Saturday, March 03, 2007

Every Picture Tells a Story: Steven Spielberg, Norman Rockwell, and the MLK Assassination 

More than 30 years after its theft, a Norman Rockwell painting stolen from a St. Louis art gallery was discovered earlier this year in the possession of Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. On its surface, it's an intriguing story. The details make it even more so. But nobody at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made the effort to even look up the background information that 's available through the newspaper's own archives.

If anyone on the Post's staff had done so, they would have discovered that the missing Rockwell painting shared an interesting link to a couple of long unsolved local mysteries.

Instead, the newspaper chose to publish a wire service story on the recovered artwork, which was buried at the bottom of page 21A of its Saturday, March 3 edition.

That story reported Spielberg notified the FBI in California, after he recently became aware that the painting, "Russian Schoolroom," had been stolen before he purchased it. The filmmaker said he acquired the painting from a legitimate dealer in 1989. The Rockwell piece had been taken more than a decade earlier in a late-night burglary of a suburban St. Louis art gallery in late June 1973.

At the time, the painting was valued at between $20,000 to $25,000. Today, it is estimated to be worth $700,000. According to a FBI web site, the painting surfaced at an auction in New Orleans in October 1989. At that time, the FBI says that the painting was associated with Circle Galleries of Chicago and the Danenburg Gallery of New York. At the time of its theft in 1973, the painting had been purchased by St. Louisan Bert C. Elam.

The wire service story that ran in today's Post included some of this information. But old newspaper clips dating back to the 1970s, from the archives of the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat, as well as the Post-Dispatch, provide a fuller picture.

The painting was snatched late on a Sunday night or in the early morning hours of Monday June 24-25, 1973 from Arts International Ltd., 8113 Maryland Ave., Clayton, Mo. The out-of-town owner of the gallery, identified in today's wire service story as the aforementioned Circle Fine Art of Chicago, had arranged for the Rockwell painting to be exhibited here as part of a showing of other works by the same artist. The burglar or burglars smashed plate glass doors at the entrance to the gallery, grabbing only the one painting and leaving other Rockwell works of lesser value.

The Globe-Democrat quoted the late Marjorie Pond, the gallery's director, as saying: "That painting is known all over the country. There is no possible way they can unload that painting."

Despite its high-profile, however, the gallery director's prediction didn't prove true.

In 1978, Pond would be cited by the press again in another story having to do with stolen art from the same gallery. On Feb. 28 of that year, police raided the home of Russell Byers in the 9300 block of Frederic Court in Rock Hill, Mo., another St. Louis suburb. Law enforcement authorities seized suspected stolen artwork from Byers' residence -- including nine paintings by Norman Rockwell, according to a Globe-Democrat account. Months later, the Post-Dispatch reported that eight lithographs had been confiscated during the same raid. Those eight lithographs were also reported to have been stolen in 1976 from the same Clayton art gallery, Arts International Ltd.

The police had raided Byers' home because they suspected him of being the mastermind of one of two St. Louis Art Museum burglaries that occurred in early 1978. Investigators believed Byers had ordered the first burglary on Jan. 29 in which a valuable bronze by Frederick Remington and three other statuettes had been taken.

Two of the suspected burglars soon thereafter died violent deaths. A third burglary suspect refused to testify against Byers. Over the course of the next few months, the St. Louis police would recover all of the stolen art museum pieces. One suspect pleaded guilty in the case, but Byers managed to evade prosecution.

Byers, however, had also been charged with possessing the other stolen art from the 1976 Clayton art gallery heist. But those charges were dropped, too, on May 25, 1978, after Pond, the art gallery director, failed to appear in court to testify. Other witnesses who failed to appear on the same date included policemen who had searched Byers' home and found the stolen artwork.

Then Post-Dispatch reporter Sally Bixby Defty paraphrased Pond as saying that "that she did not appear because because she had been told that the case would be thrown out of court."

Just who told the art gallery director that the case would be thrown out of court is not made clear in Defty's story. This much is clear: Byers, a convicted felon and career criminal, walked. Prosecutors in St. Louis and St. Louis County gave him a free get of jail card.

Not long after all charges were dropped against Byers, he became a the star witness in the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations hearings into the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That summer, Byers would testify that he received a $50,000 offer to kill King from two St. Louis businessmen, alleged racists, in late 1966 or early 1967. By the time of Byers' testimony, however, the two men, John R. Kauffmann and John H. Sutherland, were already dead.

Based on Byers' testimony, the HSCA concluded that James Earl Ray, King's alleged assassin, killed the civil rights leader as part of a St. Louis-based conspiracy. The conspiracy theory had been put together by congressional investigator Conrad "Pete" Baetz, a deputy on leave from the Madison County, Ill. sheriff's department.

Byers alleged knowledge of the assassination plot came to the attention of the FBI only after he became a suspect in the art museum burglary case in the winter of 1978. By no small coincidence, on March 19, 1978, less than three weeks after local police raided Byers' house, the FBI in St. Louis claimed that they found a misfiled report. The report -- dated March 1974 -- was based on information provided to the bureau field office by informant Richard O'Hara, a criminal associate of Byers. In the report, O'Hara claimed Byers had bragged about receiving the offer to kill King.

In 1992, as a reporter for the Riverfront Times, St. Louis' alternative weekly, I asked Baetz about Byers' involvement in the St. Louis Art Museum burglaries of 1978. Baetz said he never knew that Byers had been a suspect in the case.

The former congressional investigator's expressed ignorance, can lead to only three conclusions: Baetz's memory is bad or his investigative skills are worse or he lied.

Perhaps the new Democratically-controlled Congress should consider investigating its own 1978 inquiry into the assassination of King.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

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