[MSN] Canada. Connecting the dots in art-theft 'project'. The case unravels against a colourful cast of characters accused of high-end heists/

Museum Security Network Mailinglist
Fri Dec 15 07:29:50 CET 2006

Connecting the dots in art-theft 'project'
The case unravels against a colourful cast of characters accused of high-end
Dec. 14, 2006. 06:19 AM

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

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

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

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

"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

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.


More information about the MSN-list mailing list