Nine times out of 10, John Nadolenco would have ignored the email he got in early August. It couldn’t be real, he thought.
Someone purporting to represent the Brazilian government was asking Nadolenco, a partner at the downtown L.A. office of law firm Mayer Brown, to represent the country in its quest to gain custody of the Bahia Emerald, an 840-pound behemoth valued at nearly $400 million.
“When I first heard of it, I was not at all sure it was a legitimate request,” Nadolenco said. “I thought it was like those Nigerian prince emails we all get. I kind of looked at it and said, ‘Really? An 840-pound emerald?’”
Skeptical, he called colleagues at the firm’s Brazil offices in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to confirm the request was legit. It was, and Nadolenco in September filed documents in Los Angeles Superior Court asserting the country’s claim.
A hearing that could help determine ownership of the massive gem is set for next month, and it could potentially bring closure to a twisted, decadelong saga that could have come straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel.
For now, the Bahia Emerald remains locked in a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department safe in – yes – an undisclosed location, where it’s been since 2008. Roughly a half- dozen people have claimed ownership since the LASD took charge of the rock, and the custody battle has proved to be a cottage industry for L.A. lawyers.
The courts – and prison – have culled the list of possible owners, and lawyer Browne Greene, a senior partner at Greene Broillet & Wheeler representing one of the remaining claimants, said he is just starting to see the end coming into focus.
“We have been working on this case for years. We’ve been through two trials and now suddenly here comes the Brazilian government,” Greene said. “The timing is beyond ridiculous and quite obvious. I think they’re late in the game and now they just want a piece of it.”
Long, winding road
Unearthed in the eastern state of Bahia, Brazil, in 2001, the emerald traveled a circuitous path from Brazil to Northern California to a prospective buyer in New Orleans, where it was submerged for a time in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, before landing in the San Gabriel Valley. There, a man named Larry Biegler, who claimed to be associated with the miners who unearthed the rock, called The Sheriff’s Department in 2008, saying the stone had been stolen, said sheriff’s Det. Mark Gayman.
Three months later, the Bahia Emerald turned up in a Las Vegas pawnshop.
“It was one of those pawnshops where, to get into the building, you have to give a retinal scan,” Gayman said. “The emerald was in a secured vault. It took six of us to lift it on the back of the van.”
The monster gem found its way to the Las Vegas pawnshop through Greene’s clients, Idaho businessmen Kit Morrison and Todd Armstrong, who were looking to sell the emerald. Morrison and Armstrong showed Gayman documents purporting to prove the rock was theirs. But because the emerald had been reported stolen, it was at the heart of an ongoing criminal investigation, and the Sheriff’s Department seized it.
Gayman is among the few who’ve actually seen the Bahia Emerald. When he first laid eyes on it, though, he was less than impressed.
“It’s ugly,” the detective said. “It’s a big, black rock. Only when you take a picture with high-intensity light, you can see the nice green shades.”
Ugly or not, the Bahia Emerald is worth a fortune.
Gayman said that in his investigation he found that convicted con man Bernie Madoff had a deal to buy the gem, a deal that fell through when Madoff was arrested in December 2008 in connection with a $50 billion Ponzi scheme he was running.
From there, things only grew stranger.
The Sheriff’s Department held a press conference touting the recovery of the allegedly stolen gem. Rather than accolades, the event drew a number of people who claimed to be the stone’s rightful owner, further muddying the process.
First to step forward was Eric Kitchen, a Bakersfield lawyer representing San Jose gem trader Ken Conetto – the man claiming responsibility for bringing the Bahia Emerald to Los Angeles. Kitchen filed Conetto’s claim in Los Angeles Superior Court in January 2009.
Conetto said he was partnered with the Brazilian miners who unearthed the emerald in 2001. It was his job to sell the emerald and later split the profits with the miners, and he was working with Biegler – the one who later called the Sheriff’s Department – to help sell it. The pair brought the emerald to Los Angeles, thinking it would sell for top dollar here.
Kitchen settled Conetto’s claim against Morrison and Armstrong outside of court; details are not public. But Kitchen didn’t live to see the gem’s ultimate ownership decided by the courts – he died at 63 last year after suffering a heart attack at home.
Still more misfortune could be looming.
By October, as the Brazilian government began to assert its claim, the courts had winnowed down the list of potential owners.
Nadolenco isn’t asking the court to determine that the Bahia Emerald belongs to the country. Instead, he has argued that the case belongs in another venue and asked the court to dismiss the pending case outright.
“I’m not shy about saying we don’t think the ownership of the emerald should be adjudicated by the Los Angeles Superior Court,” he said. “This is an international or, at the least, a federal issue and should be determined among nations.”
The emerald, Brazil claims, is a priceless national treasure and deserves to be kept in a museum. On top of that, the Brazilian government says the massive gem was mined illegally.
“Under the Brazilian Constitution, anything that is mined belongs to the country of Brazil unless it’s excavated legally,” Nadolenco said. “But none of that could have happened because it wasn’t until 2008 that (mining was legally allowed) in that region.”
Those facts don’t hold water, said Andrew Spielberger, a partner at Balaban & Spielberger who along with Greene is representing Morrison; Armstrong; and another partner, Jerry Ferrara. He argues Brazil is violating his clients’ constitutional right to protect their property.
But even though Brazil’s argument seemingly came out of nowhere, Spielberger said he didn’t even bat an eye.
“Under normal circumstances, I would have been surprised,” he said. “But with the history of this case, nothing surprises me anymore.”
That’s good news, because when the civil case is resolved, Gayman will resume the criminal investigation.
The Sheriff’s Department, he said, suspects there was some level of fraud throughout this dispute and possibly misconduct by a few attorneys.
Spielberger said that in addition to elements of Brazilian law, this case has taught him a great deal, including to surrender expectations for a “normal” outcome.
If nothing else, that’s one thing the opposing attorneys can agree on.
“I’ve never been asked to be Indiana Jones before, which is what this case is,” Nadolenco said. “We’re doing everything we can to return this emerald to its rightful owner.”
The hearing, to be held late next month in Los Angeles Superior Court, is to determine whether to dismiss the claim of ownership by Morrison and his partners. If the claim is dismissed, Brazil’s quest to gain custody of the immense gem would be strengthened. If it’s upheld, the Morrison group’s position is aided.
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