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Last November, a task force of state and local police, the FBI and the U.S. Customs Service assembled near Mile High Flea Market for an operation called Flea Powder IV. It was the latest in a twice-yearly sweep to identify counterfeit merchandise and arrest vendors who sell it.
The day before, representatives from manufacturers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Nike had accompanied agents through the huge market to spot phony clothes. Having compared notes and identified fifteen vendors, agents entered the market. They had to move quickly.
One of their targets was Suki Brow. Brow had already been busted once, in 1996, for selling knock-off purses at the market. Back then she'd been given probation, since federal agents often don't arrest first-time offenders -- they just take the vendors' stuff and warn them not to sell it again.
Second-time offenders aren't so lucky.
Brow's "booth" was a large parking space on the asphalt, covered by a tent. Underneath, rows of tables contained sports jerseys, shirts and pants with "Tommy" labels and other sports apparel. A Customs agent entered her selling space and picked up a poor-quality Broncos jersey: The tag in back bore a reflective sticker instead of a hologram, indicating the jersey was fake. He told Brow she was under arrest.
Through her broken English, Brow insisted the clothes were good.
The agent asked her about a blue denim shirt with the word "Tommy" embroidered on the front.
"That shirt's no good," she said. (She would later explain that she meant the shirt was not really a Hilfiger shirt but that it was still legal.) Before long, law-enforcement officials were searching her booth and several others. In Brow's space alone, Customs agents found more than 100 items of clothing, including hats, T-shirts, knit shirts and sweatshirts, with counterfeit trademarks and logos belonging to Disney, Warner Bros., Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Adidas, NFL, NBA, MLBA and other manufacturers.
Brow and two other vendors were arrested and hauled off to the Federal Detention Center in Littleton. Brow's attorney, Craig Skinner, recalls that his client was a "mess," crying, pleading with him, "Please, please, please, get me out of jail." The next day, she was charged with trafficking in counterfeit goods -- a federal crime -- and released.
Brow, who is 48, came to the United States from Korea in 1977 after she married an Army officer. They eventually divorced, and Brow moved to Denver from Colorado Springs in 1995. She started working the flea market the next year, after friends told her it was a good way to make money. She bought her clothes on credit from wholesalers -- one in Denver and one in Los Angeles -- and paid them back out of the sales. On a good weekend, she could earn about $1,000. She had worked for half a year before her first arrest.
She went on to open a laundromat in the northern suburbs, but when the venture failed, she once again decided to try her hand selling clothes at the market. At the time, she was still on probation. She says she called her probation officer and Customs to tell them about her return to vending; she wanted to make sure she wasn't selling counterfeit items again. "I wanted to make sure, protect myself," she says. But neither her probation officer nor anyone from Customs ever inspected her wares, she says. And when she was busted the second time, Brow claimed she didn't know the products were counterfeit.
"The second time they say 'I didn't know,' it's a harder pill to swallow," says Lisa Euriguen, administrator for the Coalition to Advance the Protection of Sports Logos (CAPS), an organization that represents the major American sports leagues and their merchandise.
But Skinner believes his client. "I think what she had been told by the people she bought them from was that they were not counterfeit," he says. "If someone has a problem with her choice to believe that, I would understand. I think she was sincere in doing what she thought she had to.
"As far as criminals go, she is very unsophisticated," Skinner adds. In his opinion, the case is small potatoes and should be "working through municipal court in Aurora." But since it involves copyright and trademark violations, he says, "it automatically gets kicked into federal court."
Brow has opted to plead guilty in exchange for leniency. Under the federal judicial system, defendants are scored on a variety of factors, and cooperating with law enforcement can help a person's case. Skinner says he has managed to get Brow into a category in which she may not have to serve any prison time, but on November 19, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch will have the final word.
And that might be the end of an insignificant case, if it weren't for Wal-Mart. Over the last five years, the world's number-one retailer has repeatedly been busted for the same crime: selling counterfeit clothes -- specifically, those manufactured by fancy-pants designer Tommy Hilfiger.
Hilfiger first sued Wal-Mart in April 1994, claiming the retailer was selling shirts that too closely resembled Hilfiger designs and its trademark logo. Hilfiger was eager to protect its upscale image and didn't want its real clothes, let alone fakes, in lowbrow Wal-Mart stores. But Wal-Mart had been eager to provide merchandise its customers wanted, even if the manufacturers didn't approve, so -- like Suki Brow -- Wal-Mart buyers purchased the "Hilfiger" stuff through third parties.