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Press Release

San Francisco Art Fraudster Convicted Of Mail Fraud, Wire Fraud, Making False Declarations, Escape, And Contempt After Three Week Jury Trial

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of California

SAN FRANCISCO- A federal jury convicted Luke D. Brugnara today of mail fraud, wire fraud, false declarations to a court, escape, and contempt of court, announced United States Attorney Melinda Haag, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge David Johnson and U.S. Marshal Don O’Keefe.

Brugnara, 51, of San Francisco, was originally charged with fraud in a criminal complaint filed May 27, 2014.  The criminal complaint described Brugnara’s refusal to pay for several pieces of art after he convinced a New York art dealer to ship the art to his California home.  Brugnara was arrested on May 28, 2014, but then escaped from custody of his lawyer on February 5, 2015.  He was apprehended six days later and stood trial for the fraud charges and the additional escape charge beginning April 27, 2015.

The jury found that Brugnara committed wire and mail fraud in connection with his agreement to purchase several works of art for a combined total of approximately $11,000,000 from a New York art dealer, Rose Long.  The jury also found that defendant made false declarations to the court when he testified at a preliminary hearing in June 2014 that he had received a phone call from someone at Sotheby’s telling him that the artwork in question was fake.  Further, the jury found that the defendant escaped from the San Francisco federal building on February 5, 2015, in contempt of the orders of the district court.  Defendant was also acquitted of two counts of wire fraud and one count of making false declarations to a court.  The guilty verdict followed a three week jury trial before the Honorable William Alsup, U.S. District Court Judge.

Evidence at trial showed that, in late March and early April 2014, Brugnara told Ms. Long that he would pay approximately $11 million for works of art by Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, George Luks, and Edgar Degas that were owned by Ms. Long and others.  Based on his representations that he would pay for the artwork and put it in a museum, Ms. Long and the owners shipped the artwork to Brugnara at his house in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco.

The evidence at trial demonstrated that the artwork was shipped to Brugnara’s residence and, on April 7, 2014, delivered in five wooden crates.  When the artwork arrived, Brugnara refused to pay for it, return it, or inspect it, and told Ms. Long that she had given the artwork to him as a gift.  Eventually, Ms. Long reported the crime to the FBI, which executed a search warrant at Brugnara’s residence in late May 2014.  During the search, the FBI recovered only four of the five crates of artwork.  The fifth crate, containing a “Little Dancer” sculpture by Edgar Degas, was never recovered.

After Brugnara was charged with fraud in connection with the art transaction, he testified before Judge Alsup in a preliminary hearing regarding his probation status.  During that testimony, Brugnara explained that he had not paid for the artwork because he had received a phone call from someone at the art auction house Sotheby’s in the days before the delivery of the artwork.  The evidence at trial demonstrated that such a phone call never happened.

On December 23, 2014, while Brunaga was in custody, Judge Alsup issued an order furloughing Brugnara to the custody of his lawyer in the federal building for the purpose of preparing for trial.  The furlough was ordered “from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. on any business day by reservation the previous business day.”  On February 5, 2015, Brugnara violated the terms of this court order when he escaped from his lawyer’s custody at 450 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, California.  Brugnara was filmed sprinting away from the Federal Building.  The evidence at trial established that he called a friend from a pay telephone and had her meet him with a car so that they could drive away from the area.  After he absconded, Brugnara was a fugitive for six days. He was apprehended in Los Gatos, California, on February 11, 2015, as a result of a cooperative effort by the United States Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He thereafter remained in custody throughout the trial.

Brugnara waived his right to counsel and conducted the trial as a pro se defendant with the assistance of two attorneys appointed as advisory counsel.  Judge Alsup found Brugnara in summary contempt of numerous ordersand sentenced him to well over a year of imprisonment for his outbursts and obstructive conduct during trial, to be served consecutive to any sentence imposed for the underlying offenses.

Brugnara is being held in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending sentencing. Brugnara’s sentencing hearing on the convictions is scheduled for September 8, 2015, before Judge Alsup, in San Francisco.  The maximum statutory penalty for mail fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1341, and wire fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343, is 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, forfeiture, and restitution.  The maximum statutory penalty for false declarations to a court, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1623, and escape, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 751(a), is 5 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, forfeiture, and restitution.  The penalty for contempt of court, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 401(3), is at the discretion of the court.  Any sentence following conviction, however, would be imposed by the Court after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.     

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robin Harris and Benjamin Kingsley are prosecuting the case with the assistance of Mary Mallory, Denise Oki, Jessica Meegan, and Trina Khadoo.  The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Marshals Service.

Updated May 20, 2015