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October 4th, 2003, 12:05 PM
October 4, 2003

Art Too Tempting at Rikers


The original Dalí, given to Rikers inmates in 1965.

It was near midnight last Feb. 28 when Mitchell Hochhauser, an assistant deputy warden on Rikers Island, arrived for his graveyard shift at the Eric M. Taylor Center carrying his lunch and, strangely, a stapler.

Around the same time, Benny Nuzzo, another assistant deputy warden, drove across the bridge from Queens to the island in a white sport-utility vehicle. In the back, according to investigators from the Bronx district attorney's office, was a crudely sketched imitation of a drawing by Salvador Dalí.

The original drawing, signed and dedicated in an inscription by the artist to Rikers inmates in 1965, was on display near the jailhouse entrance. Soon enough, two Rikers officers, Greg Sokol and Timothy Pina, nervous but ready, also showed up for their midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, walked past the Dalí, encased in Plexiglas, and took up their stations inside the jail complex.

The four men, working in different wings of the complex, did not see much of one another as morning broke. They did not have to. The heist was on, investigators say. The switch was flawless. The timing was perfect.

Ocean's 11, though, they were not.

For one thing, the fake Dalí seemed to have been drawn by a child, one with no artistic talent, according to several people who saw it later that same morning. Also, the counterfeit was smaller than the original, a detail immediately noticed by many Rikers employees who had walked past the drawing every day for years. And there were also those reddish food stains the real Dalí had acquired — ketchup, probably — from its years hanging in the jail's cafeteria near the trash bins where inmates dumped their leftovers. The splotches on the fake were more brown.

But the most obvious difference was the gold-leaf mahogany frame that held the original; it was gone. Instead, the thieves, using Mr. Hochhauser's stapler, simply pinned the fake Dalí to the back of the display case.

"It was incredibly stupid," said Martin B. Adelman, a lawyer for Mr. Hochhauser, 40, of Queens, who pleaded guilty on Monday to grand larceny. He is scheduled to be sentenced by Justice Steven Lloyd Barrett of State Supreme Court in the Bronx on Nov. 17.

All four men were arrested in June. Mr. Pina, 44, of Staten Island, and Mr. Nuzzo, 50, of Brooklyn, the man prosecutors called "the brains behind the plan," maintained their innocence and are scheduled to appear before Justice Barrett on Oct. 31. Mr. Sokol, 38, also a Staten Island resident, who also pleaded not guilty, is to appear before Justice Barrett on Oct. 17.

Meanwhile, the Dalí is still missing; in court, Mr. Hochhauser told prosecutors that Mr. Nuzzo had said he destroyed the drawing in a fit of panic, shortly after stealing it. Mr. Nuzzo's lawyer said his client had nothing to do with the scheme.

But interviews with Rikers officials, court documents, testimony and transcripts of several secretly recorded conversations among the suspects paint a portrait of four greedy but bumbling thieves easily paralyzed by anxiety over being caught. On the profanity-laced audiotapes, for instance, all four are heard bickering mostly over who messed up, who would get caught first, and the wisdom of removing the drawing — a gouache, ink and pencil rendering of the crucifixion — from its drab Plexiglas case.

"I can't function," Mr. Sokol complained to Mr. Pina three days later, according to a transcript of a conversation that Mr. Pina, who was cooperating with investigators at the time, secretly recorded.

In his court testimony on Monday, Mr. Hochhauser told Don Levin, the prosecutor, how the plot developed from a joke between him and Mr. Nuzzo in October 2002 into a serious plan, hatched a few months later in the "bodega," a store inside the Eric M. Taylor Center, to swipe the Dalí from its locked case.

Mr. Nuzzo estimated the Dalí to be worth $500,000, Mr. Hochhauser said, $400,000 of which they would share. Mr. Sokol and Mr. Pina would split the rest, according to the plan. The drawing is worth $250,000, according to the Bronx district attorney's office.

Mr. Hochhauser said he knew Mr. Nuzzo was serious about stealing it a few months later, when he saw Mr. Nuzzo and Mr. Pina at the jail's entrance, photographing and taking measurements of the Dalí.

The photo, a Polaroid, came out blank, Mr. Hochhauser said in his testimony. But three weeks later, he said, Mr. Nuzzo took him to a safe in the warden's office that held a key to the lock on the display case. They opened the case and photographed the Dalí again, successfully.

"He was going to take them home and work on the dummy," Mr. Hochhauser said.

In late February, a week before the heist, though, Mr. Nuzzo brought the fake rendering — who actually made it is unclear — to work, placing it in Mr. Hochhauser's Hyundai, Mr. Hochhauser said.

"I was concerned that it wasn't going to be good enough to pass for the original," he explained in court, "so I told him I needed to see it." Mr. Hochhauser said he later determined "it was good enough."

There was one other big problem. The Dalí's position at the entrance to the jail was in plain view of two guard stations that are staffed at all times. Mr. Nuzzo, whom Mr. Hochhauser said was the master planner, and he would need two accomplices and a ruse to get everyone else out of the area for at least a few minutes.

In addition to Mr. Pina, they recruited Mr. Sokol, a 14-year correction officer, as a lookout, Mr. Hochhauser said. The plan was set, he said. Sometime around 1 a.m., Mr. Hochhauser would start a false fire alarm, during which all jail staff members are trained to meet at a staging area nearly a mile from the jail's entrance to put on fire retardant equipment and head toward the emergency.

Only Mr. Nuzzo, he said, would hang back near the entrance, while Mr. Sokol and Mr. Pina unlocked the case, removed the Dalí and stapled the fake in place. Mr. Nuzzo, he added, would hustle the original to his car and place it in a storage facility he would rent over the Internet under a fake name. "It was a great idea for us to cover this up," Mr. Hochhauser said he and Mr. Nuzzo concluded.

After an aborted attempt in the wee hours of Feb. 28 — "too much staff traffic," Mr. Hochhauser told the prosecutor — they tried again a day later, and pulled off what they thought was a flawless caper, give or take a few glitches. One glitch, according to court documents and interviews with Rikers staff members, was one Officer Pearson.

Officer Pearson manned the arsenal, one of the two posts at the jail's entrance. According to prosecutors and jail officials, when the fire alarms sounded, Officer Pearson refused to budge. But Mr. Nuzzo, they said, ordered him to take his lunch break, and Mr. Sokol and Mr. Pina then removed the painting and placed it in Mr. Nuzzo's S.U.V.

Later, "He handed me the car keys," Mr. Hochhauser said on Monday, "which told me that the mission was accomplished."

Five days after the theft, as pressure from the investigation into the theft grew intense, the audio transcripts show that Mr. Nuzzo, Mr. Hochhauser and Mr. Sokol met in an abandoned locker room in the jail's basement, where they nervously discussed their mistakes.

The two others did not realize that by then Mr. Sokol, also cooperating with prosecutors, was wearing a recording device.

"We're going to our graves with this," Mr. Hochhauser told Mr. Sokol, according to a transcript. "Greg, listen to what I'm telling you. If you roll over — me and Benny go to jail." Later, Mr. Nuzzo tells a distraught-acting Mr. Sokol, "I have total faith in you — I have total faith in us."

Mr. Nuzzo's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said in an interview yesterday that his client was never involved in the theft. In other parts of the undercover tape, Mr. Tacopina pointed out, Mr. Nuzzo is heard saying of the artwork, "I never had it."

But after Mr. Nuzzo leaves Mr. Sokol and Mr. Hochhauser in the locker room, their conversation takes on conspiratorial tones.

"You know what?" Mr. Hochhauser said to Mr. Sokol, according to the transcript. "It sounds like Nuzzo is trying to set me up."

"He's getting off scot-free," Mr. Hochhauser says, adding, "It looks like we're in big trouble."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company