By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
The next day is the final hike out of the canyon. It's a four-hour march up an incline. By the time he gets to the top of the canyon, he has an idea.
He approaches the nearest ranger station, shows them his badge, and explains that he needs to use their phone for official FBI business. His office patches him through again to Tabel.
Peraza tells Tabel they may be able to take advantage of this new wrinkle. Now that Lhomme is insisting the entire exchange take place in Europe, they can demand the entire deal has to take place all at once: all the money in exchange for all the art.
Peraza knows it's a gamble, but if it works, they'll recover all four paintings. And he knows the thieves are desperate.
For Lhomme and his men, it has been almost ten months of hiding, looking for buyers, feeling them out, and negotiating a price and structure. It was time to get crowned.
An undercover French agent meets Lhomme and Chelelekian in a bar in the Prado district of Marseille, not far from the sea. It's not yet 8 in the morning on June 4, 2008, and the bars are empty. Noël-Dumarais, who police say carried the automatic weapon in the robbery, waits in a Peugeot van in a parking garage. It's similar to the one used in the heist. The plan is for the French agent to show Lhomme the money. Then Lhomme will take the agent to the paintings. There, they'd make the swap, disappear into morning traffic, and never speak again.
The three of them leave the bar. Lhomme leads the agent down the street on foot, toward the van. They never make it for the exchange. A deluge of French National Police officers swarms the men in the middle of the street, taking them to the ground. Police will report finding a gun in Chelelekian's jacket.
A few blocks away, more police officers descend on the van. They'd been tracking the group all morning. When they search Noël-Dumarais, French police say, he has a hand grenade. They immediately search the van.
In the cargo space, wrapped in garbage bags, are Allegory of Water and Allegory of Earth by Brueghel. Both paintings are bright, elaborate works depicting versions of what the Flemish artist possibly viewed as paradise. Next to them is The Lane of Poplars at Moret by Sisley, an English-born landscape painter. It's a subtle image of a man and woman walking past a row of trees and seems to embody the loose shapes and soft colors of impressionism. This is the third time the painting has been stolen and recovered since the 1970s.
Next to the Sisley is Cliffs Near Dieppe, by Monet, the man credited with creating the impressionist movement. A lesser-known work, painted when Monet was nearly 60, it comes from a period when the artist frequented the South of France. This is actually the second time this painting has been stolen — the first time was by the museum's former curator, who was sentenced to five years in prison.
The entire bust is over in minutes. The French National Police arrest ten people authorities say are connected to the heist. They are still awaiting trial.
Four hours later, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Cooper City, FBI and ICE agents assemble outside the house of a friendly Frenchman with an American dream. It's 5 a.m., still dark out.
Neighbors will say that seeing the caravan of big, black government vehicles and the men and women in FBI jackets makes it look like someone's filming a movie in the neighborhood.
Ternus answers the door in a white tank top, boxers, and slippers. His wife and children are still asleep.
Officers give him a chance to get dressed and wake his wife. They announce that they are there to arrest him for visa fraud. He offers no resistance. An ICE agent tells Ternus' wife where they're taking him and when and where he'll be appearing in court. Everyone is polite. The process takes about 20 minutes.
At the ICE station in Doral, Special Agent Alex Peraza introduces himself. For the first time, Ternus meets a man who knows him well. Peraza advises the Frenchman of his rights. Ternus immediately asks for an attorney. Peraza informs him that he's also a suspect in the Nice case, a topic that has not come up until now.
Robert Wittman is on the patio behind his house in Philadelphia, sipping his morning coffee. It's just after 8 the day of the arrests when he gets a phone call. The man at the other end is Tabel, the colonel in charge of the French investigation. "Congratulations," Tabel says in English. "Thank you for all your great work."
Wittman returns the accolades to his good friend in France. The call is over in seconds.
After 20 years as the bureau's go-to guy for international art theft, Wittman retired at the end of 2008. He has opened up his own business in Philadelphia called Robert Wittman Inc.. He's a consultant to galleries and investigates missing art for museums, private owners, and insurance companies. In all his time looking for stolen art for the FBI, Wittman says he has never seen a sting operation of this size run so smoothly.