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

Page 4 of 6

In every country, there are prosecutors, police chiefs, lower-level commanders, and a slew of bureaucrats in on the ruse. So many people involved also means a lot of things can go wrong with the elaborate sting.

When Peraza calls from the Grand Canyon, his office patches him through to Col. Pierre Tabel, head of the French investigation. Tabel explains that Lhomme, the man authorities suspect is leader of the French thieves, has decided he won't do the transaction in the United States. It will be too much trouble to move that much cash across an ocean.

Peraza had wanted at least a part of the deal to happen in Miami so his office would be able to collar a few men — trophies for the hard work by his team of undercover agents. But he knows the priorities are getting these guys off the streets and getting the paintings back to the museum.

Tabel tells Peraza he'll support any decision he makes. "We'll do the right thing," Tabel says. Peraza tells his French counterpart he needs time to think things through.

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.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael J. Mooney