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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Art Crime Gang One Step Ahead of Bungling Police !!

Veteran lawyer Michael Morse, above, was accused of being a mastermind of a criminal gang that targeted antique stores and auction houses. All charges against him were dropped last week in court.

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
Meanwhile, police investigating a January 2004 break-in at LuluLemon apparel store on Yonge St. zeroed in on international art thief Raymond Hobin, who was not above more mundane break and enters. It turned out he and Morse were co-signers for a Somerville rental truck similar to one seen leaving LuluLemon. Morse testified that he rented the truck partly so that Hobin, who he thought was a professional landscape architect, could conduct work at his home in east Toronto. Morse said that he had befriended Hobin, a sometime client, despite his criminal past, believing that he was trying to go straight in order to retain custody of his son.On April 14, 2004, police arrested Hobin in the LuluLemon break-in and in connection with another B and E at Norwalk the Furniture Idea, also on Yonge. When police questioned Hobin, who likely faced a long prison term if convicted, he claimed that he was coerced into the break-ins. He said Morse extorted him into joining his small ring of high-end antique-store thieves that included Hines and Gagne.He told police they targeted antique stores and other businesses to fulfill Morse's wish list."The police bought it hook, line and sinker," Morse's lawyer, Bryant, told the judge during the trial. "Raymond Hobin is not just a career criminal. He is a master con artist who has an uncanny ability to turn things inside out and upside down."Hobin took police on a tour, pointing out stores the gang had targeted. He said that Morse had stashed in his home two expensive tapestries the gang had stolen from Kantelberg Antiques on Davenport Rd. Police enlisted Hobin as their agent in a sting operation principally targeting Morse. In return he hoped for lenient treatment. A police source says investigators soon came to suspect the alleged Morse-led gang and AGO thieves were related "cells."In 2004, a surveillance team followed Morse to a house belonging to Penny Sherman, the one time "old squeeze" of a well-known Toronto rounder with her own criminal past. The police suspected Morse of laundering money though Sherman, his friend and former client, although the only charge laid against her in Project Antique — conspiracy to commit an indictable offence — was dropped last year. The net was cast wider, as it often is during these kinds of investigations, when Vincent literally walked onto the scene. "We followed Morse to Sherman's house, Morse leaves, and this unknown person to us, Darryl Vincent, shows up," says one of the police on the surveillance detail. Vincent and Sherman go back more than 40 years. One of the officers recognized the thief, whose criminal career stretches back five decades. This account then has the officers following Vincent, who leads them to an antique store in the company of another man. John Struthers was Vincent's lawyer. Sherman "sort of put a circle through it all," he said this week, sounding bemused about how Project Antique unfolded. "Darryl has some infamy with respect to thieving in Canada, but at the same time I'm not sure he had anything to do with any of this," said Struthers. "It's a strange world because people who are that good at thieving seem to somehow figure out who each other is."Vincent is less amused."You guys are being totally, totally used by the police," he said referring to media outlets who reported on the initial arrests. "They turned something that was never a project into a project."He also believes the police, "pissed off" about how the AGO theft was handled, targeted the Russians. Vincent, a veteran of art heists, was under surveillance after the thefts occurred, but denies having any part of it.Vincent has recovered most of the property seized by investigators and, not surprisingly, impugns their motives."They have to justify being paid. You have to get so many charges. That's why they have these RIDE programs right now — they're totally illegal, in my view," he says, adding that he's aware the Supreme Court of Canada sees it differently.

Who's Who

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.

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