On Tuesday, undercover agents from the Department of Homeland Security entered a tiny boutique lingerie store in Kansas City called Birdies. The shop was selling cotton panties that bore the phrase "Take the Crown" and an artistic rendering of the Royals logo designed by one of its co-owners, Peregrine Honig.
Birdies often sells novelty panties when big things happen in Kansas City—for example, they did a run of Michelle Obama panties when the First Lady came to town. With the Royals marching into the World Series, the first batch of Royals panties sold out fast.
Two undercover Homeland Security agents signed up for the waiting list for the next batch. They ordered one small and one medium pair, Birdies co-owner, Danielle Meister, said in a phone interview. When the printer dropped off the order, the agents were called into the store. When they arrived, Birdies was buzzing with customers there to pick up their orders.
Meister recalled one of the still-undercover agents asking, "kind of in a tall handsome way, 'Who owns this joint?'"
She and Honig responded in unison, "We do!"
Then the agent revealed his badge. Agents confiscated the entire order, which consisted of just 36 pairs of underwear, and issued Birdies a cease and desist letter, informing Meister and Honig that they could face a fine of up to $250,000 if they did not cooperate.
Meister said she saw a printed out email in the agent's hand from Major League Baseball that featured a screenshot of the store's website. The agents explained that because the K and the C on the Royals underpants were touching, the design on the underpants counted as copyright infringement.
Meanwhile, as the printer, a local named Eric Lindquist, was leaving Birdies after dropping off the order, he says a man approached him and inquired about future jobs. Lindquist handed the man a card but said that he was busy at the moment, and thought nothing of it. Hours later, he read of the Birdies raid on Facebook. Soon after that, a pair of agents knocked on the door of Lindquist's home, which is also his work space.
Possible outcome of selling counterfeit Kansas City Royals panties.
Lindquist informed the agents that to enter, they would need a warrant. He left them at the door and went inside, he says to make a few phone calls about his rights in this situation. Agents believed that Lindquist was actually destroying evidence. When Lindquist returned to the front door to ask the agents a question, he says he heard a voice yell from the driveway, "He's out!"
A group of agents then charged past him into the doorway. Lindquist was briefly handcuffed as they entered the unit, with guns drawn. Agents then told him that if he insisted on a warrant, they would take everything print-related in his shop as a precaution to keep him from printing further counterfeit apparel.
"Everything in the shop is other people's shirts or stuff that I need for my small operation," Lindquist said in an interview. "So of course I signed whatever they put in front of me."
Agents searched through his work materials and computer files for anything from the Royals panties job. The silkscreens he had used had already been cleared (hours before the agents even arrived, per Lindquist). But Lindquist had just taken out the garbage, which included a few small printouts pertinent to the job. Agents confiscated the printouts from the dumpsters out back.
Lindquist said he got the sense that the agents were expecting more than a one-man printing operation that had just completed an order for three dozen pairs of underwear. By the end of the raid, he said, the agents were joking around.
"I think they were looking for more panties or other presses that were set up and ready to go," Lindquist said. "But that was not the case."
Then what was the case? After all, the above account is of a real thing that happened. Why did Homeland Security set up an undercover sting at a lingerie boutique to confiscate 36 pairs of cotton underwear? Why did it send 10 agents into a local printer's home office, guns drawn?
"From our overall perspective we try as often as possible to trace those counterfeit goods back to the source so we can then dismantle the source," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Sean Neudauer. "In this particular case it didn't happen to be true, but a lot of times when you're getting counterfeit goods from, say, China, the proceeds that pay for those goods are being used to pay for other criminal enterprise activity"
The easy explanation would be to chalk this all up to overzealousness. But from the perspective of DHS, all counterfeiting cases begin the same way. Neudauer said that more than $40,000 in counterfeit tickets had already been confiscated as of Tuesday, plus hundreds of shirts, hats, and baby outfits. DHS has a proud and unsurprising history of targeting counterfeit sports apparel.
MLB, meanwhile, says the tip did not come from them—though it could have.
"The tip did not come from MLB in this instance," said Director of Business Public Relations Jeff Heckelman. "That said, if we become aware of a matter we think warrants the attention of the IPR group at HSI, we share it with them."
But with DHS committed to investigating all counterfeit claims, some wind up leading back to that warehouse in China run by organized crime rings. And some turn into real-life Portlandia sketches.
"While it is a hit for a small business to lose product of any kind, the bigger hit was—you know, we're a small business we're locally owned. No small business wants Homeland Security to come through their doors and show them a badge and tell them that they have committed a crime," said Meister.
The panties infringed on the Royals' intellectual property, agents told Meister, Honig, and Lindquist, because the K and the C on the logo Honig drew were touching. One wonders then how a law enforcement agency that pays such close attention to detail wound up mistaking a local business selling a novelty product for an honest-to-goodness factory printing out janky fake Royals t-shirts by the pallet. But it wasn't a mistake. DHS says they pursue all claims with rigor.
So far, charges have not been pressed against the Birdies co-owners or Lindquist. But Kansas City has rallied around its citizens. The store received a call from U.S. Senator Jerry Moran's office. Meister and Honig were treated to dinner on the house at a fancy local restaurant, and their favorite bar put a new drink on the menu called the Birdies Panty Raid.
As for Lindquist, asked about Royals fandom, he responded eloquently:
"Fuck no. I was starting to be. But after this, I had no idea that Major League Baseball was part of the federal government or whatever."