Butler, Free in Art Theft, Now Faces Civil Suit

Times Staff Writer

Rune Gunnar Donell, the butler acquitted of charges that he stole a valuable artwork from his employer's Bel-Air mansion, is not yet out of the woods.

His accuser and one-time employer, Elizabeth Keck, filed a $31-million civil lawsuit against him Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court for theft, slander, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.

Keck contends that in April, 1987, Donell secretly made off with a 19th-Century Impressionist painting from her mansion and sold it in his native Sweden for $500,000. Donell contended during his monthlong trial that he sold the painting at Keck's request and then gave her the money in cash, minus his $90,000 commission.

She described as "ludicrous" the notion that she would conspire with her butler to sell the painting "for a sum of money which is but a small fraction of one month's income of myself and myself and my husband."

Hopes for 'True Justice'

Several jurors indicated after the Friday verdict that the jury had simply found that the prosecution had not proved its case against Donell "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Calling the verdict "a miscarriage of justice," Keck said she hopes that "true justice will be done" in a civil lawsuit in which "the peculiar intricacies of the criminal justice system are not involved and where my own lawyers . . . will represent me."

In a civil suit, the burden of proof is less stringent, requiring jurors to be convinced only by "a preponderance of the evidence."

She said at a press conference that Donell's acquittal resulted from, in part, "the high standard of proof which prevails in a criminal case."

At the time of the incident, Keck was--and still is--involved in protracted divorce proceedings with her estranged husband, Howard Keck.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael J. Montagna, who unsuccessfully prosecuted Donell, said on Monday that he has "complete confidence" that Donell did in fact commit the theft.

Attorney Donald C. Randoph, who represented Donell in the criminal case, declined to comment on the civil suit.

Elizabeth Keck said the civil suit is intended to "vindicate my good name and firmly establish to the world my honesty and integrity."

Included in the damages sought by Keck is $5 million for "special damages," including "serious aggravation" of a pre-existing heart condition.

Painter in Own Right

The Kecks are said to be one of the country's wealthiest couples. She is a trustee of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and a painter in her own right. He is a retired chairman of Superior Oil Co. and head of the W. M. Keck Foundation.

Donell, now 62, retired in the summer of 1987, after 15 years as butler to the Kecks at their Bel-Air chateau, which is filled with priceless art works and antiques. He now lives in a West Los Angeles apartment.

Elizabeth Keck called police and accused Donell last August after she said she discovered a high-quality photograph of "I Fria Luften," which depicts a nude woman with a child, hanging in place of the work itself.

Until his acquittal Friday, Donell had been held in custody on $500,000 bail.

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