International suspect slows Aspen police in slashed painting case
The disguised man who ran into a downtown Aspen art gallery last spring and slashed a $3 million painting lives or is based outside the United States, which has slowed the investigation into the incident, police said last week.
“(We’re) dealing with an international investigation, and dealing with sending search warrants from little ol’ Aspen to Interpol,” Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Wednesday. “We’re working with international agencies. It’s not a speedy process.”
A representative of the painting’s ownership group confirmed Friday, through an Aspen attorney, that the wall-sized canvas by New York artist Christopher Wool titled “Untitled 2004” has been repaired and returned to the group.
Lawyer Ryan Kalamaya said he did not know how much it cost to repair the two slash marks in the painting and declined to release the name of the representative or the name of the group that owns it.
“My clients value their privacy,” he said. “This has brought unwanted attention to them.”
Linn said police were aware the painting had been repaired and was not destroyed as originally thought.
“It’s not a $3 million case anymore,” he said. “But it’s still a felony-level case … (because the damage) only has to be $2,000 or over.”
While Linn admitted the pressure on the department to solve the case is less when the damage is in the thousands as opposed to the millions, he said police have not put the investigation on the back burner despite more than six months passing since the slashing occurred.
“It continues to be actively worked,” he said. “I am personally interested (in the case).”
After the May 2 incident, a person came forward and told police of seeing the disguised man the day the painting was slashed, Linn has said. That person did some research and identified the man to police.
That man is still the prime suspect in the investigation, Linn said.
“The focus, from early on, has been the same person we continue to focus on,” he said last week. “A good deal of the investigation is occurring out of the country because of the way the ownership of the painting is structured … and some of the information we’re seeking about the suspect.”
Linn declined to release the suspect’s identity or his connection to the painting. Asked if the man has a connection to the painting, he said, “This was not a random painting that was slashed.”
Generally, police must meet the relatively low standard of probable cause for a judge to sign an arrest warrant for a suspect in a criminal case. In this situation, however, Linn said police are attempting to meet a higher standard and don’t believe they need to hurry.
“To extradite someone internationally, you want to have a better case than probable cause,” he said.
Aspen police have executed 10 search warrants related to the case, which have mainly consisted of orders to produce phone and computer records, as well as IP addresses, from communication and tech companies, Linn said. In addition to reviewing the thousands of pages of those records, investigators have “looked at security footage from Aspen and elsewhere,” he said.
Linn said they watched security surveillance video from Denver International Airport but declined to elaborate.
Police continue to believe the motive behind the slashing was financial, “based on who the suspect is,” he said. Police have not interviewed the suspect, Linn said. Asked if they’d tried, Linn declined to comment.
The incident occurred at the height of Aspen’s generally quiet spring offseason when a man, wearing sunglasses, a hat and full beard, entered Opera Gallery near the base of Aspen Mountain down from the gondola. He went straight to the 8½-foot-by-6½-foot painting hanging on the wall opposite the front door, slashed the canvas twice with a knife or a razor and ran out.
The man placed a block of wood in the doorjamb of the gallery’s front door on his way inside, then grabbed the block on his way out. Police suspect he might have been guarding against magnetic sensors that can sometimes lock doors in the event of a robbery. He was inside the gallery for less than 15 seconds. A gallery employee was the only other person inside when the incident occurred.
The man also wore a glove only on his left hand and appeared to be careful not to touch anything with his ungloved right hand, according to video of the incident.
Cameras at various downtown businesses in the area caught the man running down Hunter Street and heading east on Cooper Avenue past City Market and into the residential neighborhood on Aspen’s East End. No other video footage of the man has surfaced since then, Linn said.
The painting, priced at $2.95 million, was one of the few pieces being sold on consignment at the gallery, which also features works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali.
Police have said Wool is not a suspect in the case.
Kalamaya said his clients have not filed an insurance claim on the painting because it was “minimal damage.” He said the police’s focus on a financial-motive theory is strange.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said, adding that police have not revealed to him or the painting’s owners the identity of the suspect.
Kalamaya declined to say whether the painting’s ownership group was based outside the United States, though Linn said it is.
“If you own a piece of art, you don’t want it subject to danger or newspaper articles such as this,” Kalamaya said, adding that the publicity has taken value from the painting. He did, however, say that an incident like this in the history of a painting might, conversely, add value to it.
Kalamaya said he didn’t know if the painting has been put back up for sale.
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Pitkin County administrators are proposing a more than $142 million budget for 2020, which is about $6 million less than this year because of fewer construction projects and capital improvements.