Brian Kingman thought he was being robbed. He'd just left a private jet on the tarmac at Scottsdale Municipal Airport with two gentlemen who had in their possession a rolled Picasso painting of a cubist Mona Lisa that was thought to be worth millions of dollars.
Two men in blue FBI tee shirts pointed automatic weapons at the windshield of his Toyota Land Cruiser; six more agents surrounded the vehicle. And because Kingman froze a bit too well, so stung with disbelief that he didn't hear the order to get out of the truck, he had a pistol stuck in his ear through the open driver's side window.
It was December 17, 1992, and Kingman, 41, was arrested for trafficking in stolen art. The art in question was a painting called "La Mujer (Woman)," that had been stolen in New York nine years earlier. Ironically, it was not even a real Picasso, but a copy of a painting that art experts think was a fake in the first place.
The men who were arrested with Kingman, Alfred Vincent Mauriello, 66, and his son Stephen Vincent Mauriello, 41, were Las Vegas bookies who had been given the painting as payment for a gambling debt. They'd spent years trying to find someone to tell them it was worth something.
The Mauriellos were referred to Kingman by a mutual acquaintance who remembered that Kingman was friends with an art broker who had once sold a Picasso painting.
But none of them knew a damned thing about art. Nor did the FBI, which knew where the painting came from, but didn't bother to do enough legwork to find out it was a fake. Instead, they staged a sting operation too hokey for a TV movie of the week. Kingman and the Mauriellos walked into it, anyway.
Kingman knew the painting could have been stolen, but he thought he was helping to legally return it to an insurance company. The insurance company examiners he'd arranged to meet that day, however, were undercover FBI agents.
"When I was arrested, the FBI said they weren't sure if I was a victim or a suspect," Kingman says.
After the Feds realized that the painting was a fake, they dropped the charges against Kingman. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office gladly picked them up, charging Kingman with theft and possession of stolen property. The painting, after all, was stolen and it was in Kingman's truck. And regardless of his intentions and the circumstances of his involvement, the law's the law.
Kingman is no stranger to bad luck. He'd started out, 20 years ago, as a promising fastball pitcher for the Oakland A's, until he threw for a record-breaking losing streak that didn't end when his baseball career did. Kingman then blew a job, his reputation and all his money when he committed a no-brainer felony. The only job he could get after that was as manager of a Circle K store, which he lost last week when they found out about his continuing legal problems. Now he's looking at a possible 12 years in jail.
@body:Brian Kingman is a lanky six-footer with a receding red hairline, but he still looks like an athlete because he still runs five or six miles a day to clear his head. He's got a standard athlete's mustache and a standard pro baseball drawl. But there's a "who cares" tone to his voice, as if he's resigned himself to thinking up a joke about whatever trouble is bearing down on him next.
"I just don't get embarrassed anymore," he says, and the only thing he seems to be afraid of is the wrath of his wife, Dianne. He wonders how much more of his trouble she'll put up with.
Kingman grew up in Los Angeles, and, in 1975, just before he graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he was drafted as a free agent by the Oakland A's. After five years in the minor leagues, he came up to the show in 1979, dazzling sportswriters with his "stuff," as they referred to it, his baffling overhand curveball and his blistering fastball.
But he always seemed to be on the losing side of the game, and in 1980, he set a yet-unbroken record that was significant enough to immortalize him on a Trivial Pursuit card.
Kingman is the last big-league pitcher to lose 20 games in one season. Never mind that he had a lower earned run average than three-quarters of the pitchers in the majors, and that the pitcher with the next-lowest ERA was a 20-game winner. Through bad luck and poor offense, he was a regular loser.
"You have to be pretty good to lose 20 games," Kingman says, deadpan. Indeed, a bad pitcher wouldn't be given that many chances. And even though he redeemed himself the next season by pitching a shutout in his first complete game, even though he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, he is remembered only for his losing stats.
Kingman had a quarrelsome relationship with A's manager Billy Martin, who never won the Nobel Prize for Human Relations, either. And so as sportswriters scratched their heads and wondered how someone so good could do so badly, Oakland traded Kingman to the Boston Red Sox in 1983, and immediately after spring training, the Red Sox traded him to the San Francisco Giants. He started the season with the Triple-A Phoenix Giants, since renamed the Firebirds, got called up to the majors for three games, and then was sent back to Phoenix. The next year he hurt his back. And since he'd had his fill of losing--something no athlete has much stomach for--he retired.
Kingman had met his wife, Dianne, during his 1980 spring training in Phoenix. One of her relatives worked for a check-cashing company that had currency exchanges in several western states, and Kingman went to work for that company in 1985. He became a quality control supervisor for its California and Arizona stores and bought enough stock to become part owner. Then in 1991, after being passed over for promotion and a subsequent raise, he lost his judgment and decided to get even with the owners.
While on his regular inspection route, Kingman planted phony check-cashing histories in the San Francisco and Phoenix branches of the company, then sent an accomplice--another disgruntled employee--to pass more than $100,000 worth of bad checks. They were caught and convicted in mid-1992. Kingman was ordered to pay restitution and to serve seven and a half years of probation.
His assets were wiped out, but he eked out a mortgage payment delivering newspapers and managing a Circle K store.
As if things weren't bad enough, the pitcher was about to be framed.
Joaqun Alvarez Montes, a Spanish nobleman who bears the title of Viscount of Miralcazar, inherited the painting called "La Mujer" from his father, who, the viscount says, had bought it, along with another painting of a woman, from Pablo Picasso himself. The father had allegedly helped one of Picasso's relatives escape the fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco during the 1930s. Picasso was not so grateful that he gave the paintings as tokens of his gratitude; instead, he sold them at fire-sale prices. It's a touching story, even if it has become a clich of the art world.
"You'd be amazed how many fakes have the same story," Picasso expert John Richardson told the New York Observer. "We did Picasso a favor.' . . . It's all bullshit."
When the first reports of the theft hit the New York tabloids in 1983, the painting was thought to be worth millions of dollars and Alvarez had been promoted to Marquis of Mon Real, a misidentification that has stuck to every written account in the 11 years since. That title, in fact, belonged to one of his great-grandfathers and was passed down to a cousin.
Alvarez holds the lesser title of viscount, which he inherited from another great-grandfather who was granted the distinction in 1670 by the King of Spain.
But neither title bestows any privileges on Alvarez other than to mark him as old money. And if they conjure up images of a man in silk knickers and a powdered wig, in reality, Alvarez lives the more mundane life of a designer and architect of government buildings. Still, his Madrid apartment is sumptuous enough to have been photographed for Architectural Digest in an article that touted his extensive art collection. And because he spent much of his youth in the United States and attended the University of Chicago, he kept a home in Palm Beach and a New York condominium apartment in the oh-so-tony Galleria building at 57th Street and Park Avenue.
In 1983, the apartment was up for sale because it was no longer worth the trouble of keeping it. The maintenance cost was prohibitive, and even if the building had a 24-hour security service, televisions and other valuables were regularly disappearing from Alvarez's apartment, as if someone with a pass key were helping himself.
The Picasso painting was the centerpiece of the living room; it depicted a primitive portrait of a wide-eyed woman, stiff and huddled on one side of a harlequin patchwork of blues and browns. In the 1950s, Alvarez's father had commissioned a copy of the painting from a French artist. Given the security problems in the building, and the high cost of insuring artworks, Alvarez hung the copy on the wall and put the original in a Swiss bank vault.
Among the people who came to inspect the condo for sale was a man who dressed as if he were a Greek Orthodox priest. The priest returned again and again to see the property, and attempted to befriend the viscount. He was most interested in the artwork.
"It was a little too insistent," Alvarez remembers, speaking by telephone from his home in Spain. "I started to get nervous about that, and I mentioned to him that all of the artwork was connected with contact switches to the alarm system--which, in fact, they were not."
The theft resembled a script from the 1960s TV series It Takes a Thief, in which Robert Wagner played a suave and sexy international cat burglar of exaggerated talents. Sometime between December 13 and 19, 1983, burglars hid in a tiny electrical closet next to Alvarez's apartment and bored a hole through 14 inches of reinforced concrete behind the medicine chest in the apartment's guest bathroom. Then they slithered through a remarkably tiny hole, found their way through the dark apartment (the electricity was turned off because the viscount was in Spain), and sliced the painting right out of its frame.
"The people who did it or had it done must have known what they were looking for," says Alvarez, "because there were other things in the apartment that were as valuable as the original painting was." On the same walls, Alvarez maintains, were two original pencil drawings by Salvador Dali and a pastel by Renoir.
Nancy Carter, who was Alvarez's real estate agent, discovered the theft on December 21, while showing the apartment. The empty frame hung mockingly in the living room. She called the police, and though the investigating officers searched the premises, they never bothered to open the door to the guest bathroom, and couldn't figure out how the thieves had gotten into the apartment.
A day later, Carter got a phone call from the maid who cleaned the condo once a week.
"Is Mr. Alvarez having work done?" she asked. "There sure was a mess in the bathroom, but don't worry, I cleaned it up."
Carter called the cops again, showed them the hole in the wall and marveled that anyone could fit through an opening so tiny. The police assured her that the human body is very pliant.
A week later, Alvarez called from Spain and told the police that the painting was a copy of no value.
"Complainant states that he does not want to pursue this matter and will not come to the U.S.," the police report stated. "In view of the above, request that this case be closed."
The real "La Mujer" was reportedly locked away in a vault. The copy didn't reappear until 1989, six years later.
According to Detective Joseph Keenan of the New York Police Department, art burglaries are rare because artworks are so hard to dispose of. Most stolen art is simply shoplifted from art galleries, and less than 10 percent of it is ever recovered, partly because police departments have more pressing concerns to throw budgets at, and partly because of the closed and confidential nature of the clandestine art world.
"Let's say you stole a tractor-trailer full of VCRs," Detective Keenan posits. "You'd have no trouble getting rid of them. But I know some very professional-type burglars who wouldn't do an art job because they don't have the connections. It would be impossible for them to sell it."
The major markets for the Picasso would be overseas. In fact, the cops had someone specific in mind. "At one point, the police told us this probably was a robbery that had been commissioned by someone who collected Picassos and lived on an island somewhere in Greece," says Alvarez. Alvarez thought immediately of the Greek Orthodox priest who had doted over the apartment and its art. Nancy Carter, the real estate agent, had tried to look him up, but couldn't find him anywhere. She and Alvarez assumed he had been casing the apartment, especially since he disappeared after the burglary. "He was a complete fraud. I know he didn't steal the painting himself," Carter says, thinking back to the hole cut in the wall and to the priest's considerable girth. "I don't care what the police say, the human body is not that pliable."
Carter thought of the priest again several years later, in 1989, when New York State Police investigators came to visit. "Evidently, there were a couple of dead bodies up there [in upstate New York], and one of them had the clipping of the newspaper about the Picasso in his wallet," Carter says. She and Alvarez wondered if someone had been paid back for bungling the job and stealing a worthless painting. When contacted by New Times, however, the New York state trooper in charge of that investigation denied any such body was found, and he refused to comment on a report he made to the FBI regarding an arrested fugitive who also had the New York Times clipping in his wallet, even though the clipping was an addendum to the report.
But these clues never amounted to anything more than tantalizing glimpses of a movielike scenario, in which a hapless burglar gets his just deserts and a worthless painting gets passed from stooge to stooge like a bad check. Then the Picasso landed in the hands of Alfred and Stephen Mauriello.
In 1989, at about the same time Nancy Carter was visiting with the state police, a New York attorney named Marc Isaacs contacted Alvarez's attorney, claiming he had a client willing to return the purloined Picasso for a price.
"An individual came to me who informed me that he had in his possession what he believed to be 'La Mujer,'" Isaacs told New Times. "He had received it from someone who apparently had received it from someone else as a gift. The person who gave it to him was very ill and about to pass away."
Although Isaacs would not identify his client, the story of receiving it from a man who is now dead resembles the story that Alfred Mauriello told the FBI when he and Brian Kingman were caught with the painting in 1992 in Phoenix.
Whether Isaacs represented Mauriello or not, Alvarez refused to pay.
In 1991, "La Mujer" resurfaced once more, again in the possession of two men matching the descriptions of Alfred and Stephen Mauriello. According to the FBI report, "In August 1991, an elder man and a younger man who appeared to be on narcotics, calling themselves Allen and Stephen, came to [a Nevada art dealer] with an oil painting rolled up in a cardboard tube. They spoke like they came from Brooklyn, New York."
They wanted to have the painting appraised, and when the art dealer snapped a Polaroid of it, the two men hid their faces, left and never came back.
A year later, the real estate agent, Nancy Carter, got a phone call from a young woman who identified herself as a "party girl" in upstate New York. She had been "entertaining" some men she thought to be dangerous mobsters, and when the men were drunk and high on drugs, they showed her a painting they claimed was a Picasso. She offered to steal the artwork back from the mobsters and return it to Alvarez for $500,000, which he again refused, even when she lowered her price to $50,000. Carter suggested she call the police instead.
"It wasn't long after that they recovered it," Carter says. The Picasso turned up in Brian Kingman's car at Scottsdale Municipal Airport. There were reasons for it to be there, even if they were dumb reasons. The Mauriellos were looking for someone to tell them they had an original Picasso. They just needed to find experts who were more ignorant about art than they were.
Brian Kingman had a friend from the check-cashing business named Ron Phares who moved to Vegas and changed his name to Sonny Harris. Harris/Phares was visiting with Kingman in Phoenix in late 1991, and they went to visit another friend of Kingman's, an art broker named Jerre Lynn Wick.
Wick is a partner in a business listed in the phone book as Brown, Burns & Wick, Fine Art, Inc. She has been described by one local art gallery owner as a "dabbler," someone who appreciates fine art and has connections among like-minded members of the Phoenix gentry. Her former husband was mayor of Paradise Valley. At the time of Harris' visit, Wick had at her home a black-and-white Picasso painting that she was selling on consignment. Kingman was mesmerized that something so small and so ugly could be worth so much money.
"The joke was, my wife said if I bought that at a yard sale and told her I paid a hundred bucks, she'd be pissed off at me," Kingman remembers.
A year later, Harris called Kingman to say that a friend of his son knew two guys who thought they had a Picasso painting. Could Kingman put them in touch with Jerre Lynn Wick?
Kingman called Wick, who conferred with her business associates and then told Kingman to get a photograph and measurements of the painting and they would proceed from there.
The Mauriellos complied--and also sent along the New York Times article hinting that the painting could be stolen. They assured Kingman that they had nothing to do with the theft and that the statute of limitations had run out on the painting's possession.
(Jerre Lynn Wick refused to talk at any length to New Times, but she did confirm that Kingman never brought up any expectations of personal profit from the Mauriellos' transaction. Nor did he think he was doing anything illegal. Wick's more talkative new husband, however, apparently worried that his wife might be implicated in wrongdoing, most impressively charged a New Times reporter and bumped chests in a threatening manner while gesticulating wildly and screaming, "I'm an attorney.")
When he learned the painting might be stolen, Wick's associate, Michael Burns, called around to insurance companies to see if there was a reward for its return. If an insurance policy had reimbursed the painting's owner after the theft, he figured, then the painting would belong to the company. Wick's and Burns' firm could then sell the painting for the insurance company and receive a commission.
"The insurance companies usually pay a finder's fee," says Burns, "and if it was going to be resold, we wanted to be in on it. We called the insurance companies, and the next thing the FBI was involved."
Alvarez had hung the fake on the wall because he had no insurance, but there was no way for Burns to know that. So he didn't know to be suspicious when a man identifying himself as "Mr. Walker from an insurance company" returned his call. It was probably FBI special agent Reno Walker. Walker was going to put Kingman in touch with an art expert named Thomas Bishop, who was actually FBI special agent Thomas McShane. They made arrangements to meet on a Wednesday.
"[The art expert] was going to fly in on his way from New York to L.A.," Kingman recalls, "meet us at the airport, decide if it was real, and then go on."
Kingman called the Mauriellos and they flew in from Las Vegas. Kingman picked them up at the airport and drove them to his house while they waited to hear from "Bishop," the FBI expert. Stephen Mauriello, the younger of the two, was a handsome, dark-haired fellow with a New Yorky manner and a flashy wardrobe. He also seemed to have Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and grunts. "Every now and then he'd let out a nervous sound like a little dog barking," says Kingman.
The older man, Alfred, who asked to be called Roy, was grandfatherly and distinguished in a dark suit.
"They were playing catch with my kids," says Kingman. "The dad was smoking a cigar out in the front yard, saying, 'Well, Arizona's all right. I like your fruit trees, but are there any good Italian restaurants around?'"
Finally, they got in touch with Burns, who put them on the line with the man they thought was Thomas Bishop. "Bishop" asked Kingman if he had seen the painting yet--which he hadn't--then asked if Kingman and the Mauriellos could meet with him the next morning at Scottsdale Municipal Airport.
Kingman took the Mauriellos to lock the painting into an underground storage vault on Seventh Street for safekeeping, then checked the Mauriellos into the least seamy motel he could find on Van Buren to wait for the morning meeting.
If life does not imitate art, it at least sometimes imitates bad TV. The FBI went to comic lengths to arrest Kingman and the Mauriellos. In fact, they went so far as to commandeer a private jet as a prop to convey just the right touch of international glitz to their sting operation.
"Why didn't they just come to my house?" asks the usually low-key Kingman. "Why did they have to have a gunpoint confrontation?"
The FBI tape recording of the meeting between "art expert Bishop" and the Mauriellos sounds like a comedy routine. It opens with "Bishop" shouting, "Yo, Reno, where's da booze?" in a voice that can best be compared to Joe Pesci playing a Goombah movie role. Brian Kingman's voice barely turns up on the tape, but the other voices are as distinctive as "Bishop's": Steve Mauriello's smoky Paul Anka tenor and his father's gravelly Luca Brasi baritone. "Bishop" clearly has the biggest speaking role. He goes on and on about the convenience of having his own private jet with which to flit about Europe buying Rembrandts and Caravaggios. He brags about its great range and how much time he spends on it. Then--whoops!--he realizes that he has led them onto the wrong plane altogether. "I really don't like this one," he says to cover the goof. "I had a bigger jet, but we sold it." Then you can almost hear him shooting his cuffs as he proudly exclaims, "I got a little present last night from one of my customers in Phoenix: a Rolex!"
"Oh my God, let me see that," the old man coos.
"Bishop" then wants to hold the painting under black light to perform the usual art-expert tests and other feats of prestidigitation, but is unable to get the batteries into the lamp he brought; all through the tape, one person after another announces that he can't get the "fucking batteries" into the lamp, and they finally give up.
But they are becoming good friends. "Bishop" tells Roy Mauriello that he looks like Pablo Picasso, and Roy responds warmly by telling "Bishop," "You know, you take that beard off, you're a good-looking man."
They chat about the boys in the old neighborhood in New York. "Jerry Vale, he's a very, very good friend of mine," says the old man, trying to make points.
Finally, the father's patience begins to wear thin and he gruffly asks, "How long will this take?" "Bishop" gets to the point: He will pay them $500,000 for the painting, then spirit it out of the country. Kingman, who has been asleep with open eyelids, suddenly wakes up. The Mauriellos seem so stunned that they roll over without haggling about the price. Then they hang themselves. Roy blurts out, "I got news for you. You know what we're getting in two weeks from now?"
"A Rembrandt," Steve pipes in, as if father and son are accustomed to completing each other's sentences. With the deal done, they all walk back to Kingman's truck. Next stop: FBI headquarters.
As Kingman sat handcuffed to a bar in the FBI building on Indianola, he wondered if he'd get home in time to pick up his young sons from school. His wife was out of town and would not accept arrest as a good excuse for not being on time for the children.
His truck and his keys were confiscated, so when he was released that afternoon, he took a cab home and climbed in a window of his house. He found the boys walking home by themselves.
Then he found out more about the Mauriellos. "I certainly didn't think of the Mafia," Kingman says, "but the next day when I read the paper, it said 'Gambino family.' It scared me, really. They were at my house. The only thing worse than the Mafia is my wife when she's pissed at me."
Though the initial media reports identified the father and son as "made men," Detective Joseph Keenan of the New York Police Department knocked them down to size. "That's erroneous," Keenan says. "They might possibly have been associates of the Gambino family. They may have been seen in the company of major crime figures."
But they had records: The older man had done time for distribution of narcotics and both had been arrested numerous times for gambling violations.
The Mauriellos and Kingman were all charged with trafficking in stolen property. But when the Feds determined that the painting was a fake worth less than $5,000, they dropped all charges.
But it took ten months to reach that conclusion--which the FBI could have easily reached before it set up the sting in the first place. The New York City Police report clearly stated that the painting's owner had labeled it a copy and didn't particularly want it back since he had the original in a safe place.
Recently, art experts have questioned whether an original even exists. No painting called "La Mujer" appears in catalogues of Picasso's work, and after viewing a photograph of the purloined painting, John Richardson, an art historian and author of the multivolume biography A Life of Picasso, told the New York Observer, "There's no question in my mind that the painting is a roaring fake. I would've thought anybody with experience with Picasso would've spotted it instantly."
Kingman thought he was free, but the Feds had not really discarded all their hard work; they had merely passed it on to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Their subpoena announced itself as a registered letter that arrived at Christmastime.
"First thing I'm thinking is not what is it, but don't let Dianne find out," Kingman says.
Even after Kingman reported downtown to be fingerprinted, no one would tell him what he had been charged with. He was told that he would be appointed an attorney who would answer all his questions.
Now he stands charged with theft and possession of stolen property. If he is convicted, he may have to serve out seven and a half years for probation violation and a possible five more for the new crime. If what he did was a crime.
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Kingman's trial has been repeatedly pushed further and further into the future as lawyers for both sides wade through their discovery process. Meanwhile, he harbors a long list of questions about his case. He wonders why Sonny Harris and the art brokers Jerre Lynn Wick and Michael Burns didn't conspire as much as he did; he claims that Burns, after all, set up the meeting with the undercover appraiser. He wonders if the FBI followed up on the Mauriellos' claims to have access to other stolen art, why possession of an artwork someone else stole--and a phony artwork, at that--seems more important than the theft itself. And why the justice system turns a blind eye to those questions while rolling mindlessly down on him like an infernal machine, without regard to his intent in the whole transaction. The answer, he thinks, is that someone has to go to jail to justify the considerable lengths that the FBI traveled to catch him.
Joaqun Alvarez, the owner of the painting, ponders the irony of Kingman's condition. "I feel sorry for the poor baseball player," he says, "and I certainly don't think that's where the investigation should go." He has even offered to fly to Phoenix from Spain to testify in Kingman's trial.
Alvarez now wants the painting back, even though it is a fake, and even though he told police nine years ago that he didn't want the matter pursued. This renewed interest on his part has fueled breathless new speculation that the painting being held as evidence in the FBI vault is real and that the viscount has been keeping a poker face all these years. Alvarez now claims that investigators X-rayed the artwork and found another painting beneath the faux Picasso, bringing whole new levels of mystery to the affair. Kingman has joked that he wouldn't mind having the painting in his own living room as a conversation piece. It could also serve as a caution against embarking on any other hare-brained schemes. "I've picked out an epitaph for my tombstone: 'The truth is overrated,'" he says. "I don't know if it's from losing 20 games or from being a professional athlete, but I don't really give a fuck, because appearances are so full of shit, anyway.