Connecting the dots in art-theft 'project'
The case unravels against a colourful cast of characters accused of high-end heists
It started with great fanfare two years ago and last week it appeared to unravel with the vindication of the supposed mastermind of one of its "cells," a veteran lawyer and Crown attorney.In October 2004, Toronto police announced they had cracked a theft ring that had been targeting high-end antique stores and auction houses. On display was some of the confiscated loot — an eclectic array of watches, coins, lamps, jewellery and designer coats, with an estimated value of $750,000.The charge sheet contained a colourful cast of characters besides the criminal lawyer, including a charming, old-time crook, two Russian brothers and a man once accused in a legendary court case.Police called it "Project Antique." Two years on, most of the original charges have either been dropped, thrown out or stayed. Then, last week in Superior Court, Justice Ian Nordheimer acquitted lawyer Michael Morse of all the charges he was facing. Charges against co-accused Joseph Gagne were also dropped, while Wayne Hines was convicted of weapons charges but nothing relating directly to the burglaries."The right hand of the Toronto police didn't know what the left hand of the Toronto police was doing," Morse said in an interview. Officers did not communicate basic facts to one another, take proper notes, or follow up obvious leads, Morse charged. He said it was only through the investigation that he and his lawyer, Anthony Bryant, conducted that key information was uncovered that cleared his name."It was Police Officer 101," Morse said. "They didn't have to go through all kinds of surveillance and employing officers of various squads to do this and that over a six-month period and spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars."Darryl Vincent, who turned 68 last week, had his charges stayed this fall while a single charge against Penny Sherman, 64, and six against Ira Hussey, 58, have also disappeared from the docket. Only Sergei Khatchaturov, 30, and sibling Yurii Khatchaturov, 24, still face charges connected to Project Antique.The genesis of the six-month investigation is almost as interesting as the ragtag group rounded up. Despite first appearances, those arrested as part of the two "cells" involved in "the organized theft of valuable artworks and antiques" were not connected in any way except by "absolute fluke, lucky" circumstances, says Rob Whelan, one of the investigators and now a sergeant at 55 Division.Connecting the dots poses a challenge.Some believe that what launched Project Antique was the high-profile theft in early 2004 of late billionaire Ken Thomson's treasured statues from a display case at the Art Gallery of Ontario.An elated Thomson got his statues back a day after police released video images from AGO security cameras showing "persons of interest" in the case. Lawyer Dennis Morris turned them over to police, citing solicitor-client privilege for keeping the identity of the suspects secret.The investigation, the public was told, was continuing.That was not the case. Much to the dismay of some officers involved in the AGO investigation, police brass — including former deputy chief Steve Reesor and with the knowledge of then Toronto police chief Julian Fantino — closed the file.But police who felt justice wasn't served started tailing the suspects, the Khatchaturov brothers, known to be clients of Morris. After it was robbed, Vincent and the older Khatchaturov were arrested.
`The right hand of the Toronto police didn't know what the left hand of the Toronto police was doing' Michael Morse, acquitted lawyer
Five of those who faced charges in connection with Project Antique
Darryl Vincent, 68, has a criminal record that goes back 45 years with the vast majority of his run-ins with police involving the theft of high-end goods. He also has been convicted of similar crimes in several other parts of the world.
Penny Sherman (formerly Penny Yankula), who turns 65 next month, is no stranger to the criminal justice system. She was once charged with trafficking heroin and possessing a stolen mink coat.
Ira Hussey, 48, was one of the accused men in the so-called Askov case, in which charges were thrown out by the Supreme Court of Canada because they took too long to get to trial. In 1989, he was among 14 men charged after a police investigation into the $2 million theft of transport trailers packed with televisions, stereos and other pricey items.
Michael Morse, 59, is a defence lawyer who has practised for 30 years, including as a prosecutor. He is a married father of two boys, and collects antiques as a hobby. Police claimed he was the mastermind of a high-end antiques theft ring, but a judge acquitted him of all charges last Friday.
Raymond Hobin, 49, is an international art thief with multiple criminal convictions and several stints in jail. He was the Crown's star witness against Morse and two co-accused in the alleged antiques theft ring. A judge called him a charming con artist whose testimony was highly suspect. Morse called him the Prince of Darkness.