Tom Brady rode a golf cart through the bowels of NRG Stadium speeding by high-fives and cheers just moments after his Super Bowl LI postgame news conference around 10 p.m. CT. Brady's destination was the New England Patriots' locker room where he would join teammates and staff to continue celebrating their dramatic overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Brady, wearing a fresh gray "Super Bowl Champions: We Are All Patriots" T-shirt on top of a sweat-drenched blue undershirt he had worn during the game, entered the locker room at 10:06 p.m., according to video captured by Fox Sports. Within minutes of his arrival, his game-worn jersey disappeared.
The media's videos, including those from Fox Sports, are how authorities eventually pieced together the case of the missing jersey. There were no security cameras inside the Patriots' auxiliary locker room, but there was footage available from multiple media outlets in and around the area that assisted. The Houston Police Department, with help from other agencies, requested support from outlets that may have had video before, during or after the theft.
The HPD pored over hours of footage, according to chief Art Acevedo. With the help of a game-changing tip and tireless work from NFL security, Patriots security, the FBI and an assistant U.S. attorney, they found something. There was a man outside the United States with the Tom Brady jersey and more. His name was Martin Mauricio Ortega, a source told ESPN, a former Diario La Prensa executive who recently resigned from his position at the Spanish-language newspaper and who had obtained access to the locker room -- and the jersey -- with a media credential for what was believed to be the third straight year.
So began the search for the jersey. When law enforcement reviewed the tapes they saw Ortega enter with a black leather bag over his arm through the side door of the locker room behind Patriots coach Bill Belichick and others. Belichick goes in one direction, while Ortega goes in the other toward the players' area, according to a source who saw the video.
At 10:07 p.m., Brady was at his locker located at the front right of a crowded locker room near the door. Brady was about to leave to take the fading eye black off his drained face. But first his shoulder pads and jersey waited on the chair. Each had a different desired destination. There were two bags. One, an embroidered bag with the Patriots logo that he used to haul his equipment to and from games, sat on the floor by his feet. It was a standard team-issued bag, packed to the brim with cleats, pads and other items earmarked for the equipment manager and his crew. That bag was for the shoulder pads.
The folded jersey was earmarked for an unzipped black leather handbag -- an oversized man-purse of sorts -- stuffed neatly with Brady's personal items. He put the jersey in that bag and left to remove the eye black.
On the video provided by Fox Sports, investigators could still see part of the jersey sticking out just enough to be grabbed. That's when a man authorities say is Ortega is seen approaching the bag, and with his back to the camera, reaches down for the jersey, removes it from the black leather bag, puts it in a black plastic bag and walks out with it under his left arm, according to a source who saw the video. Ortega has not been arrested or charged as of Tuesday afternoon.
Before Brady returned, the quarterback, who has won five Super Bowl championships, stopped to talk with former teammate and current NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest, who declared, "Make room for the GOAT" in the crunched locker room at NRG Stadium. The two chatted for a moment before Brady was back at his locker with a look on his face that did not befit a man who had just enjoyed one of the best moments of his professional career. Brady examined the leather tote and noticed the jersey wasn't in the black leather bag where it was left.
"B, did someone take my jersey?" Brady said to Brenden Murphy, an equipment assistant with the Patriots, before placing down the water bottle in his left hand to begin his own personal search. "It was in my bag. I absolutely 100 percent put it in my bag. Someone took it, B."
He wasn't kidding. The jersey that Brady had specifically placed inside his personal bag was missing.
Murphy is seen on the video suggesting they check everyone on their way out of the room. That never materialized given the substantial traffic and situation. Neither did the jersey at any point that evening or when the equipment truck returned to Foxborough, Massachusetts, several days later. It was a disappointment.
"Those are special ones to keep," Brady said the day after the 25-point comeback when he collected yet another Super Bowl MVP trophy. He wanted that specific jersey to go home with, too. It was a memento from an emotional victory that was witnessed in person by his mother Galynn, who is ill, but attended the Super Bowl in Houston. It was the only game she attended that season.
Brady didn't stuff it into the equipment bag by his feet for a reason. Instead, it was strategically placed atop the bag that would return with him on the bus, to the hotel, to the following day's MVP news conference and ultimately on the airplane back to New England.
A quarterback with a near-photographic memory and a proclivity for precision doesn't forget something as simple as where he placed a jersey he desperately wanted to keep two minutes earlier. Pfft. Just like that, it was mysteriously gone amidst a sea of chaos.
The search concluded Monday after the jersey was returned to Boston for examination; they need to authenticate the memorabilia they found days earlier.
The Houston police, Texas Rangers, Patriots' security contingent, NFL security and even the FBI searched far and wide, following the goose chase across borders before it was located 43 days after going MIA after one of the greatest football finishes ever seen. To find that jersey took a similar effort from all agencies involved.
The search also reached the desk of assistant U.S. attorney John Durham of New Haven, Connecticut, sources told ESPN. Durham was critical to the recovery of the jersey after the NFL or Patriots security that had a connection to him reached out, and he "jumped on the case," per law enforcement sources.
A longtime prosecutor who first joined Connecticut Attorney's office in the late 1970s and has worked high-profile investigations, Durham's experience and expertise in a situation in which federal statues might apply was viewed as critical. Durham's professional background includes, among other things, being selected by Attorney General Janet Reno to probe law-enforcement corruption in Boston in 1999.
With Brady at the case's center, this was always going to be an attention-grabbing story, no matter how complex or rudimentary the plot, to snag what ultimately is a memento that Houston police valued at $500,000 in its original report. It wasn't the first time Brady's jersey had gone missing after winning a Super Bowl either. The same mysterious situation had unfolded two years earlier in Glendale, Arizona, only with much less fanfare. Brady wasn't caught on camera asking about the whereabouts of his jersey during the previous incident.
To identify Ortega, NFL security, Patriots security and the FBI pulled credentials for everybody who was issued one for Super Bowl LI -- that totaled approximately 20,000 credentials.
Going through each credential and accompanying photo one by one, they were able to narrow the number to about 1,400 based on the description of the person they had seen on the Fox Sports video. At photo 847, they identified Ortega. Around the same time this was happening, an FBI tip came in on Ortega. He had posted something on a since-deleted social media account about having a Super Bowl XLIX jersey.
The missing jersey was found in Mexico in the possession of Ortega. There they also located what is believed to be Brady's jersey from Super Bowl XLIX and a helmet from Super Bowl 50 that belonged to Denver Broncos star Von Miller, multiple sources confirmed. The Mexican attorney general released pictures Tuesday of the two Brady jerseys featuring distinctive logos from each of the Patriots' past two Super Bowls.
The items are in the process of being authenticated, but there is strong evidence to believe that it is Miller's helmet because inside there were stickers -- one each for the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Those stickers were specific to the missing helmet Miller wore in Super Bowl 50.
A process that started with the HPD Major Offender Division and stretched into the jurisdiction of the FBI is now in the U.S. attorney's office. Ortega is not in custody and has not been charged. The charges could include federal crimes such as transporting stolen goods across state lines and out of the country, according to Acevedo.
Brady's missing jersey wasn't exactly the most pressing case on the books for the city of Houston. This was just a missing jersey -- it would turn up.
"Let's keep this in perspective," Acevedo said Monday after noting this was the only blemish on his city for Super Bowl week. "After we speak about this today, we probably won't speak about this anymore."
ESPN reporter Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.