At last, trial to identify owner of Bahia Emerald expected to begin

Legal saga over who owns massive Bahia Emerald to be decided at L.A. trial starting Thursday

A long-awaited civil court trial is expected to begin Thursday to determine who owns the Bahia Emerald, an 840-pound behemoth that has been the subject of a contentious court battle between a colorful cast of gem traders, miners, real estate tycoons and others vying for the jewel once valued at $372 million.

A judge cleared the way this year for the trial to proceed despite efforts by the government of Brazil to return the 180,000-carat gem to its country of origin. Brazil stepped up to stake its claim to the stone last year, just as the court saga surrounding the emerald seemed to be nearing a conclusion.

The Brazilian government asked the L.A. courts to dismiss the case outright or put it on hold while Brazilian officials continued negotiations with the U.S. government to secure the stone's return. 

Brazil's Los Angeles-based lawyer, John Nadolenco, argued that a decision in Los Angeles Superior Court would significantly hinder Brazil's ongoing discussions with the federal government. 

But Judge Michael Johnson decided in March that the case should continue to trial, though he made it clear he was not ruling on the merits of Brazil's claim to ownership.

In addition, Johnson decided, there is strong interest in a prompt decision in Los Angeles. 

"The county of Los Angeles, which has housed the emerald at taxpayer expense, is entitled to a decision," Johnson said at the time.  

The Brazilian government argues that the emerald was illegally mined and exported, and that all other ownership claims are irrelevant.

This interrupted the efforts of Kit Morrison, an Idaho businessman who was last in possession of the gem after its long, tortuous and often bizarre journey.

After the gem's discovery in 2001, miners transported it to Sao Paulo, where it began an eight-year odyssey during which it repeatedly changed hands.

In 2005, the gem was shipped to a self-trained geologist and mining entrepreneur in Northern California who knew the original miners. He said he shipped it to New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina submerged the stone for weeks near the French Quarter.

After fishing it out, the man somehow lost possession of the gem, and it eventually ended up in the hands of Larry Biegler, an investor from Paradise, Calif.

In 2009, Biegler reported it missing from a South El Monte vault. Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators tracked the emerald to a Las Vegas vault, where it was stored by Morrison and associate Todd Armstrong.

Sheriff’s investigators could not sort out who owned the gem, so they confiscated it – setting off years of litigation, in which eight different people at one time or another claimed ownership.

Since then, the gem has been held in an undisclosed Sheriff's Department location.

Through the years, some court claims -- such as those of a man who said his proof was on a piece of paper destroyed in a house fire -- were dismissed by a judge. Other people agreed to settle their claims with competing parties in return for a cut of possible sale profits.

A group led by Morrison, the Idaho businessman, was the only other party left in the legal case before Brazil entered the fight.

Morrison's attorney, Andrew Spielberger, said that his client and Armstrong purchased the gem from Biegler, paying seven figures, and are the rightful owners. 

Brazil has other options in its efforts to get the emerald, Spielberger said. If the judge rules that Morrison is the rightful owner, Brazil could still seek to repatriate the emerald, but would have to provide compensation to his client. 

"They have to pay to repatriate -- you can't just take it," Spielberger said.

The judge did leave open the option for Brazil to enter an appropriately documented claim of ownership, which would be considered. Brazil has said that the emerald has immense cultural importance and should be on display there.

For more L.A. court news, follow @sjceasar.

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