Aspen judge issues arrest warrant for suspect in 2017 art slashing | AspenTimes.com

Aspen judge issues arrest warrant for suspect in 2017 art slashing

Police, DA's office allege Nicholas Morley flew from England to damage $3 million painting owned by his family

A $3 million painting slashed by a knife-wielding man nearly a year ago at an Aspen art gallery was vandalized by the son of the painting's owner, according to law enforcement sources and court documents.

Nicholas Morley, 40, of England was charged Wednesday with felony criminal mischief in connection with the bizarre incident, and a Pitkin County District Court judge signed a warrant for Morley's arrest the same day.

Morley is the same man convicted 10 years ago of crashing into and killing an elderly couple in Macedonia during the running of an European car race for the wealthy called the Gumball 3000 Rally. He was referred to in news articles about the incident as a millionaire playboy property developer.

"He is the person charged with directly damaging this painting," Aspen prosecutor Don Nottingham said Wednesday night.

Aspen police discovered records and video surveillance showing that Morley flew from London to Denver under an assumed name May 1, the day before the slashing, rented a car at the Denver airport then flew back to London two days after the slashing, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed Wednesday in Pitkin County District Court.

Morley did not return a phone message or an email Thursday seeking comment. Aspen attorney Ryan Kalamaya confirmed Thursday that he represents Morley, but declined to comment further. Morley's whereabouts are unknown, Nottingham said.

The painting slashing occurred May 2 at the height of Aspen's quiet, spring offseason when a man wearing sunglasses, black jeans, a black jacket, a hat and a full beard entered the Opera Gallery at the base of Aspen Mountain at 4:16 p.m.

The slightly built man wore a glove on his left hand, which he used to open the door and drop a 15 inch-by-4 inch piece of wood inside the gallery's front door frame as he entered, according to the affidavit and video of the incident released by the Aspen Police Department.

A woman working in the gallery told police she saw the man after he entered, greeted him and asked how she could help him, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.

"(The gallery employee) stated the man looked at her with a 'surprised' look," the affidavit says.

However, the man never stopped and instead walked directly up to an 8½ foot-by-6½ foot painting called "Untitled 2004" by New York artist Christopher Wool, which was hanging on the wall opposite the entrance, according to the video and the employee's account of the incident. The suspect then used his ungloved hand to take a knife or other cutting object out of his jacket pocket, slash the Wool painting twice, then turned around and ran out of the gallery, grabbing the piece of wood with his gloved hand on the way out, according to the employee's account and the video.

Video surveillance footage from other cameras in the downtown core caught the man running east past City Market and disappearing into the neighborhoods in Aspen's east end, police have said.

STRANGE PHONE CALLS

The painting was the sole item being sold on consignment at the gallery at that time, Opera Gallery owner Gregory Lahmi has said. It was listed for sale at $2.95 million amid other works in the gallery by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall.

The incident prompted Lahmi to recall three phone calls he had received in the weeks prior to the slashing that were variously described as "strange," "suspicious" and "bizarre," according to the affidavit.

The first occurred at the beginning of April 2017 when a man with a blocked phone number called the gallery's main line and asked if they had any works by Andy Warhol or Christopher Wool, the affidavit states. The second took place April 16, 2017, when a man asked questions about the gallery itself, including whether Lahmi was alone, if the Wool painting was being exhibited, how a person would enter the gallery and if the front door was closed, according to the document.

The man declined to identify himself during the second call, though the questions he posed at that time prompted Lahmi to believe he was talking to the Wool painting's owner, the affidavit states.

The third call happened April 26, 2017, when a man called, asked if the Wool painting was still available and said he would be in next week to see it, though he again declined to give his name, the affidavit states. Lahmi told police he believed the same man with a "slight British accent" called all three times. Lahmi also said the Wool painting was not listed online, only known to be available to a handful of collectors and that "Wool's artwork was a specific taste in the art industry," according to the affidavit.

THE SLASHING AFTERMATH

Aspen Police soon discovered after the incident the painting was owned by Harold Morley, 74, of Barbados, through a trust called Fallowfield Ltd.

Harold Morley told an Aspen police detective days after the incident that few people in the world knew about his connection to the Wool painting. He also said that he and his son, Nicholas, owned Fallowfield, a holding company that bought and sold art out of Barbados, the affidavit states.

In a subsequent conversation on May 9, 2017, Harold Morley changed his story and told the detective that Nicholas Morley was not a co-owner of the trust. Instead, he said "that Nicholas just took care of a few contracts for Harold when asked," according to the affidavit.

In the case of the Wool painting, Nicholas Morley "just signed for the consignment," Harold Morley said, according to the document. Harold Morley also said that neither he nor his son recognized the suspect in the painting slashing.

On May 5, 2017, Harold Morley sent a letter to the Opera Gallery stating that the painting "can be easily restored" and that he did not plan on filing an insurance claim. Further, he asked the gallery to put out a statement "refuting" an Aspen Times story about the slashing "and stating that it was only a minor incident," according to the affidavit, which quoted the letter.

"In the same vein the police investigation should be calmed down and they be quickly informed that Fallowfield are very relaxed about the whole affair since Wool is an appreciating asset and the repairs will be all but invisible," Harold Morley's letter states, according to the affidavit.

The letter also requested that Opera Gallery staff "play the whole affair down as over enthusiastic reporting," the affidavit states.

"It is a shame that as owners we were not consulted before the news story went public," the letter states.

A day later, Harold Morley wrote a text message to the gallery's manager, asking to "defuse any idea that the painting is destroyed or even devalued," according to the affidavit. He said he wanted to block or remove online video of the slashing, restore the painting, sell it and "if asked by anyone we laugh it off as actually making the work intrinsically more valuable."

"We could even put it up for sale now for $3.5m on the basis it is 'famous,'" Harold Morley wrote, according to the affidavit. "Since we are not making an insurance claim there is no reason why the recollection of the incident should not be eliminated as quickly as possible from staff and public.

"Then it just becomes 'folklore.'"

An email sent Thursday to Harold Morley from The Aspen Times was not returned.

On May 10, Nicholas Morley wrote an email to the gallery manager, saying that Fallowfield did not plan on holding Opera Gallery liable for the slashing incident. He also made a couple of requests.

"It would appear possible based on the video footage (and is our judgment) that this was an accident rather than malicious damage," he wrote, according to the affidavit. "(We) kindly suggest that Opera either A: issue a press release that the incident was in fact an accident, or B: issue no further press comments."

Finally, Morley suggested "that the Police Investigator be advised accordingly with our mutual wishes and the incident be reclassified."

 FROM LONDON TO COLORADO

On May 18, 2017, Aspen police spoke with a corporate security agent for Delta Airlines, who reported that Nicholas Morley had flown from London's Heathrow Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul on May 1, according to the affidavit. He booked the ticket and flew under the name "Nikola Marley," though an airport gate agent caught the discrepancy when Morley checked in and presented a passport with his real name on it.

Morley was fingerprinted upon entry into the United States on May 1, and his passport number was recorded, according to a Homeland Security agent quoted in the affidavit.

Morley then continued on another Delta flight from Minneapolis to Denver. Detectives with the Minneapolis airport police and the Denver airport police both found video footage of Morley arriving at the locations, the affidavit states.

Further, the Denver airport police detective discovered that Morley rented a blue 2017 Hyundai Velostar at the Denver airport under the name Nikola Marley. He returned the car on May 4 after driving 246 miles, according to an Alamo Rent-A-Car representative quoted in the affidavit.

"It should be noted that a one-way trip from Denver to Aspen is approximately 223 miles," the affidavit states.

Nottingham, the prosecutor, declined to comment about the discrepancy. However, others close to the investigation said the fact that Morley's rental car did not travel far enough to go to Aspen and back to Denver coupled with a lack of any official hint of his presence in Aspen was one of the reasons the investigation took nearly a year.

Morley flew from Denver to Minneapolis on May 4, then continued on to London, according to the affidavit.

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Aspen Detective Ritchie Zah confirmed that Morley used a business credit card registered to himself to pay for the rental car, that he stayed one night at the Ramada Inn on Colfax Avenue in Denver and that he sent an email from the Ramada hotel, the affidavit states. He used his wife's credit card to pay for the Ramada room, though she later told Aspen police that neither she nor her husband had been to the United States recently and that she didn't use the card on May 1 or authorize her husband to use it.

Lastly, the person who saw the man slash the painting identified Morley as the person who did it after seeing his picture online. The person reported getting "the chills" when viewing his photo, and pointed out his "crooked nose, his jawline and the lighter colored mustache" as proof that it was him, the affidavit states.

FATAL CRASH IN MACEDONIA

Zah spoke with Morley on May 9, 2017, and he denied that he had been in the United States that month, according to the affidavit. He said he did not remember the last time he had visited the United States though he thought it was earlier that year, possibly in January or February.

Morley is charged with criminal mischief between $1,000 and $5,000, which is the lowest level felony in Colorado criminal law. That charge is because it cost between $1,900 and $2,500 to repair the painting, according to the affidavit.

Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin signed Morley's arrest warrant Wednesday and ordered that he be held in lieu of a $50,000 cash-only bond when arrested.

In 2007, Morley was at the wheel of a Porsche 911 that was participating in the Gumball 3000 Rally, a car race with a more than $50,000 entrance fee and ran from London to Istanbul and back, according to media reports. Morley, variously identified as a property developer, a millionaire and a playboy, crashed into a car carrying an elderly couple in Macedonia during the race, killing both.

Evidence accepted by a judge in his case indicated Morley was driving 100 mph at the time, though his family later released a statement disputing that and saying he was going 47 mph. Morley spent 40 days in a Macedonian prison before being convicted of the deaths.

He received a two-year suspended sentence for the conviction and was allowed to return to London, according to media reports. Morley later told a Manchester newspaper he couldn't have avoided the crash and said he was not a millionaire or a playboy.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

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