It was reported as one of the biggest fine art thefts in history - $80 million worth of paintings by Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh and other masters spirited from a seaside home in Pebble Beach by a burglar who left a note demanding a ransom and threatening violence.
But the Monterey County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday that the Sept. 25 heist appears to be something else: a scam by one or both of the alleged victims, an aspiring lawyer who once sold puppies and a retired Harvard Medical School professor.
"This whole thing stinks," said sheriff's Cmdr. Mike Richards after explaining at a Salinas news conference that the men are the case's only suspects. "We're trying to determine what type of criminal enterprise they may be involved in."
Richards said the men who reported the theft - Angelo Amadio, 31, and Dr. Ralph Kennaugh, 62 - had not provided documentation that the paintings existed, despite repeated requests. Detectives don't even know the dimensions of the paintings, he said.
Among the elements that don't add up, he said, is the story given by an acquaintance of the two men who says he recently drove the paintings from Boston to Pebble Beach in a truck.
"If you have $80 million worth of art," Richards said, "you don't drive it across the country in a U-Haul."
Reached Tuesday, Amadio first said he couldn't talk for "safety reasons," but then blasted the Sheriff's Office, saying detectives were now questioning him and Kennaugh to cover up for having "botched the investigation." He said he had asked the FBI to take over the burglary probe.Interpol involved
Richards said the FBI was already involved, along with Interpol.
Amadio said he is chief executive of Alternative Asset Investments Inc., which he described as a company that deals with artwork. He also said he is a law student, but would not say where. Before moving to California, Amadio ran a puppy-selling business in Boston.
Kennaugh is a retired Boston oncologist and former Harvard Medical School professor. Amadio described him as a business partner he met 10 years ago.
The case began about 7 p.m. Sept. 25, Richards said, when Amadio called to report the burglary. He initially said the haul included works by Pollock, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir, Henri Matisse and Joan Miró, and that the total value of the stolen works was $27 million.
The men, citing the advice of their attorney, offered a $1 million reward.No evidence of break-in
Richards said police had dusted the men's rented home for fingerprints, quizzed neighbors and viewed surveillance video, but found no evidence of a break-in.
In the ensuing days, the men told reporters that they had discovered that other treasured paintings were missing and upped the estimated loss to $80 million. Then, on Sept. 29, Richards said, an associate of the men reported finding a typed ransom note stuffed behind some paintings that remained in their home.
"We were out there ... and one of them walked up to our investigators, who'd already been over the house with a fine-tooth comb, and said, 'I just found this note,' " Richards said.
Amadio said he and Kennaugh had just $72,000 in insurance coverage for their art collection - which he said his partner had built over three decades - but had been working on adding more coverage.
"Why would we make a police report on artwork that is uninsured?" he asked.
Amadio said documentation of the paintings' authenticity, including what he described as an original bill of sale from Pollock, had been stolen in the heist - but not before being seen by his insurance broker, David St. John.
In an interview Tuesday, St. John said he had seen the paintings and documents establishing their lines of ownership. He said he had been in the process of trying to insure the more valuable works, but was stymied by his clients' landlord, who he said wouldn't allow the installation of a security system.
Amadio and Kennaugh "don't need the money," St. John said. "They want the art back. It's really unfair what's happening to these guys."
St. John's ex-wife is Vicki St. John, who is listed as the attorney for Alternative Asset Investments, Amadio's company, on the firm's Web site.Mystery Pollock
David St. John said he had seen his clients' most valuable painting, an untitled Pollock that police were told was worth $20 million.
"There have been very few owners - three or four as I can trace," Amadio said. "It's known amongst Pollock collectors, I think."
Charles Moffett, a Sotheby's executive who once worked as a curator of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said it would be "pretty easy" to keep a valuable art collection a secret, as Amadio and Kennaugh say they did, provided they were careful and didn't lend pieces to exhibitions.
"It comes down to how hard you want to work to keep things out of sight," Moffett said. "We get surprised all the time."