A thief allegedly slipped this painting under his jacket to feed his heroin habit — not knowing that the public library’s cameras were rolling, and his string of remarkable art heists was about to end.
Police said the thief, an unidentified 53-year-old man from Farren Avenue, ripped off 39 paintings from New Haven venues, including $40,000 in art from Yale’s Slifka Center and the New Haven Free Public Library.
The paintings were recovered during a weekend bust on a Hill area home, where a second man, age 47, had been allegedly accepting the art in exchange for bags of heroin. Police expect to arrest the thief later this week.
Meanwhile, at a Monday afternoon press conference at police headquarters, detectives appealed for help in identifying the art. Detective Scott Branfuhr, a former Independent Cop of the Week, took the lead in cracking the case.
“These were not hardened criminals,” said Branfuhr. “They have drug habits.”
The break in the case came from a surveillance camera at the New Haven Free Public Library, Branfuhr said. He and Assistant Chief Peter Reichard gave the following account of how they stopped a serial thief in his tracks.
New Haven police first learned of the case on March 5, when two paintings went missing from the downtown public library on Elm Street. Two days later, the thief apparently hit again: Two more paintings disappeared. Detectives reviewed the surveillance footage, which showed a man concealing something under his jacket, standing right near the spot where one of the paintings, called “Beware Of Dog” (in photo at the top of this story), had hung.
Also stolen that day was this etching (pictured) by Tony Falcone of New Haven City Hall. The paintings at the library were not secured, police said. They were just hanging there.
Police constructed a description of the suspect based on the videotape. Then, just three days later, the same man came back to the library, police said. Staff called police, who took the man to police headquarters for questioning.
In a taped conversation, the alleged thief recounted how a heroin addiction drove him to steal the art, according to police. The suspect admitted to stealing five paintings from the public library, as well as three from the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. Those three paintings were done by Unabomber victim and Yale professor David Gelenter as well as his son, Daniel, a Yale music major.
After stealing the artwork, the thief would take them to a Hill drug house, to leave for collateral for drugs, police said. For each painting, he’d get two to three bags of heroin, Reichard said.
The thief also admitted to stealing more paintings from other locations, but he declined to provide details of where they came from, said Branfuhr (at right in photo with Reichard). He told police that he was high on heroin during the heists and could not recall the details, Branfuhr said.
The suspect did lead police to the drug house where he delivered all the stolen goods, the detective said. At 12:30 a.m. Saturday, police closed in on 24 Sylvan Ave., a three-family brick home just two blocks away from the Yale medical district.
Inside the home, police recovered 39 pieces of art and six firearms, police said. Only 31 of the artworks have been identified. Some are photographs of Connecticut places; others show geometric shapes or idyllic landscapes. None of them are by particularly famous artists, detectives said.
At the home, police arrested Bronislaw “Bruno” Nestir, age 47. He was arrested on larceny and firearms charges, police said. At an arraignment at New Haven Superior Court Monday morning, his bond was cut in half to $125,000 and he was set a court date of April 9.
Nestir’s attorney, Rob Serafinowicz, said his client plans to plead not guilty to the charges. He noted that a second man admitted to stealing the paintings. To press larceny charges, police would have to prove that Nestir knew the paintings were stolen.
Nestir was recorded on tape saying that he believed the man who gave him the paintings had obtained them from Yale, according to Branfuhr. That statement still may not prove that Nestir knew the paintings were stolen, replied Nestir’s attorney.
“It’s not as cut and dry as the police make it out to be,” Serafinowicz said.
Police described both suspects as drug addicts. Serafinowicz took issue with that characterization of his client.
At Nestir’s house Monday afternoon, a woman answering the door described herself as Nestir’s sister. She maintained that her brother was no thief.
“He had nothing to do with stealing the paintings,” she said.
Anyone who can identify the stolen paintings is encouraged to call Detective Scott Branfuhr at 946-6028, or the police detective unit at 946-6304.
Paintings stolen from the Slifka center were from a show of works by Yale computer scientist David Gelernter and his son Daniel.
“I very much doubted I’d ever see those paintings again, and I’m tremendously grateful to the police for their superb work,” David Gelernter said.
” Of course no one likes to have anything stolen, but when it’s something that’s absorbed as much time, energy & emotion as a painting, it’s especially bad news.”