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

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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.

Peraza likes to point out that as crime is globalizing, law enforcement is globalizing too. And what it came down to in the Nice case was capitalizing on the thieves' haste to get the transaction done.

"There's a transition everyone goes through, even in the noncriminal world," Peraza says. "You're expecting to sell your house. Someone comes by. First you're skeptical. Then they come a second time, and you're less skeptical. There comes a time when you're done thinking about that transaction and you're thinking about what you can spend that money on."

Peraza says Ternus is just an opportunist who got a phone call he couldn't resist. "He isn't a smart guy," Peraza says. "But he isn't stupid. This is a man who has periods in his life that are legit, but it's never enough. These criminals asked him if he could sell the paintings. Sometimes it's about answering the wrong phone call. When you swim in that element, from time to time, you will be drawn into one scheme or another. These are the offers you're gonna get. But why did he get that phone call? You're not gonna get that phone call. I'm not gonna get that phone call."

Six days after his arrest, Ternus pleads guilty in federal court to conspiracy to transfer stolen property and visa fraud. Through a court translator, Ternus tells Judge Patricia A. Seitz, "I am pleading guilty because I am guilty."

On September 24, 2008, 13 months after the robbery in Nice, Seitz sentences Ternus to five years in prison. He's incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. He did not return letters from New Times written to him in English and French.

Ternus' wife, who still lives in Cooper City, did not comment. A neighbor called the whole affair "a family tragedy that has separated children from their father."

Agents who have interviewed Ternus say he doesn't want to go back to France — he knows there's a group of dangerous criminals who are very angry at him for introducing them to the end of their careers. Oddly enough, Peraza says Ternus told him his biggest regret in all of this is the fact that he won't become a U.S. citizen. "He really does love this country," Peraza says.

Richard Birkenwald, Ternus' attorney, says he expects someone will eventually make a movie about his client. He even has a title suggestion: The Ternus Affair. He believes Ternus will be deported to France soon and will most likely face a longer sentence on charges stemming from the initial armed robbery.

Birkenwald says an old psychological experiment serves as a good metaphor for Ternus' story. It's an optical illusion first documented in 1926: A subject is shown a frame with two black dots — dot A and dot B. The subject is quickly shown a second slide in which dot A is on the other side of dot B. Most people believe they either saw dot A move around dot B or they believe they saw both dots move together.

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Michael J. Mooney