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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Stolen Art Watch, Art Crime, Art Crime, All About Art Crime

Traveller gang targeted over stolen rhino horns

By Cormac O’Keeffe and Kerry Sheridan

Friday, May 11, 2012

A notorious Traveller criminal network which dominates a multi-million dollar global trade in stolen rhino horn is being targeted in a huge police operation in the United States.

A crackdown in the US has resulted so far in the seizure of 37 rhino horns, which authorities there have valued at between $8m (€6m) and $10m (€7.7m).
Operation Crash has not to date arrested any members of the so-called Rathkeale Rovers, a criminal Traveller network, originally from Rathkeale in Co Limerick.

The Rathkeale Rovers have become notorious across Europe and beyond for their involvement in the highly profitable rhino horn trade.

Last July, the EU police agency, Europol, said the Traveller gang was an "organised crime group" which was also heavily involved in tarmac fraud, the distribution of counterfeit goods, organised robbery, money laundering and drug trafficking.

It said their reach spread across North and South America, China and Australia and that they used "intimidation and violence" in their activities.

Europol estimate that rhino horns, which are used in traditional medicine and decoration, were worth between €25,000 and €200,000 each.

The agency said the Irish gang sourced horns by targeting antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos.

It said they sold them by "exploiting" international auction houses in France, the US and China.

Europol said the gang had invested "significant proceeds of crime in Ireland — mainly in real estate and other assets".

Rhino horn is sold in Chinese traditional medicine, as an aphrodisiac, as a decoration or to produce luxury products.

Trading in rhino horns is illegal under UN laws as they are an endangered species.

Last February, three agencies in the US — the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Homeland Security Department and the Internal Revenue Service — set up a huge operation to uncover buyers of rhino horn.

Edward Grace of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said 37 rhino horns were seized in the country’s biggest ever operation in this area.

Among eight people arrested were a rodeo cowboy, a Chinese businessman, a Vietnamese nail salon owner and a US antiques expert.

Though no Irish people were arrested in the crackdown, more arrests are expected in the coming months, Mr Grace said.

"This case also involves other Irish buying rhino horns in the US," Mr Grace told AFP. "I can’t go into a lot of details on it."

He said criminals scoured the country for trophies of the animals hunted illegally in South Africa and brought back in the US in recent decades.

It was the activities of two Irish men, Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty, from Rathkeale, Co Limerick, that brought the attention of US law enforcement to the trade.

The duo were arrested after paying undercover agents in Colorado some $17,000 for four black rhino horns.

They told agents they planned to hide them in furniture which they would ship to Ireland.

They were charged with conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering, and served six months in a US prison.

Mr Grace said the trade in illegal rhino horn was "really being fuelled by the Irish Travellers", but said Chinese and Vietnamese criminals were also involved.

He likened the crime to the drugs trade: "It is similar to an operation of a drug cartel. You have the higher ups who provide the money, the mid-level lieutenants who get the couriers and the smugglers, so you have the whole organised criminal element here."

In the United States, it is illegal to sell most types of rhino horns across state lines and none may be imported or exported without a special permit.

The maximum penalties are a $250,000 fine and five years in prison for conspiracy and trafficking of endangered species, and $100,000 and one year in prison for violating the Endangered Species Act.

Since illegal trafficking fuels poaching of endangered rhinos abroad, "part of the responsibility worldwide to help protect these species falls on the United States," said Mr Grace

Cash and jewellery found as search for burglar gang continues

Thursday, May 03, 2012

As wide-scale searches continued in West Limerick last night for three members of a Cork City-based burglar gang, gardaí discovered a large quantity of cash and jewellery discarded in a field.

The money and jewellery was stolen in house break-ins earlier this week in Co Limerick.

One member of the Traveller gang, aged 23, who was arrested on Tuesday will appear at Limerick District Court this morning.

He and the three others are suspected of being involved in burglaries on Monday and Tuesday at Martinstown, Ballyneety and Pallsagreen.

Garda search teams were yesterday backed up by the Garda helicopter and armed members of the Regional Support Unit as they combed wide tracts of bogland and forests near the village of Raheenagh.

The three men abandoned a black Volvo with a false ‘D’ registration before they took off through open countryside on Tuesday. They drove into a Garda checkpoint set up under an operation mounted in Cork, Kerry and Limerick to tackle known gangs roaming the three counties.

The car which was originally registered in England, was not stolen and gardaí believe it may yield vital clues in the investigation which is a joint Limerick/Cork operation. It is being forensically examined.

Gangs have been responsible for a spate of burglaries in the Limerick area in recent weeks and gardaí are confident developments this week will help deliver a major blow to mobile criminals drawn from various Traveller families living in Cork City.

A Garda spokesman said: "Our people in Cork and Limerick are working very closely on this investigation and we are confident of more arrests."

Retired L.A. Art Crime detective sentenced to 27 years to life for 1986 murder

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A California judge sentenced a retired Los Angeles Police detective Friday to 27 years to life in prison for murdering her ex-boyfriend's wife in a jealous rage more than two decades ago.

Stephanie Ilene Lazarus, 52, was convicted of biting and shooting Sherri Rasmussen, 29, in her townhouse in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986.

Lazarus, who rose through ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department and became a veteran art theft detective, could be eligible for parole in 22 years. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry gave Lazarus credit for time served in jail since her arrest at LAPD headquarters in June 2009.

A jury convicted her in March of first-degree murder.

Friday's sentence was the maximum under state law, prosecutors said.

Lazarus was charged with staging the crime scene to look like a burglary gone bad, and police long believed that Rasmussen was the victim of two male burglars.

The 1986 case went cold for years. Then it was reopened in 2004 and again in 2009, when DNA from a bite mark on the victim's arm came back as a match to the detective.

When Lazarus became a suspect, homicide detectives faced "special challenges as Lazarus' office was located next door to the detectives who were now investigating her," police said in a statement in March.

Rasmussen, a hospital nursing supervisor, was the new bride of John Ruetten, who had been Lazarus' college sweetheart. Married for just three months, Ruetten found his wife's body when he returned home from work. Rasmussen was brutally beaten and shot three times in the chest, authorities said.

Los Angeles County deputy prosecutors Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez submitted a written statement to the court prior to the sentencing, according to the prosecutor's office.

"Lazarus has never taken responsibility for her acts," the prosecutors wrote. "Lazarus has never expressed any regret or remorse for her actions. Lazarus' profound narcissism led her to kill and continues to motivate her denial of responsibility. This unrepentant selfishness poses a real and significant danger to any person whose interests conflict with Lazarus' egotistic desires."

Before the sentencing Friday, Rasmussen' mother, Loretta, told the court that her family has endured "extreme pain" over her daughter's murder.

"Every day we miss her laughter and her love," the mother told the judge.

In his remarks to the judge, a tearful Ruetten said Rasmussen was "just trying to save her own life" on the day of her murder.

"I just can't bear thinking about these moments," Ruetten told the court.

After the sentencing, Lazarus, manacled and dressed in a jail jumpsuit, waved and smiled to an apparent loved one in the courtroom gallery as she was escorted back to jail, carrying a folder.

Following Lazarus' conviction in March, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the case was "a tragedy on every level."

"Not only did the family of Sherri Rasmussen lose a wife and a daughter, a life that can never be returned, but also the LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime," Beck said in a written statement.

"I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy," he said.

Rasmussen, director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, was a tall, athletic 29-year-old with a pretty smile.

At the time of the slaying, Lazarus was in her second year with the Los Angeles Police Department. The killing occurred on February 24, 1986, a Monday. Lazarus had taken the day off; Rasmussen had called in sick that morning. Authorities estimate she died before lunchtime.

Prosecutors argued that Lazarus was in love with Ruetten and distraught when she learned he married someone else.

During the trial, Ruetten testified he casually dated Lazarus after college, but he never considered her a girlfriend and dated other women while seeing her. Lazarus eventually married a Los Angeles Police detective and the couple adopted a daughter.

According to prosecutors, the key to unlocking Lazarus' dark secret lay for years on the back shelf of an evidence freezer in the coroner's office. In a vial inside a sealed evidence envelope was a cotton swab. On that swab, prosecutors say, was DNA taken from saliva from the bite wound on Rasmussen's left forearm.

Testing in 2005 revealed the assailant was a woman. Some detectives, however, clung to the burglary theory and focused their inquiries on known female prowlers.

But from the beginning, the victim's family had pointed to an ex-girlfriend of Ruetten's who was a cop, and as the DNA testing advanced, undercover police followed Lazarus to a Costco store and retrieved a discarded soda from a trash can. Saliva traces from the straw matched the bite mark DNA, and she officially became a suspect.

Lazarus was confronted, and another sample was taken from her shortly before her arrest. Tests revealed the DNA found in the bite mark on Rasmussen's left forearm belonged to Lazarus.

Deputy Assistant District Attorney Presby told jurors during the trial that the chance of the killer being anyone else is "one in 1.7 sextillion."

To avoid botching an undercover investigation of one of their own, LAPD officials carefully devised a plan to arrest Lazarus. On June 5, 2009, Detective Daniel Jaramillo from the department's robbery-homicide division approached Lazarus at her desk in the department's headquarters and asked her to accompany him downstairs to the department's jail facility, where she would not be able to bring her gun.

He told Lazarus he needed her help interrogating a man who claimed to have information on stolen art, Lazarus' specialty in the detectives unit. A nearly hour-long recorded interview followed.

After one of the detectives alludes to the evidence that implicated her in the killing, Lazarus said, "Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane. This is absolutely crazy. This is insane."

Minutes later she walked out of the interview room, only to be stopped, handcuffed and told she was under arrest in the murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen.

Lazarus's attorney, John Overland, has argued in court that the crime scene evidence from 1986 was mishandled and tainted years ago and couldn't be trusted.

Cops unravel New York link to Sringeri idol theft

KOCHI: Three years after the trail turned cold in the sensational robbery of a centuries-old emerald idol of Lord Shiva from Sringeri Mutt in Kalady, Kerala police claim they have cracked the case. State crime branch officials said they suspect Subhash Kapoor, an UP-born US citizen and antique smuggler who runs a gallery in New York, and is the public face of a clandestine international racket in ancient artefacts.

Kapoor is allegedly behind a number of idol heists from Tamil Nadu as well, and police here surmise that he is involved in the burglary of five idols, similar to the Sringeri one, from other temples in Kerala. A report of the economic offences wing of the Tamil Nadu police reveals that Kapoor runs a private museum called Art of the Past and an export company, Nimbus Import Inc, in New York. He specialises in shipping out and selling stolen antiques to museums, private collectors and dealers through a wide network ranging across India, Pakistan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand.

Kapoor was arrested in Germany in October 2011 following a red corner notice issued by the CBI with the help of Interpol. "We will approach the TN police and are planning to make a joint effort to extradite him from Germany," a senior crime branch official, who requested anonymity, told TOI.

Kapoor is believed to have masterminded the theft of 18 panchaloha idols from the Arulmigu Sundareswarar and Varadharaja Perumal temples at Suthamalli village in Ariyalur district on April 13, 2008. "The TN police are already at his back in connection with the theft of antique idols from various temples in Tamil Nadu. We are now expecting to make a breakthrough in the Sringeri Mutt case also," the official said.

The TN police report points out that antique idols were shipped from Chennai harbour to US in two batches between May and July 2006. Kapoor paid a dollar equivalent of Rs 1,16,37,694 from his account with HSBC Bank in New York to an accomplice identified as Sanjivi Asokan, suspected to be his point man in Chennai. Asokan was earlier arrested by a special team of the Kerala police in connection with the Sringeri case but it is only now that they became aware of his link with Kapoor.

Kidnapped by Pirates at Sea? Here's How Economics Can Save You

Lessons from Plutarch to Planet Money, including the First Rule of kidnapping insurance: Don't tell anybody about your kidnapping insurance

A couple years ago NPR's Planet Money podcast had an episode about Somali pirates. (The pirate part starts at 9:35). There was all sorts of interesting stuff about division of labor, allocation of shares, pirate venture capital, etc. Some of this paralleled early modern piracy (as given a scholarly analysis in Peter Leeson's work and a romantic perspective in innumerable books and movies since Treasure Island) but in other respects it's very different. In particular, whereas early modern piracy was mostly about seizing cargo and the crews were left alone if they surrendered promptly, Somali piracy is more similar to piracy in antiquity in that it's basically maritime kidnapping. The typical instance of Somali piracy isn't that different from what a young Julius Caesar experienced when he was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom on his way home from political exile in Asia Minor. One interesting detail in Plutarch's report is that, "When these men at first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty."

It's not entirely clear if we should take Plutarch's report at face value (he also tells us that Caesar constantly insulted his captors as being, for instance, too uncivilized to appreciate his poetry) but for the sake of argument let's accept that Caesar rather brashly gave away too much information in the game of price discovery. According to a hostage negotiator quoted by This American Life, giving away this information is apparently typical of hostages and is counter-productive to their release as it narrows the bid-ask spread. Economists would describe hostage negotiation as a bilateral monopoly price negotiation that is structurally just a special case of chicken. That is, unlike a barrel of oil or a freight car full of soybeans which can trade on an extremely liquid market with innumerable buyers and sellers, a hostage has exactly one seller (the kidnappers) and exactly one buyer (the employer and/or family of the hostage). When there is only one buyer, the opportunity cost for ransoming the hostage is zero. Likewise, the employer and/or family has no realistic alternative means to recover the hostage. In order for everybody to walk away happy, we need a cooperate-cooperate outcome: the kidnapper has to give up the hostage and the employer/family has to give up a ransom. This structure also characterizes art theft, which in practice is not a matter of fencing art on the black market but ransoming art to a museum's insurance company.

If we model a bilateral monopoly negotiation only two things should matter. The first is, as always in a game of chicken, the willingness to accept failure. The more willing you appear to walk away, the more bargaining power you have. In a more protracted game this can cash out as willingness to delay which we can treat as a defect-defect outcome on the installment plan. In fact in the Planet Money episode on Somali piracy, the hostage's party did balk and break off negotiations for weeks at a time until the pirates were willing to come down on price.

The other thing that should matter is the capacity to pay. If the pirate knows for an absolute fact that the hostage's people simply can't raise more than a million dollars then it would be pointless for them to demand two million dollars. Of course there is an issue of information asymmetry in that the hostage's party has much better information on its assets than do the pirates and so the pirates may be skeptical of the hostage's party pleading poverty (especially if the hostage has foolishly told them how much money they can get). We see this at work in the TAL story's point that kidnapping insurance holds the condition that you can't tell anyone you have kidnapping insurance.

Here's something that the econ model tells us shouldn't matter: the going rate. In normal markets the going rate matters, but only because it provides the opportunities for substitutes and this creates the "law of one price." For instance, when I go to a grocery store and see a loaf of bread for $4 I won't buy it. An economist would say I forgo this purchase because I know perfectly well that the going rate for a loaf of bread is about $2.25 and so I can go elsewhere and get bread cheaper. Similarly if I go to the Honda dealer to buy a Honda Accord, it is relevant for me to mention price quotes offered by other Honda dealers for an Accord or even how much Toyota dealers ask for a Camry because it is entirely credible that I'll walk off the lot and go to rival car dealers offering very close substitutes for this dealer's cars. However if my sister is locked in a basement in Ciudad Juarez and the kidnappers can credibly commit to not letting her go unless I raise $x, it is completely irrelevant that in the past kidnappers accepted ransoms of $x/2 since I don't have the relatively good fortune of dealing with a kidnapper who demands $x/2 but am stuck with one who demands $x. There are no other places where I can buy the freedom of my sister and so the only price that matters is the one being demanded by her particular kidnappers. (Note to any cartels reading this: I don't have a sister).

And nonetheless, much like how most people who haven't studied statistics balk at the idea that the ratio of sample size to population size is irrelevant to statistical inference, people seem to have a strong intuition that the "market price" is relevant to a bilateral monopoly even though the whole idea of a bilateral monopoly is that there is not really a market but only a series of discrete one-off transactions. In the absence of substitutability, "comparable" transactions are irrelevant as they don't imply opportunity cost. This is the main thing I found so fascinating about the Planet Money episode, over and over again the hostage's party balked at the pirates demands as unreasonable in being out of line with the "market price." We only get the pirates' story second hand, but apparently at no point did they explain to the hostage's party that "market price" doesn't really exist in a bilateral monopoly. (Maybe Mogadishu University needs a better econ department).

There are two ways, which are only partially incompatible, to look at why people insist that there is a market price. The simple model is to see us as making Bayesian inferences about the price the other party is willing to accept. If a pirate asks me for $10 million when I know that previous ransoms for similar hostages from similar pirates were about $1 million, I face two possibilities. It may be that I'm facing an usually greedy or unreasonable pirate and $10 million really is the price from which he will not budge. However it seems more likely that I'm dealing with a regular pirate, who like most pirates in the past will ultimately settle for about $1 million but who is just floating a high initial figure in case I'm especially bad at this. In this sense the distribution of prices for similar transactions may not be directly relevant in the sense of providing opportunities for substitution (or the credible threat to avail myself of them) but it is still relevant as information about the zone of possible agreement. This is consistent with the Planet Money story in that Filipinos are cheaper to ransom than Europeans by an order of magnitude. Presumably this reflects Bayesian inference on the part of the pirates from the hostage's nationality as to how much the hostage's party should be able to raise. Alternately we could imagine that pirates always start with the same bargaining position but the Filipinos are less able to pay and so the pirates eventually reach this through ad hoc price discovery on a case-by-case basis. This strikes me as implausible though and I think pirates probably learned pretty quickly what they can reasonably expect for each nationality.

This is a nice explanation and it has the appeal of bending but not breaking the economic model of the actor, but it's not clear how seriously we want to take it and even if it's ultimately true it may not reflect the subjective experience. For instance, one of the main explanations for racial discrimination is that it reflects Bayesian inference about aspects of human capital that aren't readily observable. This model was devastated by Devah Pager's audit study showing that employers prefer to hire white men with a criminal record rather than black men without a criminal record, whereas the "statistical discrimination" model predicts that ascriptive discrimination should be weaker than and diminish greatly in the presence of information about relevant traits at the individual level. In the wake of the Pager study the best case you can make for the statistical discrimination model is that our intuitions are Bayesian in the aggregate but are too low level for us to override with directly relevant information (or, for that matter, with the conscious desire to avoid stereotyping on legal or ethical grounds). It's not unlike the argument that evolution made sex feel good so that we will propagate our genes, but it still feels good when you use birth control. So we might prefer a model that is ultimately consistent with people using prevailing price as information in bilateral monopoly negotiations, but is proximately and subjectively more about meaning.

Although the discipline of economics has many valuable things to teach us about how markets work, especially in the long-run, the subjective experience of someone bargaining does not necessarily reflect thinking through how a rational actor would apply price theory (competitive markets) or game theory (monopolistic markets) to the situation. Rather people take moralized approaches to exchange and seem to apply various relational models to exchange, which includes not only market exchange but also gift exchange, patron-client ties, and primitive communism. Moreover, even when people accept that a situation is one of market exchange it does not come naturally to think of price like modern economists think of it, as "market clearing." Rather much as people intuitively expect physical objects to behave by Buridan's impetus rather than Newton's inertia, people's intuitive notions about price can have less to do with how economics thinks of it than how Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx thought of it, as "just price" or "fair price." We see the Aristotelian/scholastic/Marxist understanding of price institutionalized in price controls and laws against gouging. The intuition many people seem to feel is that the long-run prevailing price has moral weight and deviations from this price (as for instance in a supply or demand shock leading to "gouging") are immoral. Hence historical bread riots often involve not exactly stealing food but rather mobs enacting vigilante price controls. Most recently we saw this is in a class action lawsuit against concession prices in movie theaters. As an American and someone who studies exchange professionally, economics comes naturally enough to me that my immediate reflex to this story is to think this guy needs to understand two-part tariffs and tell him if he doesn't like the theater's prices nobody is forcing him to go there or to eat once he arrives. However the fact that somebody felt sufficiently indignant to sue over being offered the opportunity to buy a bucket of popcorn for $6 shows us that the perspective assumed by academic economics doesn't necessarily come naturally to people. Similarly, when the hostage's party is negotiating a ransom with pirates both the pirates and hostages may be behaving in ways that are ultimately consistent with a game of chicken under conditions of bounded rationality and Bayesian inference about asymmetric information, but in the immediate subjective sense they may simply be feeling that the recent run of ransoms sets an expectation of what it is fair to pay for this particular hostage.

Oh, and one more thing about Caesar. Plutarch tells us that after he was ransomed he got some ships, raided the pirates, and had them all crucified.

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