Back in December, the FBI announced that in coordination with the LAPD’s art theft detail, it had recovered these nine works of art, which had been stolen from an elderly couple’s home in Encino in 2008 while the housekeeper was away grocery shopping. The cell-phone search warrant affidavit offers a rare glimpse into how thieves attempt to sell laundered art.
These staged undercover buys are one of the best tools to recover stolen artworks. Detective Donald Hrycyk of the LAPD describes in his search warrant the circumstances of the theft and the recovery of the works:
On August 24, 2008, I received a crime report of a hot prowl residential burglary during which $10 million in fine art was stolen from the home of ____ and ____ who were both elderly invalids. The art was taken during the day while they were in their bedrooms during a brief window of opportunity lasting less than an hour during which no caregivers or employees were in the house. Twelve paintings were taken including works by artists such as Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, Chaim Soutine and others.
The art remained missing for six years. Then on 9/2/14, I became aware that a man named “Darko” in Europe was trying to find a buyer for the nine stolen paintings listed in the _____crime alert (see Attachment C). He indicated that he was merely a middleman for an unknown person in possession of the art in California.
I contacted Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas who works the FBl’s Art Crime Team in Los Angeles. An undercover operation was implemented to recover the stolen art. FBI undercover agents posing as potential buyers set up a meeting at a hotel in West Los Angeles for the purpose of buying the nine stolen paintings valued at over $10 million for $700,000 in cash.
On 10/23/14, a man identi?ed as Raul Espinoza (aka: Jorge Lara) tried to sell the paintings to the undercover agents and was subsequently arrested and the nine artworks recovered. He is being prosecuted under state charges of 496(a) PC (Receiving Stolen Property) with various special allegations. During the undercover operation. I heard Espinoza offering to sell three additional artworks. He described the paintings, one of which matches the description of an Endre Szasz painting owned by the victims that is still missing.
Special Agent Rivas told me she interviewed Darko who told her he spoke to the person in possession of the stolen art at least fifty times by cellphone and received cellphone photos of the stolen art in the same manner. During the undercover buy with FBI agents, I viewed and heard the operation taking place through the use of a hidden camera in the hotel room and observed Espinoza using his cellphone to call confederates to signal them during the operation. In addition, believe the original burglary could not have been accomplished without the assistance of inside help from one of the employees who worked for the victims at the time of the crime and I believe this person is known to Espinoza.
Espinoza’s cellphone was seized and booked evidence at the time of his arrest. I request authorization to have his cellphone undergo forensic examination to determine if it contains phone numbers, contacts, photos, emails, text messages, and other information showing his involvement in the crime of receiving stolen property as well as his contacts with Darko and other accomplices in selling, transporting or storing the art. I believe this information may result in the recovery of three additional paintings in the possession of Espinoza that were stolen from the victims during the burglary in 2008 and may reveal the identity of persons involved in the original burglary in 2008.
So the FBI agents offered $700,000 for the nine stolen pieces, and there are three additional artworks missing. It appears the theft may have been aided by someone wit knowledge of when the housekeeper would be away.