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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Have We Nabbed Mr. Big in L.A.'s Oscar Caper?

October 20, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

I still think the Caper of the Century so far--depending which century you think this is--is that big Oscar job.

Months after the crime, we've yet to get to the bottom of that L.A. dumpster where 52 Academy Awards got dumped.

You can have your smuggling rings, your counterfeiters, your Mona Lisa forgers and your four-eyed hackers who use computers to scam Wall Street.

You can have your intricately plotted bank robberies, with getaway cars and synchronized wristwatches.

Me, I'm more impressed with whatever evil, twisted genius is behind the biggest gold heist of 2000 to date.

Because there is something truly monumental about a theft where the objective is to knock off a truckload of trophies.

We've all heard of cheap crooks who hijack a shipment of TV sets, or cigarettes, or fur coats.

But what kind of sinister mastermind works out a job to make off with priceless goods like the Irving G. Thalberg Award?

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Think about it. Police must be dealing with a particularly devious criminal here. A thief of abnormally high intelligence and derring-do.

After all, only a villain of uncommon brilliance would steal a load of Academy Awards and expect to get away with it.

You take your ordinary riff-raff. Look at the stuff they tend to steal: Money, appliances, food.

No imagination.

Ah, but now think about a nefarious criminal who refuses to settle for mere everyday merchandise. Somebody who thinks big. Somebody who decides to pull a job that'll result, not only in untold riches, but could even force the winner of Best Costume Design to go home empty-handed.

If you'll recall, it was shortly before Hollywood's big night that the news broke: A shipment of Oscars en route from Chicago to Southern California had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

A panic swept through Tinseltown. You can snatch our cars, our furniture, our oranges right off our trees, but brother, when you steal our Oscars, you've gone too far.

An intense dragnet ensued, the likes of which Los Angeles hadn't seen since the days of Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. No stone would remain unturned. LAPD detectives would follow every available lead, interrogate every lowlife in town, even if the only things they ever stole were a lousy Grammy or a Golden Globe.

Well, the case broke just before Oscar night, thank our lucky stars.

In a plot twist worthy of "Chinatown," the purloined statues were found in Koreatown, tossed into a trash bin. Or at least 52 of the missing 55 were found, by a pleasant fellow named Willie Fulgear.

Obviously, whichever diabolical arch-criminal hatched the scheme had to cover his tracks in a hurry, with the cops hot on his trail. There wasn't even time to get the 55 stolen Oscars to a fence, who could sell the Best Cinematography award alone for hundreds of thousands of dollars, francs or marks on the black market.

A $50,000 reward for the return of the Oscars--plus a nation's gratitude--went to the 61-year-old Fulgear, who just happened to pick exactly the right time to be looking in Koreatown dumpsters.

He even got a ticket to the show, where Billy Crystal paid tribute to him from stage. Willie and Billy, live from Hollywood.

The case was almost closed. A 38-year-old truck driver in July pleaded no contest to grand theft, drawing a six-month jail stretch. A warehouse dock worker, also 38, also was charged in August, and is awaiting trial.

Was one of these Mr. Big?

Police couldn't be sure. A case such as this comes along only once or twice in a lifetime. It's very rare for a major crime to be associated with a major award, with the possible exception of the Heisman Trophy.

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Of course the plot thickened this summer, when Willie Fulgear himself got robbed. He said $40,000 from the reward stash was taken from his home while he was away on vacation.

And now comes this week's twist. Fulgear's brother got arrested, charged with receiving stolen property and being an accessory after the fact to grand theft Oscar.

Meanwhile, where are those three missing Oscars? Who's the brains behind all this? Is this only the tip of the Thalberg?

I don't think we've heard the last of this.

Wouldn't surprise me a bit if police end up questioning the logical prime suspect in this case . . . Billy Crystal.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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