The Trail From a $6 Million French Art Heist Ends in Suburban South Florida

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Ternus has told the Americans that he doesn't like the pressure he's getting from the thieves in France. He loves America, though. The land of opportunity. He tells the drug traffickers that he feels at home in Florida. Ternus rents a home with his wife and young children in a quiet, middle-income Cooper City neighborhood near Stirling Road and University Drive. Ternus has a two-car garage and a pool out back. Every house has a stone driveway and trees in the front yard. Neighbors see Ternus picnicking with his family by the pool. Sometimes when he takes his scooter for a spin, he passes the parked squad car of the Hollywood police officer who lives on his street.

From the room in Barcelona, Bob sends for Chelelekian, who speaks broken English with an Armenian accent.

There are brief introductions: Drug dealers, meet art thief. They begin with a discussion of the price. Chelelekian says that he's heard the pitiful $100,000 offer and that the number should be at least 3 million euros — about $4.7 million.

For "security purposes," he says, they will sell the paintings only two at a time, 1.5 million euros for each transaction. If the first exchange goes smoothly, they'll wait a few days and sell the other two paintings. If something goes wrong and cops get involved, they'll hold the Monet and the Sisley as bargaining chips for reduced sentences.

Chelelekian explains that he has a friend in the States who can accept the cash payment. He says they will simultaneously hand over the paintings somewhere in Europe.

Bob the illicit art broker from Philadelphia hints that he's beginning to feel like all the hassle might not be worth it. He tells Chelelekian he's not confident he can find a buyer at that ridiculous price. He says he has a phone call to make, and he asks both men to go out in the hall. When he brings them back into the room, he says he may have a buyer in America.

After the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, Chelelekian, now fancying himself a fine negotiator indeed, tells Bob he's going to go out and buy a special international phone he'll use only for this deal. It's a sign both sides finally trust each other.

Special Agent Alex Peraza walks up a dusty trail in the Grand Canyon. He has a large pack on his back. It's the first week in May. Over six feet tall and muscular, with short, dark-brown hair, the FBI agent has hiked more than 35 miles of canyon trail in the past few days. Now he's hiking back from Phantom Ranch.

As he approaches his campsite, he sees two park rangers going the other way. After a brief chat, Peraza introduces himself.

"Oh, you're the guy we were looking for earlier," one of the rangers tells him.

As he had been enjoying his vacation, hiking around the trails of the Grand Canyon, Peraza was out of cell phone range. When he arrives at his tent, there's a message there from the rangers telling him to call the office immediately.

Peraza hikes back to the nearest phone at the ranger station. His office in Miami has news. It's about the case he's been working on for almost ten months. The deal Ternus has worked out to sell the stolen French paintings is falling apart — and with it, so is Peraza's case.

A 22-year veteran of law enforcement, Peraza has watched and listened to every second of the discussions about the sale of the stolen French art. Since his first meetings with the drug traffickers, nearly every move Ternus has made has been recorded on audio and video. And the investigation is bigger than even the most paranoid criminals might have imagined.

Ternus' translator friend works with the FBI. The men Ternus believes are drug traffickers are undercover FBI agents. Bob from Philadelphia is Special Agent Robert Wittman, the FBI's foremost art expert. In 20 years as the FBI's point man for stolen treasures, Wittman has recovered $225 million worth of art and cultural artifacts, including Rembrandt's Self-Portrait and a collection of five Norman Rockwell paintings. His biggest bust, though, was in 2003, when Wittman helped recover an original copy of the Bill of Rights.

In one of the largest international operations ever, the French National Police and France's Central Office for the Fight Against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC), in cooperation with the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have been tracking Lhomme and Chelelekian and the gang in Europe. Spanish police got in on the action when the operation moved to Barcelona. The European agents have been feeding the FBI information faster (and, as it turns out, more accurately) than even Ternus can get messages between the two groups.

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Michael J. Mooney