An FBI agent who has spent more than 14 years investigating the theft of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum figured almost immediately that a guy offering to sell two of the painting for a total of $55 million on Craigslist was full of it. But on the off chance that Todd Desper was for real - and if not, to catch a guy trying to run a large scam - Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly started an investigation.
In an affidavit filed in US District Court in Boston last week, Kelly recounts the steps that led to Desper's arrest - and provides some details on other real-estate and financial scams the 47-year-old Sprint supervisor from Beckley, WV was also allegedly running.
Kelly writes that somebody called the FBI's tips line on Jan. 10 that somebody going by the name of Mordokwan was offering to sell Vermeer's The Concert for $50 million in the Global section of Craigslist. A week later, Anthony Amore, the security director at the Gardner, notified him somebody had noticed a similar ad on the London Craigslist, offering Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee for $5 million - and The Concert for $50 million.
In both ads, Mordokwan said he would only consider requests from people who e-mailed him via a particular type of encrypted mail. According to the affidavit, the person who saw the London ad did so, pretending to be the agent for "an ex Russian politician" now living in Florida and expressing interest in the Vermeer painting but asking for proof the painting was real.
Kelly writes Mordokwan responded with a photo closeup of "the arm of the woman playing the piano." A paintings expert at the Gardner looked at the photo, concluded that it was, indeed an image from an oil painting - but not from The Concert.
Meanwhile, the Gardner was getting more tips about Craigslists ads, in both London and Venice.
While the FBI had signficant doubts that Mordokwan possessed or had access to The Storm or The Concert, given the means he was using to offer them for sale, the importance of these artworks, and this longstanding investigation, we decided to throughly puruse this lead. Morever, if Mordokwan did not have the paintings, it appeared that he was engaged in a multi-million scheme to defraud targeting foreign buyers.
Amore agreed to participate, and on Jan. 18, he sent an encrypted message to Mordokwan, using the pseudonym of Paintings:
Let's make a deal. I'm in a position to make this work and I'm ready to get down to business.
Get back to me asap.
Mordokwan replied a few hours later:
Have a cashiers check made out to the name of: 10tothe7th, LLC, in the amount of USD $5,000,000.
Mail it to 1038 N. Eisenhower Dr. Suite 151, Beckley, WV, 25801, USA
I will wait 4-6 weeks to ensure check clears.
Include where you want the painting sent.
I will conceal it behind another painting and then ship it to whatever destination you choose.
If check is fake or does not clear, that will conclude our business.
Amore replied the deal was doable, but that his "associates" are "expecting the painting taken from the Gardner Museum in 1990."
"The one and only," Mordokwan replied, according to the affidavit.
And with that, it became simple for the FBI to connect Desper to the mail. 10tothe7th, LLC is a company registered by Desper, who gave his Beckley home address in his filings. The mailing address he sent Amore turns out to be a UPS office, which also gave Desper's name and address - and said he'd first rented the box on Jan. 3.
Tracking his online name, agents found other Craigslist offerings he'd allegedly made, including $25-million real-estate deals in Myrtle Beach, SC and Vancouver, BC, a Rolex watch, a $2.5-million Flash comic book and financial advice everywhere from the United Arab Emirates to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Agents arrested Desper at his home on May 22. According to the affidavit, he admitted to the connection to 10tothe7th, LLC, which he said was a failed effort to raise funds for shelter animals and wounded veterans, but denied knowing anything about the paintings.
On May 23, he had bail set at $10,000 at a hearing in a West Virginia federal court. He's scheduled for arraignment in Boston on June 9 on fraud charges.
State Rep. Adrian Madaro (D-East Boston) is pissed off at the way his neighborhood's roads have become gridlocked after MassDOT removed the Sumner Tunnel toll plaza and modified the approaches to it a couple weeks ago.
The new design has created traffic backups unseen in East Boston since the pre-Ted Williams Tunnel days. In fact, the current traffic is even worse. Beyond the impact on commuters, this increase in neighborhood and tunnel traffic has dangerous implications for emergency vehicles that cannot get through the gridlock.
In the redesign, traffic impacts to the community were not fully considered. On a daily basis, residential streets in East Boston are entirely congested, including streets that never experienced traffic before. While the transition to all-electronic tolls appears to have improved traffic flow in other areas throughout the State, this particular redesign has resulted in a tremendous step backwards. Simply, East Boston residents deserve better.
Drew Starr could only stare in amazement at this person's parking job on Mass. Ave. near the Christian Science Center today: Too far from the curb, in a handicap space and with "a crushed bike lane marker underneath."
Missing Dogs Massachusetts reports Hercules was in a carrier bag snatched yesterday from the South Station bus terminal. He's six years old, two lbs. and was wearing a neon-green harness. If you see him, call 774-955-6541.