The fallout was bound to get ugly. But who knew it would get so strange?
In March filmmaker Steven Spielberg was found in possession of a stolen Norman Rockwell painting. As the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, CNN and countless other media outlets reported then, Spielberg purchased the pilfered art for $200,000 in 1989 — some sixteen years after it disappeared from a suburban St. Louis gallery during an early-morning burglary.
The artwork in question, an oil-on-canvas piece titled Russian Schoolroom, was commissioned by Look magazine in 1967. Today it has a value of nearly $700,000. According to federal authorities, Spielberg first learned of the painting's dubious provenance in late February, when one of his employees noticed the painting listed on the FBI's Art Crime Team Web site. In a press release issued March 2, the FBI stated: "Mr. Spielberg is cooperating fully with the FBI and will retain possession of the Russian Schoolroom until its disposition can be determined."
Now a civil legal battle has erupted over the ownership of the filched painting. Last month Jack Solomon — owner of the now-defunct Clayton art gallery, Arts International, from which the painting was stolen in 1973 — sued both Spielberg and the FBI for ownership of the painting.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Solomon's home state of Nevada alleges that the FBI "has allowed defendant Spielberg to retain possession of the Rockwell painting and failed to return the subject artwork to plaintiff Solomon despite the FBI's actual knowledge of the theft, recovery and ownership."
Meanwhile, Judy Goffman Cutler, the Rhode Island-based art dealer who sold the painting to Spielberg in 1989, has filed suit against Solomon and the Art Loss Register Inc., an agency that is assisting Solomon in retrieving the painting. In a lawsuit also filed last month in federal court, Goffman Cutler claims Solomon's insurer paid him $25,000 for the artwork following the heist and that he no longer has any claim to the painting.
Goffman Cutler further alleges that the Art Loss Register intimidated her by threatening to have criminal charges filed against her and that Jack Solomon defamed her character in an interview with Riverfront Times this spring. In Kristen Hinman's article published March 7, Solomon claims Goffman Cutler "should have known better" and "could have checked that there's been a record of this ever since the day it was stolen."
Goffman Cutler also asserts that Spielberg — an avid art collector and board member for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts — severed his business relationship with her shortly after Solomon made his accusations to the paper. She is asking the court to award her $5 million for the loss of the Spielberg account and another $10 million for "general damage to her reputation in her profession."
On May 11 the movie mogul transferred title of Russian Schoolroom back to Goffman Cutler in exchange for another Rockwell piece. Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy says the filmmaker is cooperating with officials and the FBI has been kept abreast of every move.
"Steven was prepared to turn it over to the FBI, but they asked us to hold onto it for safekeeping," says Levy. "We're doing whatever they tell us."
Solomon and his attorneys contend that Spielberg should never have signed the title to the painting back over to Goffman Cutler. The maneuver, they assert, does not clear the famed director of Schindler's List and other Oscar-winning films of culpability.
"It's very disappointing that Steven Spielberg — who is so active in Holocaust causes and other philanthropies — chose in this case not to assist a theft victim recover what's his," says Christopher Marinello, general counsel for the Art Loss Register in New York.
But even as new allegations over the ownership of the painting come to light, parties on both sides of the debate are whispering of a far more intriguing wrinkle to the story. They note that the government press releases that heralded the painting's discovery last March make no mention of the person (or persons) who stole Russian Schoolroom in the first place.
The omission, say people familiar with the case, could be for good reason and may very well be tied to the thief's association with a St. Louis-based plot to kill Martin Luther King Jr. It's a wild story, full of FBI oversights and fumbles — and a tale the feds might prefer remain a mystery.
Mary Ellen Shortland was 28 years old and working as assistant director of Arts International when someone smashed though the gallery's front door on June 25, 1973.
Shortland, now 62 and owner of Creative Art Gallery & Framing in south St. Louis, recalls the theft of Russian Schoolroom as one of the great disappointments in her young career. She says Arts International was hosting an exhibit of signed Rockwell prints that June. In an effort to build publicity for the three-week show, Jack Solomon (who owned Arts International, as well as dozens of other galleries across the nation) had an employee from one of his Kansas City studios drive Russian Schoolroom to St. Louis.
The painting had been here for just one day when on June 21 Shortland sold it for $25,000 to the late Bert Elam, a St. Louis concrete contractor and art collector. Elam agreed to let the gallery display the work until the end of the show. Four days later, on June 25, a thief made off with the painting and Shortland nearly lost her best customer.
"Mr. Elam was very unhappy that I'd talked him into letting us keep the painting," recalls Shortland. "Later he found out that the painting was probably worth more like $40,000. He'd gotten a heck of a deal, only for it to be robbed out from under him."
In the end, the gallery reimbursed Elam the money he put down on the painting and Arts International retained title to the work. Later the gallery was paid $25,000 from its insurer for the loss.
A few weeks after the theft, Elam hired a private detective to investigate. Shortland recalls that the detective came back with disturbing news. "He said he'd found the people who'd stolen it, and they were a bad outfit," remembers Shortland. "He warned Mr. Elam that even if he got the painting back, they'd just steal it again."
Shortland would eventually forget about the painting. Then — sixteen years after its disappearance — she was flipping through the July/August 1989 edition of the trade magazine Art & Auction when she came across an advertisement announcing the sale of Russian Schoolroom.
"I did a complete double-take," she says. "That painting was stolen, and it cost me a lot of money and headaches. I thought to myself: 'You got to be kidding me.'"
Shortland says she tried to call Jack Solomon at his Chicago offices but was unable to get through. She then called Judy Goffman Fine Art in Manhattan, which was listed in the magazine as the gallery selling the work. "I asked, 'Do you actually have the painting?'" recalls Shortland. "They said, 'Sure.' They were asking something like $175,000 for it."
Shortland's queries into the work were later chronicled by former Riverfront Times reporter Wm. Stage in the October 11, 1989, issue of this paper. Stage wrote that he also attempted to get in touch with Solomon to no avail. He did, however, succeed in interviewing Judy Goffman Cutler, who told him she'd recently sold the Rockwell to a person whom she declined to name.
As to the claims that the painting had been stolen, Stage reported that Goffman Cutler told him the artist often did several studies of one painting. The stolen Rockwell, surmised Goffman Cutler, must have been a different version of the one she'd recently sold.
Stage later interviewed an agent with the FBI who spoke on the condition that he not be quoted directly or named in the story. The agent told Stage the FBI investigated the painting a year earlier, in 1988, when a Rockwell scholar notified the agency that Russian Schoolroom was listed for sale at an auction in New Orleans. (Goffman Cutler won the bidding at $70,400.) The agent told Stage the matter was then routed to the FBI's St. Louis office, but the investigation became stymied when no one could find a police report for the stolen work.
This past March Frank Brostrom, a special agent in charge of the FBI's Art Crime Team, told Riverfront Times that he was prompted to reopen the case in 2004 when "a friendly source in the community" tipped him off to Stage's 1989 article. He, too, acknowledged that the police report was missing.
"For whatever reason authorities at the time were unable to locate the original police report or confirm the painting had ever been stolen," Brostrom told the RFT.
Earlier this year agent Frank Brostrom was transferred from the FBI's St. Louis office to North Carolina. He could not be reached for comment for this story. Agents familiar with the Russian Schoolroom case in St. Louis and Los Angeles would not comment on specifics other than what's already been reported.
If, however, the police report was missing back in 1989, it's now readily available at the Clayton Police Department. "I got a call from the FBI about two years ago on this and we were able to pull the report from our archives right away," says Clayton police captain Kevin Murphy. "How or why that wasn't the case then, I can't tell you."
The six-page report gives the value of the painting as $20,000 and notes the owner as both Arts International and Bert Elam. An appendix to the report provides a witness testimony from a man who claimed to see a black male break through the front door of the gallery at 6:40 a.m. and leave seconds later with a painting tucked under his arm. Nothing else in the gallery was touched during the smash-and-run.
Clayton police can produce several more larceny reports from the same address at 8113 Maryland Avenue. During a stretch in the mid-1970s the gallery was a constant target, with a persistent thief (or thieves) burglarizing the gallery on at least four separate occasions between 1973 and 1977.
The most interesting of those break-ins occurred July 8, 1976, when a crook pried open the front door to the gallery and left with seven Rockwell lithograph prints valued at more than $7,000.
In late February 1978 those prints would be recovered in the Rock Hill home of Russell G. Byers. A notorious St. Louis art thief, Byers would testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in May 1978 that he'd once been offered $50,000 by two Jefferson County businessmen to kill Martin Luther King Jr.
Byers declined the offer, but the House committee found enough circumstantial evidence to believe James Earl Ray may have been motivated by the very same bounty when he gunned down King in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Several inches of snow lay on the ground the night of Sunday, January 29, 1978, when an old Chevrolet Impala pulled up in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Three men in ski masks emerged from the vehicle. One of them carried a sledgehammer.
In plain sight of people sledding on Art Hill, the men smashed a window and disappeared into the building. Two minutes later at 10:39 p.m., the men exited the museum, taking with them four statues valued at nearly $100,000 — including Frederic Remington's The Bronco Buster, valued at nearly $40,000.
Three weeks later — on Monday, February 20 — thieves once again broke into the museum. This time they smashed through the glass door to the museum's east wing at approximately 8:24 p.m. The burglars went up the east stairway and made off with three bronze sculptures by famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin, best known for his iconic piece The Thinker. By the time the museum guards arrived minutes later, the thieves and the Rodin sculptures — valued at $45,000 — were nowhere to be found.
Eight days after the second museum heist, St. Louis detectives picked up John A. Crenshaw on federal charges of robbing a jewelry store in Illinois. They were interrogating the 25-year-old suspect at police headquarters when Crenshaw shocked police by implicating himself in the museum break-ins.
Crenshaw told the detectives that Russell Byers had taken him to the museum prior to the January 29 robbery and shown him which statues he wanted him to steal. He said Byers paid him and his accomplices $700 for the first museum burglary. Crenshaw burglarized the museum a second time because the first theft had been "so easy." Shortly after both robberies Crenshaw allegedly handed over the stolen art to Byers in a street exchange in the 5500 block of Cabanne Avenue in north city.
Crenshaw suggested that at least six of the seven stolen statues could be found with Byers. The seventh statue, a wood carving of St. Sebastian appraised at $4,500, was hidden away in Crenshaw's garage in north St. Louis. At 11 a.m. some 20 law enforcement officials — including the FBI — descended on Byers' home in Rock Hill. They carried with them a search warrant. When Byers' wife refused them entry, they broke through a door pane and entered the home.
The statues weren't there, but police found plenty of other loot. As Byers' wife and two teenage children stood outside on the lawn, police removed an estimated $300,000 worth of stolen artwork — including two paintings signed by Rembrandt, six oriental rugs, more than 100 silver candelabras, jade dishes and the seven Norman Rockwell lithographs stolen from Arts International in the 1976 burglary.
It would take another several weeks before the police recovered the six missing statues from the museum. Remington's The Bronco Buster turned up in a Goodwill drop box on Forest Park Avenue. Two other statues were found at a hotel on Oakland Avenue. Other statues were found in the back lot of a metal company on Manchester Road.
A few hours after police stormed his home, Byers turned himself into city police. The 46-year-old Byers gave his occupation as a vending-machine dealer. He was released on a $5,000 bond. At the time the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Byers had been arrested in St. Louis City and St. Louis County on several occasions in the 1960s.
In 1965 he had been convicted in U.S. District Court in St. Louis of conspiracy to commit auto theft and was placed on probation. Records show Byers faced two criminal charges in St. Louis County in the 1970s. Both cases remain sealed.
In the weeks and months following the first museum burglary in 1978, two of Byers' and Crenshaw's associates met violent deaths. Twenty-nine-year-old Charles Gunn, who assisted Crenshaw in the first break-in, was found shot in the head February 17 in a north St. Louis alley. On June 11 police discovered the disfigured body of 42-year-old Sam White in a field in Madison County, Illinois. Described by police as "Byers' right-hand man" White had been shot three times and his body so badly burned it took several days to identify him.
After initially implicating Byers in the museum thefts, Crenshaw refused to testify against him in court. Crenshaw was sentenced to four years in prison. Byers got off scot-free.
In July 1978 St. Louis Circuit Attorney George Peach told the Post-Dispatch that without Crenshaw's testimony, the case against Byers was "too weak" to pursue. In St. Louis County, the prosecutor's office gave the newspaper a similar account. They would not file charges against Byers for possessing the Rockwell lithographs stolen from Arts International.
It wasn't just local prosecutors who were dropping charges against Byers. On May 9, 1978, the U.S. House of Representatives granted Byers immunity under the Organized Crime Control Act for any possible prosecution involving his association with a St. Louis-based plot to assassinate Martin Luther King.
Today, those entangled in the legal battle with Steven Spielberg wonder if Byers didn't cut a similar deal to avoid prosecution in the disappearance of Russian Schoolroom. They say given Byers' taste for illicit art, it's likely he's the person who contracted the painting's heist in 1973.
Byers' involvement might also explain why no one has been charged with the theft — and why the FBI failed to close in on the painting in 1988 and 1989 when its agents claim the police report went missing.
Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but Byers himself does not entirely rule it out.
Russell Byers' modest brick home sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in the quiet suburb of Rock Hill. It's the same house police raided back in 1978. A picture window with a blue awning faces out into the front lawn. Two yapping Yorkshire terriers announce the arrival of anyone who steps near the property.
On a recent weekday afternoon the silhouette of a man appears behind a screened door. Before I can even reach the driveway, the man calls out: "Who are you? What do you want?"
I explain that I'm looking for Russell Byers. I want to talk to him about some art thefts back in the 1970s. The man responds that Byers is not home, and even if he were, why would he want to talk? "What's in it for him?"
I'm curious if he knows anything about a famous Norman Rockwell painting stolen in 1973. The painting, I explain, is now in the possession of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
"It's a hell of a story, isn't it?" the man responds. "Maybe there's a lot more to it than you know." After a few minutes the man steps outside and walks over to where I'm standing in the driveway. A wrought-iron fence separates us.
At 76 years old, Byers no longer appears like the underworld thug newspaper articles once made him out to be. In fact, he looks downright grandfatherly. His white hair is parted neatly down the side. He wears slip-on loafers with blue socks, a pair of stone-colored khakis and a short-sleeve Oxford cloth shirt. A silver Rolex dangles from his left arm.
Byers' cheeks are a ruddy pink. He blinks his blue eyes constantly — the result, he says, of surgery to relieve a problem with his tear ducts. "Don't think I'm retarded," he says of the blinking. "I still have all my marbles."
Byers then returns to the matter at hand: his possible connection to stolen Rockwell painting. "Why would I want to tell you anything about that? Why would I want the aggravation and the humiliation?"
I tell him that the statute of limitations for the theft has long since expired. I ask him if anyone else has contacted him about Russian Schoolroom. The FBI, he confirms, has asked him about the painting. Any more information, says Byers, will cost me. He wants money to talk.
I tell him that it's against the policy of the RFT to pay sources, adding that I doubted the New York Times paid him when it interviewed him for a front-page story on July 26, 1978, which revealed for the first time Byers' role in a St. Louis plot to assassinate King.
"I was in Newsweek and Time magazine, too," boasts Byers. "But none of them got the whole story."
The article published in the New York Times in 1978 described Byers' testimony before the House committee as an "embarrassment" to the FBI. According to the Times article — and backed by congressional reports — an informant first told the FBI in 1973 that Byers knew of a conspiracy hatched in St. Louis in the 1960s to kill the civil rights leader. But the FBI misfiled the information and it did not come to light until 1978 — long after several of the key players in the scheme were dead and gone.
When contacted by the House committee in 1978, Byers first denied any knowledge that he'd been offered money to kill King. Later he agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. Byers, according to congressional reports, told the committee that he was approached in late 1966 or '67 by John Kauffmann, a former St. Louis stockbroker and owner of a motel and drug company in Imperial.
The two men had a business relationship of sorts, with Kauffmann accepting payment from Byers in exchange for allowing him to squirrel away stolen merchandise at Kauffmann's Jefferson County motel. Byers told the committee that in '66 or '67 Kauffmann asked him if he would like to make $50,000.
The following comes directly from the committee report: "Kauffmann told him to meet him at 6:30 that evening, which Byers did, and together they drove to the home in Imperial of John Sutherland, a St. Louis patent attorney. The three men met in a study that Byers described as decorated with Confederate flags and Civil War memorabilia. There was a rug replica of a Confederate flag as well, and Sutherland was wearing what appeared to Byers to be a Confederate colonel's hat.
"After some social conversation, Byers asked Sutherland what he would have to do for the $50,000. Sutherland said he would have to kill, or arrange to have killed, Dr. Martin Luther King. Byers, who told the committee he did not know at the time who Dr. King was, asked where that amount of money would come from.
"Sutherland told him he belonged to a secret southern organization that had plenty of money. According to Byers, no names were mentioned. Byers said he neither accepted nor rejected the offer, indicating he would think it over. Outside the door of Sutherland's home, however, he told Kauffmann he was not interested."
Based on Byers' testimony, the House committee launched what it described as a "full-scale investigation" of Byers, Kauffmann and Sutherland. The committee discovered that Byers had told two St. Louis attorneys the same story in 1968 and again in 1974. Both attorneys corroborated Byers' story under questioning.
Further, an unpaid informant for the Jefferson County sheriff's office in the 1960s testified to hearing the same "standing offer to murder Dr. King" among guests who frequented Kauffmann's Buff Acres motel, which at the time was a known haven for prostitutes, drug dealers and petty criminals.
Kauffmann died in April 1974. John Sutherland had passed away four years earlier. But in 1968 both men were active in the American Independent Party, which backed segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace for president. Also heavily involved in local efforts to elect Wallace was James Earl Ray's brother, John Larry Ray.
The House committee described John Ray's now-shuttered Grapevine Tavern across from Benton Park in south St. Louis as a "distribution point for American Party campaign literature." John Ray was even known to drive voters to the election office to register with the party.
Also active in the American Independent Party was James Earl Ray, who was serving a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery when he broke out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in April 1967. While on the lam, Ray worked briefly for the Wallace campaign in California.
The committee believed Ray's brothers, John and Jerry Ray, assisted him during his flight from justice. And while the congressional investigators could find no "direct link" between the principals of the St. Louis conspiracy and King's killer, they believed there was a likelihood that word of the standing offer on Dr. King's life reached James Earl prior to the assassination.
"James Earl Ray may simply have been aware of the offer and acted with a general expectation of payment after the assassination," the House committee reported. "Or he may have acted, not only with an awareness of the offer, but also after reaching a specific agreement, either directly or through one or both brothers, with Kauffmann or Sutherland."
The committee concluded its investigation into Byers' claims of a St. Louis conspiracy by opining: "It is unfortunate that this information was not developed in 1968, when it could have been pursued by law enforcement agencies. It is a matter on which reasonable people may legitimately differ, but the committee believes that the conspiracy that eventuated in Dr. King's death in 1968 could have been brought to justice in 1968."
Today Byers shies away from discussing what he told the congressional committee in 1978. He says journalists and conspiracy theorists still knock on his door, trying to get him to share his story. None, apparently, have forked over enough cash to hear his tale.
Byers, meanwhile, says he remains confused by the testimony of at least one individual from the congressional hearings. Murray Randall was one of the St. Louis lawyers who testified to hearing Byers discuss the offer to assassinate King in 1968 and again in 1974. Later Randall went on to become a judge in St. Louis.
"The judge told the FBI that I was the most notoriously dangerous criminal in St. Louis," says Byers. "I don't know where that came from. We were friends."
Byers says he never cut a deal with the feds to avoid prosecution for the Saint Louis Art Museum burglaries in 1978 and takes issue with allegations that he killed or arranged for the murder of accomplices Charlie Gunn and Sam White. "I didn't have anything to do with it," says Byers. "Black guys were always killing each other back then. What can I say?
"Don't make me out to be a bad guy," Byers tells me. "The media always makes me out to be a bad guy. I'm no murderer. I've never killed anyone."
I'm not saying you killed anyone, I tell him. I simply want to discuss what — if anything — he knows about the Russian Schoolroom painting. When he again brings up the subject of money, I suggest I might have the wrong person — that someone else probably stole the painting.
As I walk down the driveway to my car, Byers coyly responds, "You know, you're right. I'm sure art thieves all over the world were targeting that little gallery in Clayton. Come back later," he adds, "when you have your pocketbook."