In May, after ex-con and onetime Seattle gallery owner Kurt Lidtke was indicted a second time for stealing great works of Northwest art, the rumor mill began grinding: who were the patrons that Lidtke and his two alleged co-heisters hit for a likely quarter-million-dollars or more in objects d'art? Federal prosecutors not only wouldn't say, they have now moved in court to prevent anyone from knowing. And Lidtke and his co-defendants think it's a good idea.
That was a month before Lidtke, 44, left prison after serving almost three years for nine counts of first-degree theft. (He had stolen $435,000 from the sale of 19 paintings consigned at his Pioneer Square art gallery, prosecutors said in 2007).
Released a few months before him was Lidtke's Monroe cellmate, Jerry Christy, 50, (a.k.a. Nick Natti), with whom, U.S. prosecutors now say, Lidtke schemed last fall to break into homes and steal the works of wealthy Seattle art collectors. Christy did the jobs and Lidtke, allegedly aided as well by Christy's wife Georgia, then resold the works on the black market, according to court documents.
Though Lidtke and Jerry Christy remain locked up - barring any pleas, a trial is set for October - the victims have asked that their names be kept secret, apparently in fear they could be hit again. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman has joined with attorneys for the three defendants in seeking the protective order.
In a U.S. District Court motion filed last Friday, Friedman notes that discovery in the case includes questions about "the identities of persons who own certain art, as well as the nature and value of that art." He says victims will be questioned in the case, and that "One or more such persons have indicated a concern about preserving the confidentiality of such information."
As a result, the parties believe that it is in the public interest, including the interest of owners of art who are concerned that information concerning the nature and value of their art not be made public, for the Court to enter a Protective Order.
In the proposed order, as yet unsigned by U.S. Judge Robert Lasnik, the protected discovery material could be seen only by attorneys, defendants, their investigators and experts. "If any Protected Material is filed in court, it shall be filed under seal, so that it is not publicly available." It's thus likely the ownership and true money loss of the 13 paintings in that big heist last year won't be revealed.
Attorneys for the defendants didn't return phone calls. An attorney unconnected to the case theorized that prosecutors are seeking the order out of legitimate concern for the victims' valuables and safety, while the defendants - who have pleaded not guilty - may have agreed to the order because they claim not to know who the victims are anyway.
The key to cracking the case, prosecutors say in court papers, was an undercover FBI operative who bought art works allegedly stolen by Hugh Christy at the behest of Lidtke, whose calls to the operative were recorded. In an April call, Lidtke allegedly told the operative of a plan to heist works by Tobey, Graves, Picasso, Renoir, and Jasper Johns from "a mansion on Lake Washington."
Back in 2007, before he was charged with the thefts that led to the collapse of his downtown gallery, Lidtke told the P-I: "I'm bulletproof. Does that sound arrogant? I'm not arrogant. I'm as humble as humble pie."
Lidtke sounded less humble in the calls the FBI says it recorded this year. He claimed to be "steering [Christy] in the direction we should go." As he allegedly explained in one call: "It's also the Department of Corrections sort of mistake. They locked me up with a bunch of criminals. And, and I can say hey go get that painting for me, you know, and they do. Crazy, it's crazy."