CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

“Priceless” painting stolen by mob turns up in St. George

Jan 26, 2024, 3:31 PM | Updated: 3:52 pm

stolen painting john opie the schoolmistress with elderly man looking on...

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, looks at the painting stolen from his father's home in 1969. (Photo courtesy: FBI)

(Photo courtesy: FBI)

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A stolen painting, a John Opie original described as “priceless” by the FBI, turned up in the estate of a St. George man. 

It may sound like the plot of “Entrapment” or “The Thomas Crown Affair,” but instead, it was another day at the office for the FBI in southern Utah. 

Stolen painting: Another day at the FBI 

FBI Special Agent Gary France said he was in his office in December 2021 when an accountant came in to report he may have stumbled across the stolen painting while closing out a St. George man’s estate. 

“It definitely ranks in, you know, the top 5 cases I’ve ever worked in my career,” France told reporters Friday. “A very novel and unusual experience. This is the first art crime case that I’ve worked in over 21 years.” 

France credits the accountant, Kris Braunberger, for bringing the stolen painting to his attention. 

“As you can imagine, at the FBI offices – we get inundated with quite a few people that walk in with some pretty fantastical stories, and so when Kris Braunberger walked into our office in December of 2021 and started talking about a stolen painting, I was a little skeptical at first,” France said. “So we quickly ran out to his accounting firm and realized, in fact, that he did have this painting in his possession.” 

historical stolen painting flyer

This flyer was distributed after the John Opie painting “The Schoolmistress” was stolen in 1969. (Photo courtesy: FBI)

He thinks it’s unlikely the man whose estate wound up with the painting, James Gullo, had any idea of the painting’s origins or significance, nor of its mob ties. 

Mob connections to historic artwork

France said his investigation found the painting, “The Schoolmistress,” had been stolen by members of the mob from a New Jersey home back in 1969.

No one knows what happened to the stolen painting in the next 20 years. Gullo purchased it along with a home belonging to Rocchina and Joseph Covello, in Hallandale, Florida in 1989. A real estate transaction document described the Opie painting only as the “Large painting in the living room hallway.” 

Joseph Covello was a member of the Gambino crime family, according to France, who died in 1991. His wife, Rocchina, passed away in 2012. As such, France noted, neither can face charges for the stolen artwork. One of their sons spoke with the FBI after the discovery of the painting and corroborated the details of the sale of the Florida home and the artwork. 

France said he learned a lot about “The Schoolmistress” in the course of the investigation.

agent gary france with doctor francis wood next to stolen painting

FBI Special Agent Gary France looks on as Dr. Francis Wood signs paperwork acknowledging the return of his stolen painting. (Photo courtesy: FBI)

Originally created using oil on canvas in about 1784, the Tate Britain art gallery in London houses the piece’s sister painting. Dr. Earl Leroy Wood purchased the painting for $7,500 during the Great Depression. In 2024, that purchase price would equal more than $137,000. 

The original theft 

Court documents show mob-connected burglars targeted Dr. Wood’s home twice in 1969. On July 7, they allegedly tried to steal his coin collection before the home’s burglar alarm interrupted the attempt. They returned, however, on July 25, taking “The Schoolmistress.” 

The second burglary appeared to result from a remark made by the home’s caretaker. Court documents show the caretaker described the painting to the late Anthony Imperiale, a New Jersey state senator, calling it “priceless.” 

At a trial in 1975, one of the three burglars confessed and said they took the painting under Imperiale’s direction. As no one could corroborate those details, Imperiale never faced charges. 

The FBI believes that the mafia transferred the artwork to another mobster during this time frame, while law enforcement scrutiny remained high. According to France, they believe it stayed in the hands of mobsters through the 1980s. 

From Florida to Utah, then back to New Jersey 

Gullo purchased the Florida home from Covello in 1989, where the stolen painting turned up 20 years after its theft. Eventually, Gullo, sold the home himself and moved it to his property in St. George. It stayed there until his death. 

On January 11, 2024, the FBI says France personally presented the now-recovered painting to the son of Dr. Earl Leroy Wood. 

Now 96 years old, Dr. Francis Wood remembered the stolen painting. His children helped unveil the painting during its return from the FBI. 

“It was fascinating to talk to the Wood family and see the pictures that they had captured in 1968 of this painting on the wall as they gathered for their family holidays,” France said of that meeting, “and to stand in the same room as Dr. Francis Wood and his children, some of who are captured in those photos, was a very surreal experience.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Crime, Police + Courts

Bountiful police car...

JOSH ELLIS KSLTV.com

One man dead after shooting in Bountiful

Officers in Bountiful arrived on the scene and found a man in his 20s with a gunshot wound. The man later died at the hospital.

1 day ago

execution chamber in idaho prison...

Associated Press

Idaho halts execution by lethal injection after 8 failed attempts to insert IV line

Thomas Eugene Creech Creech, one of the longest-serving death row inmates in the U.S., was wheeled into the execution chamber at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution on a gurney at 10 a.m.

2 days ago

Ruby Franke stands with her attorney, Lamar Winward, at her sentencing on Tuesday. Her brother and ...

Jessica Lowell

Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt transferred to Utah State Correctional Facility

The two women will each spend one to 15 years at the facility for child abuse.

2 days ago

Ruby Franke appears in a virtual court appearance....

Adam Small

Utah legislators hear from Kevin Franke on life coach regulation

Lawmakers hear from Kevin Franke about regulating life coaches. His ex-wife Ruby Franke and her partner Jodi Hildebrandt are in prison.

2 days ago

Former president Donald Trump, Manhattan trial...

MICHAEL R. SISAK

With trial starting next month, Manhattan DA asks judge for a gag order in Trump’s hush-money case

The Manhattan DA's office asked that Trump be barred from making or directing others to make public statements about people involved in the case.

4 days ago

Kathy Brandel and her husband of 27 years, Ralph Hendry...

Sharif Paget, Chris Boyette and Polo Sandoval, CNN

Family of Americans believed dead after yacht allegedly hijacked in Grenada describe scene of violence

The family of two Americans who may have been killed in an alleged yacht high jacking in Granada hope the couple might be found alive.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

“Priceless” painting stolen by mob turns up in St. George