PORTLAND, Maine — A man convicted of taking to California four N.C. Wyeth oil paintings stolen from the home of prominent Portland developer Joseph Soley was sentenced Tuesday to more than seven years in federal prison.
U.S. District Court Judge George Singal sentenced Lawrence Estrella, 65, of Worcester, Massachusetts, to a 92-month sentence, followed by three years of supervised release.
Estrella’s attorney, David Beneman, said his client was remorseful for his part in the art heist and asked for a reduced sentence because of his client’s cooperation, chronic pain and other ailments.
“As he admitted in his interview in pre-trial sentencing, he succumbed to someone else’s ‘get rich quick’ scheme and that was wrong and he knows that was wrong,” Beneman said.
Two Wyeth paintings stolen from Soley have not been recovered and remain the subject of a federal investigation.
Estrella’s co-defendant, Oscar Roberts, 37, of Los Angeles, was sentenced April 29 to 28 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release for his role selling the paintings to pawnbroker Yossi Dina, star of the reality show “Beverly Hills Pawn.”
Estrella pleaded guilty to the charge of interstate transportation of stolen property in April but authorities remain mum on whether they have a suspect in the theft of the paintings.
Singal said Estrella’s history of convictions for both violent and nonviolent crimes and his possession of a gun at the time of his arrest, in violation of previous terms of release, factored into the sentence of seven years and eight months on the charge of interstate transportation of stolen property. The maximum sentence is 10 years.
The theft was first reported to Portland police on May 7, 2013, 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 and the Portland Museum of Art.
Soley, a prominent Portland real estate developer and owner of the paintings, said his collection had been appraised at around $50 million. He testified during the sentencing hearing Tuesday, expressing “shock at the theft of these paintings.”
“I had these most of my life and saved up for many, many years,” Soley said, noting that when he was a young man, he aspired to be a painter. “I was just fantastically disturbed to find someone would break in and take them.”
He said during a recess in Tuesday’s hearing that the apartment from which the paintings were stolen was otherwise undisturbed and it is believed someone broke into the building using a fire escape. Soley was away during the suspected time of the theft.
“It’s pretty obvious” that the thieves knew what they were after, Soley said. He declined to comment on anything related to the investigation into the whereabouts of the paintings that remain missing but said the “FBI has done their job brilliantly” in the case.
A spokesperson for the FBI’s Boston office was not immediately available for comment.
Until details of the Portland connection to the art heist were published Monday, based on court documents related to Estrella’s sentencing, Soley said he and investigators sought to keep details about the paintings secret with the idea that a higher profile for the theft would only push the paintings and their possessors “deeper and deeper underground.”
Four of the paintings that were sold to the Beverly Hills pawn shop have been recovered but have not yet been returned from California, and two, titled “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff” and “Go, Dutton, and that right speedily” remain missing, Soley said.
Two of the recovered paintings had been purchased from the pawn shop by a “well-known comic,” identified in court documents as M.N.
Soley said he hopes anyone with information about the missing paintings will contact the FBI.
The paintings that have been recovered are titled “At a touch from Michael’s knife,” “The Unwrit Dogma,” “The Duel” and “John Brimblecombe.”
Soley said he has no sense of the condition of the four recovered paintings, but that the frames are missing, based on photographs he has seen.
Soley said he acquired the paintings over the course of many decades and partly through a friendship with painter Andrew Wyeth, the youngest son of N.C. Wyeth. He met Andrew Wyeth one summer at a seasonal home in Camden, he said.
“He came to our house by accident because his car broke down,” Soley said.
Inside Soley’s Camden home, Andrew Wyeth spotted a collection of children’s books that his father, N.C. Wyeth, had illustrated, according to Soley.
One of the paintings still missing — “ The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff” — depicts such an illustration for the book “Westward Ho!” or “The Voyages and Adventures of Sir Amyas Leigh, Knight of Burrough in the County of Devon, in the Reign of Her Most Glorious Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”
When the four paintings are returned, Soley said he intends to keep them.
“We have a wonderful family who appreciates (the paintings) as much as I do,” Soley said.