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Convicted art thief sentenced to prison

Three Laguna Beach art galleries got a measure of justice for a 10-year-old crime Tuesday.

A convicted art thief was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to stealing more than $260,000 in paintings from the galleries in 1999, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

Joseph Michael Killebrew, 51, was arrested earlier this year on a decade-old warrant while living under a false name in Las Vegas.

Killebrew pleaded guilty to four felony counts of grand theft and sentencing enhancements for a theft of more than $100,000 and was sentenced to two years and eight months in state prison.


The stolen paintings, which were found in Killebrew’s home, are to be returned to their owners. A hearing for additional restitution is to be scheduled.

In July 1999, Killebrew purchased several original oil paintings valued at more than $261,000 from DeRu’s Fine Art, Redfern Gallery and Joan Irvine Smith Fine Art. The defendant wrote four personal checks for the paintings.

After leaving the galleries with the paintings, Killebrew 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 also stopping payment on the personal checks used for the purchases. 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, the defendant claimed that he had to leave the state for a family emergency and would resolve his due payments when he returned. Killebrew then fled the state.

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 found Killebrew living in Las Vegas under the alias Michael Palmer.

The defendant was arrested Feb. 25 by detectives from the Laguna Beach Police Department at his home in Las Vegas with assistance from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Killebrew had possession of the Laguna Beach paintings at the time of his arrest.

Killebrew is also suspected of insurance fraud, according to the district attorney’s office. 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 claimed losses. An insurance fraud investigation is being conducted in San Diego County related to this claim.