LAGUNA BEACH : Sleuth Takes Own Case of Stolen Statue

He may be sporting a victim's hat this time around, but private investigator Art Kassel insisted Monday that he will recover a large redwood statue he had displayed near a Laguna Beach art center until it mysteriously vanished last week.

"I know how the criminal mind works," the Santa Ana sleuth said. "We're gonna track it down. I'm gonna put all my resources together. I know it's out there."

The eight-foot, 700-pound statue of a captain with a parrot on his shoulder was discovered missing Wednesday morning when employees arrived for work at Laguna Village Arts and Flowers, a cluster of art studios. Kassel displays several large statues there as part of a hobby.

"It looks like, apparently, someone just backed their truck up and just lifted it into the back of the truck," he said. "They more or less climbed on a lion's back because now they've got someone with a vested interest with a lot of law enforcement experience that's gonna be tracking it down."

Kassel admitted he has no solid leads but said the time is right to snag the thieves because--as he sees it--by now they have probably sold the bulky sculpture to an unsuspecting buyer who has placed it proudly on display.

"You just can't hide something like that," he said. "It's gonna be sitting somewhere where a lot of people are going to have to take note of it. It won't fit in a closet."

Kassel said he did not go public about the theft until now, fearing that if he did not allow time for the statue to change hands, the thieves might have gotten nervous and destroyed the evidence.

The statue is one of several giant redwood carvings on display at the open air shopping village at 577 S. Coast Highway. Kassel, whose business, Art Kassel Investigations, is in Santa Ana, said he collects and sells the oversized carvings as a diversion.

The missing statue, which he said was sculpted with a chain saw by a Northern California artist, is worth $2,500, he said.

"Somebody probably put it in their yard somewhere," he said. "They probably paid this guy an arm and a leg for it, and it's stolen property."

Laguna Beach police said they have no leads. The statue disappeared sometime between 6 p.m. Tuesday and 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Art center workers are in the dark too. "We don't have any new information at all," said Manager Cathi Carbajal, who theorizes that the statue must have been snatched somewhere between 2 a.m.--when the bar across the street closes--and daybreak the next morning.

"It's very large, and it was chained down," Carbajal said. The employees "were just really surprised it was gone and how nobody could get it out of here and why anybody would have taken it."

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