The court record reads like a movie script with a cast of characters straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

An aspiring rapper in Los Angeles who told FBI agents on the trail of six stolen N.C. Wyeth paintings that his cocaine dealer could help find them – and then went to a pawnshop and used four of the paintings as collateral for a $100,000 loan.

An ex-con who kept agents in the dark, literally, in his Los Angeles apartment when they interviewed him about the art heist.

A state trooper in Texas who found five wrapped paintings in the trunk of a car during a traffic stop, but allowed the career criminal driving the Mercedes S430 sedan to continue on his way.

Those are some of the details outlined in the report by Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas of the Organized Crime Squad at the FBI’s Los Angeles office in the case of the aspiring rapper, Oscar Roberts, 37, of Los Angeles, who was sentenced in federal court in California to serve 28 months for pledging stolen property as security for a loan.

The story started in Portland, where the six paintings were stolen without a trace from the apartment of Joseph Soley, a well-known Old Port landlord, sometime before May 7, 2013. Portland police never publicized the theft, and significant details about the robbery didn’t come out until the driver of the Mercedes, 65-year-old Lawrence Estrella, 65, of Manchester, New Hampshire, was sentenced in federal court in Maine this week for transporting stolen property.

Federal court files in Los Angeles add more details, though significant gaps in the story remain, particularly who stole the paintings and where they were for more than a year before being driven to California. The Los Angeles court documents are contained in the files of Roberts, 37, the producer of a reality TV pilot show, “Heaven and Hollywood,” about a rap music label. Rivas, the FBI agent, filed a detailed affidavit on Dec. 21, 2014, seeking a warrant for Roberts’ arrest.

TRACKING PAINTINGS AND SUSPECTS

The agent’s narrative, however, starts with Estrella. A state trooper in Texas pulled over Estrella for speeding on Nov. 21, 2014, and searched the Mercedes after smelling marijuana. But rather than narcotics, the officer found five individually wrapped pieces of art, which Estrella told him were very valuable, the affidavit states.

The trooper allowed Estrella to continue on, but notified an FBI agent in Portland about the traffic stop, helping agents and police officers pick up Estrella’s trail at a hotel in North Hollywood two days later. They conducted surveillance there, and saw Estrella being dropped off in another vehicle driven by a man later identified as 55-year-old Dean Coroniti, formerly of Massachusetts and now living in Los Angeles, Rivas wrote.

Agents executed one federal search warrant at Estrella’s hotel room and another to search his Mercedes. They found no paintings, but did discover a handgun and ammunition in the hotel room and more ammunition in the car. A convicted felon who was described as a lifelong criminal by the judge who sentenced him Tuesday in Portland, Estrella is prohibited from possessing a firearm.

Agents first interviewed Estrella, who said he drove to Los Angeles “to get away.” The agents then went to Coroniti’s nearby apartment to interview him, the affidavit states.

“Coroniti answered the door and allowed us into the apartment. I asked if I could turn on the lights because the room was dark. Coroniti declined and before allowing us to tell him the purpose of our visit, he said he had done his time and had served 19 years in prison. He showed no curiosity why police wanted to talk to him. He asked us to leave and said he wanted to talk to his attorney,” Rivas wrote.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons indicates that Coroniti was released from a federal corrections institution in Fairton, New Jersey, on Dec. 2, 2005, but neither court nor prison records indicate the crime for which he served time.

California court records indicate that Coroniti was issued a summons in the painting theft case to face a charge of possession of stolen goods in March. But the corresponding docket number for that case indicates the case is sealed. It is unclear why, but the scheduling calendar that is public indicates that his case is in fact related to Roberts’ case.

Neither Coroniti’s attorney in Los Angeles, Laura Crawford, nor the federal prosecutor there, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Bowman, returned phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

STOLEN ART FOUND AT PAWNSHOP

Federal agents executed a search warrant at Coroniti’s apartment on Dec. 10, 2014, but once again found no paintings. However, while they were there, they interviewed Coroniti’s neighbors and learned that he was friends with Roberts, who lived in the same building. Using Coroniti’s phone records, agents discovered a contact for a person identified in court records only as “B.B.,” the director of the reality TV pilot “Heaven and Hollywood.”

“B.B. said he had been contacted by Coroniti, who said he had some paintings he wanted to sell and asked if B.B. had any connections to the art world,” Rivas wrote, adding that Coroniti and Estrella showed B.B. paintings at Coroniti’s apartment on Nov. 23, 2014.

The agents interviewed Roberts on Dec. 11, 2014, and he told them that he “wanted to help the government locate the paintings and asked to be compensated for his help.” He offered to get information from people who he said knew where Coroniti’s girlfriend lived, on the premise that she had the paintings, the affidavit states.

After being away for several hours, Roberts gave the agents a wild tale of how his drug dealer and his drug dealer’s bodyguard had picked him up in a black Bentley, how they went to see Coroniti’s girlfriend and did cocaine with her and went to a warehouse off Santa Monica Boulevard filled with stolen goods, including one of the stolen Wyeth paintings, according to the affidavit.

However, agents later learned from a high-end pawnshop in Beverly Hills that Roberts had actually gone there and used four paintings by N.C. Wyeth as collateral for a loan of $100,000. The pawnshop receipt had Roberts’ date of birth, address and driver’s license. The pawnshop owner told agents that Roberts brought in two of the paintings himself and another man, a comedian identified only as “M.N.,” dropped off the other two paintings, Rivas wrote.

Agents arrested Roberts on Dec. 20, 2014. He pleaded guilty in January and was sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on April 29 to serve 28 months in federal prison.

Estrella pleaded guilty to a charge of interstate transportation of stolen property in U.S. District Court in Portland on April 7. He was sentenced Tuesday to serve 92 months in federal prison.

It is unclear how many more people may face charges in connection with the art theft, although Soley said Tuesday that he believes the FBI is still investigating.

Soley said it “means a lot” to him that the four paintings have been recovered, and he’s hopeful that the other two will be found.

The two paintings that remain missing are “Go Dutton, and that right speedily” and “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff.”

The four recovered paintings are “The Unwrit Dogma,” “At a touch from Michael’s knife,” “The Duel” and “John Brimlecombe.”


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