his wife, Tracey and their four children, told the court during evidence that Sporting Icons Ltd was set up in November 2003.
The former electrician said he became interested in collecting sporting memorabilia himself in 2001.
He was introduced to Madani in July 2003 and at a later date bought some signed Manchester United and Liverpool shirts from him.
Walker said: "I didn't have any reason to doubt the authenticity or Madani's ability to source."
But the prosecution said Walker "knew full well" that his company was selling fake goods.
The jury was shown documents found during a search of Walker's home including practice signatures of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard on bits of paper.
Madani chose not to give evidence despite the judge warning him that the jury could draw an inference from such a course of action.
The court heard at the close of the prosecution case that in 1998 Walker appeared at Chester Crown Court and admitted conspiracy to supply a registered trademark.
He set up a factory and made fake bottles of Calvin Klein perfume, Mr Thomas said.
Judge David Hale thanked the jury for their work during the trial.
Madani was remanded in custody and Walker was granted bail. They will both appear for sentence at 2pm tomorrow.
After the hearing Cheshire County Council's Director of Community Services, John Weeks, said: "This has been a long and complex investigation, but today's court result will be welcomed by sports fans everywhere.
"Ruthless exploitation of the devotion that fans show to their clubs and sporting heroes was exposed on as scale which shocked us all, indeed, helped to fund a high street business.
"Liverpool, Manchester United and their players, together with Jonny Wilkinson and Michael Owen, shared our concerns and helped uncover a situation which highlights the need for considerable caution on the part of anyone buying this type of memorabilia.
"Many fans will be worrying whether their items they have bought are genuine and advice has been given to several anxious callers.
"The Government's advice service and other Trading Standards Departments have been alerted."
Paul McGreary, county manager safer and stronger communities, said: "Genuine companies specialising in this field will know that they have to demonstrate that they have exercised due diligence and taken all responsible precautions to prevent the law being broken.
"Sadly, the only cast guarantee of authenticity is personal involvement between the fan and the sports star.
"There are precautionary measures that we can advise on.
"Realistically, however, if something looks to good to be true it usually is."