Paintings in $10-million Encino heist recovered

Nine of 12 paintings stolen from a Los Angeles home in 2008 are recovered by authorities

For six years, the mystery surrounding one of the largest art heists in Los Angeles history baffled police. Then, a shadowy figure by the name of "Darko" surfaced in Europe.

Darko held himself out as a fixer for someone in California wanting to peddle the paintings. The items, police knew, had been stolen from an Encino home in summer 2008. The collection included works by Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera and was worth an estimated $10 million.

The discovery led undercover FBI agents to pretend to be interested in buying the art. They arranged for a meeting at a Brentwood hotel.

There appeared Raul Espinoza, who was arrested after he tried to sell the agents the artworks, according to a search warrant filed in court this month. Authorities recovered nine of the 12 paintings, the warrant said.

The return of the stolen works — no small feat in the world of art theft, where recovery rates are low — marks a significant victory for investigators. The burglary had been swift, and there were few clues.

At the home where the dozen works were part of a multimillion-dollar art collection owned by an elderly couple, caretakers normally shuffled through on a round-the-clock basis.

The couple, one of whom was 88 at the time of the theft, had gained their wealth through real estate investments.

On the morning of Aug. 23, 2008, the caretaker on duty had left for what she said was a 49-minute period to buy groceries at Gelson's.

The home was equipped with a security system, but the couple's children told investigators that the alarm wasn't functioning. Every entryway was locked except for the kitchen door on the side of the home.

When the caretaker returned just after noon, the paintings that had hung on the hallway and living room walls were gone, frames and all.

The couple, inside their bedrooms, hadn't heard the thief or thieves. And police weren't called to the home until the following morning, according to a police report.

Among the stolen works were Emil Nolde's "Figur mit Hund" (Figure With Dog), 1912; Lyonel Feininger's "Fin de Seance," 1910; Chaim Soutine's "La Vieille Dame au Chien" (Old Woman With Dog), 1919; Soutine's "La Femme en Rouge" (Woman in Red), 1926; Kees van Dongen's "Alicia Alanova," 1933; and Hans Hofmann's Untitled (known as "Blue Bottle"), 1947.

Several works of art and paintings worth millions of dollars were left behind.

What led investigators to Darko is unclear. Reached Wednesday, Det. Donald Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department's art theft detail declined to say whether anyone else had been arrested or if the remaining artworks had been found.

But in the search warrant, filed Dec. 5, Hrycyk said he suspected "the original burglary could not have been accomplished without the assistance of inside help from one of the employees who worked for the victims at the time of the crime."

Hrycyk wrote that he believed Espinoza, who also goes by the alias Jorge Lara, knew the insider.

During the Oct. 23 meeting in the hotel, Hrycyk watched and listened to the negotiation between Espinoza and undercover agents through a hidden camera in the hotel room, he wrote in the warrant.

The agents were offering $700,000 for nine pieces. Espinoza tried to peddle three additional artworks to the agents, including one painting that matched the description of an Endre Szasz piece taken from the Encino home, the search warrant said. Espinoza used "his cellphone to call confederates to signal them during the operation," Hrycyk wrote in the document.

Espinoza, 45, was arrested at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel, according to arrest records. He has been charged with one count of receiving stolen property. He pleaded not guilty at an Oct. 27 arraignment and remains jailed at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. His bail is $5 million.

Espinoza's relationship to Darko is unclear, authorities said.

This month, investigators sought the warrant to search Espinoza's cellphone, believing that photos and electronic communications could bring the long-running investigation closer to an end.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno

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