PORTLAND, Maine — A New Hampshire man who admitted transporting five stolen N.C. Wyeth oil paintings to California, where four of them were sold to a high-end pawn shop for $100,000, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Lawrence Estrella, 65, of Manchester, New Hampshire, waived indictment and pleaded guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property in April. Estrella was arrested Nov. 23, 2014, in Los Angeles by FBI agents, according to court documents.
The investigation that led to the arrest of Estrella and co-defendant Oscar Roberts, 37, of Los Angeles began on May 7, 2013, when six paintings by N.C. Wyeth were stolen from a Portland resident.
Neither the name of the paintings’ owner nor an address were in court documents. The titles of the paintings are: “At a touch from Michael’s knife,” “The Unwrit Dogma,” “The Duel,” “John Brimlecombe,” “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff” and “Go, Dutton, and that right speedily.”
The paintings were valued by the victim’s property manager at $1 million to $2 million each, according to court documents.
N.C. Wyeth is the patriarch of a family of painters that has become associated with Maine. His son Andrew Wyeth and grandson Jamie Wyeth have summered and painted in Maine. The Wyeths’ work often is exhibited by the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.
Four of the stolen paintings have been recovered. Which ones were found and which still are missing is not included in court documents.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Joyce, who is prosecuting the case, declined to identify the paintings that have been recovered. He also refused to say whether the investigation into who stole the paintings is still active.
In November 2014, the FBI learned that Estrella was taking the stolen paintings to Los Angeles in an effort to sell them, the prosecution version of events to which Estrella pleaded guilty stated. How the FBI obtained this information was not revealed.
Estrella was stopped for speeding by the Texas Highway Patrol on Nov. 21, the same day an FBI bulletin about Estrella was issued, according to court documents. The next day, the Texas trooper, who searched the car because he smelled marijuana, told agents investigating the theft that Estrella had five individually wrapped pieces of artwork in his car. Estrella was not arrested in Texas. Whether he was issued summonses or citations is not included in court documents.
Agents traced Estrella to a motel in North Hollywood on Nov. 23. They searched his room and interviewed him that night but did not find the paintings.
Estrella told agents he came to visit Dean Coroniti of Los Angeles, whom he had met 20 years earlier in Boston, court documents said. After obtaining Coroniti’s phone records, agents interviewed two people who are identified in court documents by initials.
Interviews with Coroniti’s contacts led agents to Roberts, court documents said. Coroniti and Roberts were friends and appearing in a reality television show titled, “Heaven and Hollywood.”
On Dec. 19, the owner of a Beverly Hills pawn shop contacted the FBI to report that he had made a $100,000 loan to a man in exchange for four N.C. Wyeth paintings earlier that month. The pawn shop owner identified Roberts as the man who brought the paintings in exchange for the loan. Two of the paintings were purchased from the pawn shop by a “well-known comic,” identified in court documents as M.N. Those two paintings along with two at the pawn shop were recovered.
Estrella, who spent 18 years in federal prison for illegal gun possession, faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. No plea agreement with prosecutors has been docketed and no sentencing memoranda have been filed in his case.
He has been held without bail since his arrest.
In a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in California, Roberts was sentenced to 28 months in federal prison for pledging stolen property as security for a loan, followed by three years of supervised release, on April 29. He also was ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution to the pawn shop owner.
Roberts, who is incarcerated at a medium security facility in Victorville, California, is due to be released Jan. 1, 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The time he was held without bail while awaiting sentencing was credited to his sentence.
Although Coroniti is named in court documents, he has not been charged in connection with the sale of the stolen paintings.