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Fight over giant emerald strikes a vein of contention

Purported list of owners keeps growing in lawsuit over 840-pound Brazilian gem found in 2001.

March 04, 2009|Victoria Kim

In the ownership dispute brewing in the Los Angeles courts over an 840-pound emerald, the list of purported owners keeps on growing.

There's the self-trained geologist who says it belonged to him from the start. There are the two Idaho investors who say it became theirs after a business partner failed to deliver on a transaction. Then there's the businessman who says that for the last seven years he believed it was stolen.

At a court hearing Tuesday, attorneys told the judge that at least two others, and possibly many more, are expected to become involved in the dispute. The emerald, one of the largest of its kind, has been in the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department since December.

According to court papers, an appraiser valued the stone at $372 million. But there is much debate about the actual worth, with some believing the appraisal is far too high.

The gem, known as the Bahia Emerald, was reported stolen in September. Larry Biegler, a Paradise, Calif. investor, reported it missing from a vault in South El Monte, according to sheriff's officials. In December, detectives traced it to a warehouse in Las Vegas where Idaho investors Todd Armstrong and Kit Morrison were storing it.

Armstrong and Morrison said they took possession of the emerald because it was put up as collateral for diamonds they were supposed to purchase through Biegler but never received.

In January, Kenneth Conetto, a self-trained geologist and mining entrepreneur, filed an action in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the Idaho men, saying that he should get the emerald because it was always his. Eric C. Kitchen, Conetto's attorney, said Tuesday outside court that Conetto was part of the team that discovered the gem in Brazil, and there was never a successful sale after it was brought into the United States in 2005.

Later that month, San Jose businessman Anthony Thomas injected himself into the dispute, saying in court papers that he bought the emerald for $60,000 in 2001 when it was discovered. After Tuesday's court hearing, Thomas' attorney said his client was told at the time that the stone was stolen while it was being transported.

In the meantime, the stone is being held at an undisclosed location by sheriff's detectives under orders of Judge John Kronstadt.

Sheriff's Lt. Thomas Grubb said there was an active investigation into the stone's ownership, and criminal charges could still be filed.

Attorneys suggested the list of claimants may continue to grow. "Thirty, forty, fifty, to a hundred people are out there ready to assert a claim," Kitchen said in court Tuesday.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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