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Decade later, suspect arrested

Law enforcement authorities believe they have captured a suspect in a 10-year-old art theft case centered in Laguna Beach.

A fugitive charged with stealing more than $260,000 in original paintings from Laguna Beach galleries in 1999 was arrested Wednesday on a decade-old warrant while living under a false name in Las Vegas, according to Laguna Beach police.

Joseph Michael Killebrew, 50, is charged with four felony counts of grand theft and sentencing enhancements for theft greater than $100,000, the Orange County District Attorney’s office states. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of eight years and four months in state prison.

Killebrew was arrested by detectives from the Laguna Beach Police Department at his home in Las Vegas, with assistance from the Las Vegas metro Police Department. Killebrew is being held without bail and will face extradition proceedings in Nevada.


In April 1999, Killebrew filed a report with the San Diego Police Department claiming that his San Diego County home had been burglarized. He claimed that various items from his personal art collection had been stolen including crystal, sculptures and more than $230,000 in oil paintings. Killebrew received more than $260,000 from his insurance company for the losses.

In July 1999, Killebrew purchased several original oil paintings valued at more than $261,000 from DeRue’s Fine Art, Redfern Gallery and Joan Irvine Smith Fine Art, according to the district attorney’s office. After writing four personal checks for the paintings and leaving the galleries with the paintings, he allegedly stopped payment on the checks.

During that time, Killebrew is also accused of purchasing three original oil paintings valued at more than $108,000 from Edenhurst Gallery in West Hollywood, and stopping payment on the personal checks used for that purchase. The Los Angeles theft was filed as a separate case in Los Angeles County and a warrant was issued in that case.

When the galleries contacted Killebrew after failing to receive payment on his canceled checks, he claimed he had to leave the state for a family emergency and would resolve the issue when he returned. Instead, he fled the state, officials allege.


In September 1999, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office charged Killebrew with grand theft and filed a warrant for his arrest. The case remained cold until November, when investigators located Killebrew living in Las Vegas under the alias Michael Palmer.

Investigators from the Laguna Beach Police Department arrested Killebrew at his Las Vegas home with the assistance of local law enforcement.

Police say Killebrew was in possession of all of the Laguna Beach paintings, as well as items he claimed had been stolen in San Diego, at the time of his arrest. The investigation is ongoing.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or