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Gumshoes Help Studio Solve Case of the Missing Cartoon Cels : Crime: Warner Bros. avoids using police in tracking suspects, recovering property worth up to $500,000.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Using private investigators and federal lawsuits, Warner Bros. has recovered more than 3,000 cartoon cels and background drawings, worth as much as $500,000, that were stolen from its Sherman Oaks cartoon studio, the company said Thursday.

Police were not called to investigate the alleged theft of the hand-painted works which were used in the filming of the “Tiny Toon Adventures” TV cartoons, and a criminal investigation may never take place.

Instead, Warner Bros. launched an extensive private investigation after the cels were discovered at an October swap meet, being sold without the company’s authorization.

Warner Bros. has settled a civil suit with three people found in possession of some of the material after they agreed to cooperate with the studio’s investigators. A similar case against two others is pending.

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“Warner Bros.’ No 1 priority was to recover the stolen artwork and they did recover it,” said David L. Burg, an attorney for the studio.

He said Warner Bros. has not decided whether to seek a criminal complaint against the two remaining defendants.

One of those defendants, a former part-time Warner Bros. artist, acknowledged Thursday that he took the cartoon cels, but said he thought he was saving them from being thrown away.

“It literally broke my heart because I didn’t want to see them destroyed,” said Travis Cowsill, 20, of North Hollywood. “I wasn’t trying to steal anything.”

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Burg, however, said the recovered materials were not outtakes and were not headed for the trash.

According to records filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the studio’s inquiry was similar to a clandestine police investigation. But here it was private investigators who identified suspects, went undercover, secretly filmed meetings and made a “buy” of allegedly stolen merchandise--in this case, cels from such Tiny Toon episodes as “Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow.”

The studio then filed lawsuits against the five people, alleging they were infringing on copyright laws by selling the cartoon materials. Warner Bros. also sought court orders allowing it to seize the property.

Burg said the studio acted so quickly and successfully that only three cels are still believed to be missing--apparently sold to collectors who have not been traced.

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The studio’s private inquiry began Oct. 28 after a Warner Bros. employee saw Tiny Toon cels being sold at a booth at a swap meet in Orange County, Burg said. Knowing that the only authorized sales outlet for the cels of characters and background drawings from the show was through Warner Bros., the employee notified his supervisors.

Warner Bros. spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti said the studio has released only 250 of the show’s cels for sale, framed, through a studio shop. One of the popular cartoon characters--which include Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck--placed against a drawn background sells for $500, she said, meaning the recovered materials conceivably could be worth $500,000 or more.

With the information provided by the employee, private detectives hired by Warner Bros. identified three people who were selling the material at swap meets and home shows in Orange County, San Diego County and Las Vegas, Burg said.

Court records in the suits against those three, including their names, have been sealed by Judge William Matthew Byrne.

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According to other court records, however, the three agreed to cooperate with Warner Bros. and named Cowsill and his girlfriend, Nicolette Harley, 24, of North Hollywood, as the suppliers of the cels.

Private investigator Kevin Berman met separately with the pair and bought Tiny Toon cels from Cowsill, court records said, with both meetings secretly videotaped.

Harley could not be reached for comment.

Both sides agree that she and Cowsill have been cooperating with Warner Bros. since the court-authorized raid on their apartment last week to seize the cels there.

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