The miner statue after being cut apart and sold for scrap.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Police strike pay dirt in hunt for stolen statue of miner
Sold as scrap, it will be fixed. Two suspected in similar thefts are held.
By Joe Mozingo
and Andrew Blankstein
Times Staff Writers
The bronze miner who stood for 80 years in a Mid-City park suffered the height of indignities.
He was ripped from his pedestal in the park two blocks from Beverly Hills, cut in half above the knees and trucked to a scrap yard on Alameda Street south of downtown. There he was thrown amid the lumpen metal masses -- common copper plumbing, old radiators, transmissions and beer kegs.
Fortunately, police found the miner before he was crushed in the bailer, sent to China and melted in a foundry forge. And they may have ended a peculiar crime spree as well.
Two men were arrested Thursday in connection with the theft and are suspected of stealing other bronze sculptures in the Mid-City area and Beverly Hills between Jan. 29 and Tuesday. Sebastian Espana, 22, and Jessie Hernandez, 23, are likely to face grand theft charges, said Det. Stephanie Lazarus of the Los Angeles Police Department's Art Theft Detail.
The thefts are part of a vexing trend: As the price of metals has soared worldwide, people have taken to stealing streetlight wiring, plumbing valves, catalytic converters and fire hydrants. But the pilfering of sculptures for a quick buck has brought the crime to a new level of audacity and waste.
As art, the 7-foot miner panning for gold, sculpted by Henry Lion in 1924 and 1925, was valued at $125,000. As 512 pounds of bronze, police said, it was sold to Central Metals Inc. on Alameda on Feb. 3 for a mere $900.
Supervisors at the facility were suspicious when the statue arrived and held it for an LAPD detective, who routinely scopes the metal yards for stolen items.
"When something like this comes in, we keep it to the side," said Louis Castro, a manager at the six-acre facility. They also take names. Scrap yards, by law, must record the identifications of anyone dropping off metal.
Police placed a hold on the statue and launched an investigation, setting up surveillance on the two suspects, Lazarus said.
The pair allegedly returned this week with other works of art: modern sculpture resembling two people entwined, stolen from a business on Wilshire Boulevard, and two bronze giraffes and a depiction of children on a swing from a home in Beverly Hills.
The men were arrested about 10:30 p.m. Thursday on suspicion of grand theft. Detectives are trying to locate a bronze bust and another sculpture the two men are suspected of stealing.
Los Angeles officials retrieved the miner Friday morning. They said they intend to have it repaired and restored to its historic perch in the Carthay Circle community. The miner was bolted to a boulder, in the shade of a magnificent pine tree, in a pocket park at San Vicente and Crescent Heights boulevards. The sculpture was once the centerpiece of a grand display of ponds and fountains, with the illustrious Carthay Circle Theater as a backdrop. Officials do not yet know how much it will cost to fix and secure the statue, or whether insurance will pay for it.
Residents of Carthay Circle were delighted to learn the old miner survived, albeit with amputated legs.
"I'm glad he's only cut in half and not melted down," said Judy Moore, president of the Carthay Circle Neighborhood Assn. "At least he didn't go into the witch's brew to become God knows what."
Moore said the neighborhood association is willing to help pay to fix the miner.
Sculptures nationwide have been vanishing as the price of metal continues to rise. Scrap yards routinely shell out more than $3 a pound for copper and more than $2 a pound for bronze and brass, both of which are alloys containing copper. Most of the metal is shipped to Asia to be melted down and refabricated.
Last month, at the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park near Astoria, Ore., a thief heisted a 5 1/2 -foot bronze statue of Sacagawea and her baby. Police arrested a man and tracked down parts of the $20,000 statue -- sold for scrap for $250.
Several weeks ago, in Brea, thieves used a cutting torch to remove a 6-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide bronze sculpture from its concrete stand in front of a business -- the third theft of a statue in the city in nine months.
On Friday at Central Metals, pickup trucks filled with all type of metal detritus lined up waiting to get in. Most of the bronze, brass and copper the company buys comes from plumbing and wiring brought in by demolition crews and construction workers. "This is our brass pile," Castro said, pointing to a heap of tangled pipe.
At the giant bailer -- which compresses the mishmash of metal into desk-size cubes -- workers prepared to load a massive spew of copper wiring.
"That's the big thing people are stealing right now, copper wiring, all the drug addicts," Castro said.
In December, Los Angeles police announced that 370,000 feet of copper wire had been stolen in four months, disabling 700 streetlights. The thieves open boxes at the bases of adjacent poles, snip the wire that runs between them and pull it out one end.
Wire is much harder to identify as stolen than, say, statues, and Castro said the bulk of it is legitimate scrap brought in by electricians.
However, he says the company turns people away all the time, mostly because they don't have identification or refuse to present it.
Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge said Friday that the stolen statues point to the need to strengthen laws that would punish thieves who peddle in metals.
"It's insulting and violates the public trust," LaBonge said. He said the thieves deserved to be prosecuted and "bopped on the top of the head," with the cane carried by the statue of Griffith J. Griffith in front of Griffith Park.