SAN FRANCISCO – A string of art heists at New York galleries and hotels went unsolved until an arrest in the theft of a Picasso drawing in San Francisco led authorities to a treasure trove inside a nondescript New Jersey apartment.
Police believe Mark Lugo is responsible for at least eight thefts since June totaling more than $600,000 worth of artwork, including a $350,000 drawing by French artist Fernand Leger. Pieces from seven of those thefts were recovered during a police raid of Lugo's Hoboken, N.J., home, as he awaited arraignment in the eighth case in San Francisco.
Lugo, 30, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of grand theft, burglary and possession of stolen property for allegedly stealing the 1965 Picasso drawing called "Tete de Femme (Head of a Woman)."
Workers at the Weinstein Gallery reported that a young man brazenly snatched the piece, worth more than $200,000, from the wall on July 5 and casually walked away. Surveillance video from a nearby restaurant showed a man matching Lugo's description strolling by with the framed drawing tucked under his arm.
The taking of another Picasso from the William Bennett Gallery in Manhattan's Soho district went similarly.
The thief came into the gallery during business hours on June 27, lifted the piece off the wall and walked out with a rare print of the etching "Sculptor and Two Heads" worth about $30,000, said William Ledford, managing partner of the gallery.
"We've got a Picasso installation downstairs and he sort of went right to the middle of it and basically just lifted the piece off the wall," Ledford said. "Soho is such a retail-centric area, and everybody's got shopping bags. Our best guesstimate is that he just kind of stuffed it in a shopping bag and off he went."
The next day, it happened at the posh Carlyle hotel on the city's Upper East Side.
The 1917 Leger piece, "Composition with Mechanical Elements," disappeared from a hallway in the hotel lobby around 3 a.m. on June 28, according to Christina Warner, assistant director of the Helly Nahmad Gallery, which had loaned the drawing to the hotel.
"He's got a lot of confidence to do that," Warner said.
Lugo apparently also had good taste.
Police who raided his apartment said the stolen works were prominently displayed around his home and may not have been meant for sale.
"The Picasso was hanging on his wall," said Hoboken Police Sgt. Edwin Pantoja. "The others were displayed all over his apartment. He had a nice little gallery going on."
Lugo worked at upscale Manhattan restaurants, including Per Se, where he was a kitchen server in 2005 and 2006, said its spokesman Gerald San Jose. San Jose declined further comment, other than to say Lugo left his job in good standing.
Police say art wasn't the only luxury for Lugo, who also worked as a wine steward.
He faces charges in New Jersey for allegedly stealing $6,000 worth of wine from Gary's Wine & Marketplace in April.
Lugo was caught on security cameras taking two $2,000 bottles of 2006 Chateau Petrus Pomerol on April 25, said Robert Lesnick, the Wayne, N.J., store's loss-prevention manager. He returned four days later to take another bottle — wearing the same clothes, Lesnick said.
"This guy is a habitual thief," Lesnick said. "He has good taste, apparently. But he's still a thief."
Authorities in New Jersey and New York will have to wait to prosecute Lugo, who remains in a San Francisco jail on $5 million bail. He was arrested after police tracked him to a Napa hotel, where the Picasso was found unframed and prepared for shipping.
At Friday's arraignment, Judge Samuel Feng rejected a defense request to have the bail lowered, noting the "brazen" nature of the crime and saying he poses a threat to public safety. He also ordered him to surrender his passport.
Lugo's attorney, Douglas Horngrad, had argued that bail was set too high because of attention from "overhyped media."
"There are murder cases in this county where bail is not set at $5 million," Horngrad said.
But prosecutors said bail was appropriate since Lugo was accused in crimes that spread across multiple states.
Horngrad later told reporters outside court that he will look into whether his client may be suffering from any "psychological issues."
Horngrad claims that the evidence will show Lugo's alleged thefts "speaks more to a burst of compulsive energy than someone who has the ability and the sophistication to go out and fence these paintings."
Lugo is scheduled back in court on Aug. 23.
Hawley reported from New York. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in New York also contributed to this report.
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