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Voices -- Michael Connelly

December 27, 2008 |  6:00 am

Photograph by Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Michael Connelly's press pass from his days at The Times.

Most of Warner's Missing Animation Cels Are Recovered

Cartoons: The studio uses private investigators and lawsuits to retrieve the drawings. The artist accused of stealing them says they were in the trash.

December 27, 1991


Using private investigators and federal lawsuits, Warner Bros. has recovered more than 3,000 cartoon cels and background drawings, worth as much as $500,000, that were taken from its Sherman Oaks cartoon studio, the company said Thursday.

Police were not called to investigate the alleged theft of the hand-painted works that were used in the filming of the "Tiny Toon Adventures" TV cartoons, and a criminal investigation may never take place.

Instead, Warner Bros. launched an extensive private investigation after the cels--the raw material for making cartoons--were discovered being sold without the company's authorization at an October swap meet.

Warner Bros. has settled a civil suit with three people found in possession of some of the material after they agreed to cooperate with the studio's investigators. A similar case against two others is pending.

"Warner Bros.' No. 1 priority was to recover the stolen artwork and they did recover it," said David L. Burg, an attorney for the studio.

He said Warner Bros. has not decided whether to seek a criminal complaint against the two remaining defendants.

One of those defendants, a former part-time Warner Bros. artist, acknowledged Thursday that he took the cartoon cels but said he thought that he was saving them from being thrown away.

"It literally broke my heart because I didn't want to see them destroyed," said Travis Cowsill, 20, of North Hollywood. "I wasn't trying to steal anything."

According to records filed in U. S. District Court in Los Angeles, the studio's inquiry was similar to a clandestine police investigation. But in this case it was private investigators who identified suspects, went undercover, secretly filmed meetings and made a "buy" of allegedly stolen merchandise--in this case, cels from such Tiny Toon episodes as "Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow."

The studio then filed lawsuits against the five suspects, in which it alleged that they were infringing on copyright laws by selling the cartoon materials and sought court orders allowing Warner Bros. to seize the property.

Burg said the studio acted so quickly and successfully that only three cels are still believed to be missing--apparently sold to collectors who have not been traced.

The studio's private inquiry began Oct. 28 after a Warner Bros. employee saw Tiny Toon cels being sold at a booth at a swap meet in Orange County, Burg said. Knowing that the only authorized sales outlet for the cels of characters and background drawings from the show was through Warner Bros., the employee notified his supervisors.

Warner Bros. spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti said the studio has released only 250 of the show's cels for sale, framed, through a studio shop. One of the popular cartoon characters--who include Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck--placed against a drawn background sells for $500, she said, meaning that the recovered materials conceivably could be worth $500,000 or more.

With the information provided by the employee, private detectives hired by Warner Bros. identified three people who were selling the material at swap meets and home shows in Orange County, San Diego County and Las Vegas, Burg said.

Court records in the suits against those three, including their names, have been sealed by Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr.

According to other court records, however, the three agreed to cooperate with Warner Bros. and named Cowsill and his girlfriend, Nicolette Harley, 24, of North Hollywood as the suppliers of the cels.

Private investigator Kevin Berman met separately with the pair and bought Tiny Toon cels from Cowsill, court records said, with both meetings secretly videotaped.

During a Dec. 12 meeting with Cowsill at a Brentwood restaurant, Berman posed as a collector and paid $1,000 for 10 cels that were passed across the table to him in a briefcase, according to the records. In an affidavit filed with the court, Berman said that he met with Harley on Dec. 17 at the apartment she shares with Cowsill and that she told him that the cels were stolen.

Harley could not be reached for comment. But Cowsill said they did not consider the material stolen because he found it in trash cans or boxes that were marked as trash. He took the material while working as a free-lance animator at the Sherman Oaks studio in October, he said.

"I found some in boxes marked 'Outtakes for Disposal,' " he said. "Curiosity had compelled me to open the boxes and there were the cels."

He called taking the artwork "a labor of love," although he admitted that he stood to profit after he gave several dozen to the three other defendants for sale on consignment.

Burg, the Warner Bros. attorney, said the recovered materials were not outtakes and were not headed for the trash.

"Warner Bros. denies that any of this artwork was marked for or intended for disposal," he said. "This is very valuable artwork and Warner Bros. does not dispose of any of it. It is kept indefinitely."

Both sides agree that Cowsill and Harley have been cooperating with Warner Bros. since the court-authorized raid on their apartment last week to seize the cels. Noting that he has even retrieved cels he had given to friends and family members as gifts, Cowsill said he hopes the studio will not seek a criminal complaint against him.

"I am hoping they are gracious," he said. "I realize I made a big mistake."