Monday, July 11, 2011

True Crime Tuesday. The Case of the Missing Picasso

One thing we strive for in our books is a crime of great complexity--clever clues, deeply psychological motive, police baffled. Alas real life is seldom like that. Most crimes are ridiculously simple, and none more so that what happened in San Francisco last week.

A man walked into an art gallery, lifted a Picasso drawing from the wall and walked out with it. In broad daylight. He then hailed a cab and disappeared. Not so fast, however. We live in an age of surveillance cameras. He was picked up not by the gallery's cameras but by those of a nearby bar, walking past with a suspicous retangle under his arm and... big clue... he was wearing no socks. So it didn't take long for the police to find him. Mark Lugo, a 30 year old waiter from New York, staying at a high end hotel.

The Examiner says, "Lugo is accused of snatching the Picasso sketch “TĂȘte de femme,” valued at $275,000, from the wall of the Weinstein Gallery at Geary and Powell streets late Tuesday morning.
Lugo allegedly strolled into the gallery, plucked the artwork off the wall, then walked less than a half block to a cab parked at the nearby Handlery Hotel, police said.
A media frenzy followed the brazen midday heist. Lugo was tracked down after a cabbie directed police to where Lugo had been dropped off – the posh Hotel Palomar in downtown San Francisco, where he was staying.
Further investigation that included video surveillance evidence from restaurant Lefty O'Doul's, which captured the thief’s getaway, led cops to Napa.
Lugo was arrested while partying with pals at a Napa condo apartment, police said. Police say Lugo agreed to a police search in the condo, where cops say they found the artwork undamaged but without its frame.
Police say Lugo was preparing to ship the artwork to an unknown party

This had me thinking about how easy it would be to carry out a crime. It has a lot to do with Hutzpah. If I need to use a restroom when I'm in the city I walk into the foyer of a good hotel and find their sumptuous rest room. Nobody has ever stopped me. Why? Because I am well dressed and I walk througb that foyer as if I belong there.

I know people who have crashed weddings and nobody has stopped them. The best example was when John's grandfather was a judge. A man walked into the courtroom when court was in session, put up a ladder and removed the clock. It later transpired that he had stolen it. How's that for hutzpah?

So I've sometimes wondered whether I could pick up an expensive item in a high end store and simply walk out with it and nobody would try to stop me. Don't worry, I'm not a potential shoplifter, I'm just curious about how much one could get away with if one had enough confidence. A sweater from Nordstroms? An item from a museum? A Picasso?

Probably not so easy in these days of security cameras and tags on garments. But when I was growing up and the assistant in Harrods brought one twenty dresses to try on and then went away again.. did anyone try to walk out with a stolen dress under her fur? I bet they did.

I'm tempted to try--the publicity at my arrest might even sell a few books. So fess up, Jungle Reds. Has any of you been tempted to see if you could carry out a crime?


  1. No, Rhys, I have none of that kind of nerve at all! though I definitely use the bathroom-in-a-fancy-hotel technique. but I totally love the ladder and clock in the courtroom scheme--that's different from stealing from a store because no one would be suspecting it...

  2. The first thing that came to mind when I read this was the mother of a man I used to work with--she routinely crashed funerals, receptions and cocktail parties. She was well-spoken, elegantly dressed and as far as I know never got caught. I always wondered if she was a frustrated actress.

  3. Rhys,
    I used to love to write stories about swindlers, and I guess I"m just still totally fascinated by them because of the sheer nerve they exude.

    I'm like Roberta, I have none of it.

    I interviewed the head of the Boston SEC he told me that these people have some sort of mental twist. They are smart enough to earn their money legally, but they get a little kick out of the challenge -- the hutzpah challenge -- I guess.

  4. I didn't get the criminal-acts-are-exhilarating gene either. I'm so law-abiding I worry a cop might be watching when a traffic light turns from green to yellow when I'm driving through an intersection.

    OK, maybe from yellow to red.

  5. I do think confidence is the key. Blending in. Dress for the theft.

  6. I'm convinced that sheer nerve (or in the case of the many really stupid crooks out there, total lack of imagination) is behind the vast majority of crimes.

    As a writer, it's always good to use one of those "OMG is he going to get away with it" moments because I think everyone has experienced that emotion - even if it's wondering if the bathroom attendant at the Plaza is going to stop you!

  7. I had a boyfriend once, in the 80's, who used to see all the plays in town starting after intermisson. He'd lurk in the lobby as people drank their little orange juices, then watch people leave. Then wait til the last minute, check for empty seats, and take one.

    No one EVER said a word.

    I never did it with him--it still makes me annoyed to think about it.

    I do a lot of undercover stuff, and yes indeed, the key is to look and act like you belong.

  8. OMG, I've stayed at the Palomar in SF! To think I might have shared a hotel with a not-so-master criminal.

    Rhys, I too use the posh hotel restroom trick. And because London is so horribly short on public facilities, I've gotten very good over the years at walking into pubs and coffee shops as if I have every right to be there and going straight for the loo. No one has ever stopped me.

    But I'm afraid that's as far as my criminal tendencies go. That and watching Hustle.

  9. Yes to the restroom thing. And I seem to remember going from one theatre to another in the cineplex when I was a teenager. "I know I have my ticket here somewhere..."

  10. We're obviously a hardened group of bathroom-crashers. Proviong, as several of you noted, that ladies can get away with an awful lot if they are well-dressed white women of a certain age.

    Sounds like a heist story waiting to be written!

  11. I've pulled the ladies' room trick but that's as far as I will go. Guess I'm just a goody two shoes. I'd end up in jail for sure.

  12. A high school friend and I used to try on dresses at Montaldoes, a swank store in Charlotte, NC, and examine, make notes and drawings of construction. Then find a fabric we liked even better than the designer had used, and make our own. We did such a good job of it we would wear those dresses the next time we went there so we could pass.

  13. LOL. At the university where I worked for lo those many years, large items like potted palms and couches regularly disappeared from the Student Center. Yeah, hutzpah!

  14. I'm a really big fan of security cameras since it can see and record everything.