A crowning moment for headdress FBI to return artifact to Peru after probe of art-theft ring

November 28, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

For years, an ancient ornamental headdress smuggled out of Peru has been stored in an evidence vault at the FBI's office in Woodlawn -- alongside guns seized from local drug dealers and jewelry recovered from heists.

After a decade-long odyssey that began with the crown's theft by South American grave robbers, federal authorities plan to return it to Peruvian government officials next week.

"It's their property," said Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr., a spokesman for Baltimore's FBI office, adding that the stamped metal headdress will be returned at a ceremony at the Peruvian Embassy in Washington on Monday.

The FBI got its first break in the case in 1992 when Virginia State Police swarmed a Towson apartment complex and arrested a paroled serial felon on charges that he was running an interstate gambling ring.

The man, who had ties to the Philadelphia Mafia, placed a call to federal agents in his hometown of Baltimore, offering information in exchange for leniency on the gambling charges.

He told authorities about an art-theft ring operating out of Miami, prompting the agents in Baltimore to call their counterparts in the Philadelphia office, experts in the arcane world of stolen art.

Accompanied by the informant, an undercover agent posing as an eager buyer of stolen antiques flew south in 1994 to buy the headdress, which dates to 900 B.C. and is worth an estimated $100,000.

The FBI disclosed yesterday that the headdress became the linchpin in a far-reaching investigation that broke open an

international smuggling ring run with the help of a Panamanian diplomat.

With the ornate crown in hand, the FBI used it as leverage to broker a deal for a more valuable stolen Peruvian artifact. With their credibility established, undercover agents met with high-level smugglers and agreed to buy a priceless gold piece of body armor being hawked for $1.6 million, then arrested the sellers.

In June, the two Miami smugglers, Dennis Garcia and Orlando Mendez, were sentenced to nine months in prison, clearing the way for the armor to be returned to Peruvian officials.

Federal authorities are seeking Francisco Humberto Iglesias, the former consul general of Panama, who is charged with using his diplomatic status to sneak the stolen armor past U.S. customs agents.

Part of a costume worn by elite members of the extinct Moche society, located on the coastal plain of northern Peru, the armor was used to protect the backsides of warrior-priests during hand-to-hand combat and was considered the biggest prize of the investigation.

rTC The headdress, which had been stolen with the armor in 1987 from a tomb in Sipan, languished in the FBI's Woodlawn vault.

The FBI said it didn't make arrests in the headdress smuggling case because it wanted to secure a deal to buy back the valuable armor, which took nearly four years.

"We were after the more important piece," said Special Agent Linda Vizi of the Philadelphia FBI office.

Vizi said the smugglers tried unsuccessfully for three years to get the armor out of Peru. The smugglers met undercover agents in September 1997 at a New Jersey rest stop and told them the item was in Lima and could be brought to the United States with the help of Iglesias, the Panamanian diplomat, who worked in New York.

The deal was completed a month later in the parking lot of a Philadelphia hotel, and Garcia and Mendez were arrested.

Gulotta of the Baltimore FBI office said no charges were filed in connection with the smuggled headdress, and a decision was made recently to return the artifact.

Monday's ceremony will include FBI agents from Baltimore and Philadelphia who worked on the case; the head of the Baltimore field office, David R. Knowlton; and Peruvian government representatives.

"The headdress belongs to the people of Peru," Vizi said. "Smuggling it out was the wrong thing to do."

Pub Date: 11/28/98

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