Meet the Schemers, Investors,
and Dreamers Who Were
Bewitched By a Giant Green Rock
Meet the Schemers, Investors, and Dreamers Who Were Bewitched By a Giant Green Rock
by Elizabeth Weil | illustrations by Tim McDonagh 3.02.17
Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a minifridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million.
Eight years ago the emerald was logged into evidence by detectives Scott Miller and Mark Gayman of the Sheriff’s Major Crimes Bureau. The two men are longtime veterans: 30 years for Miller, 28 for Gayman. They dress as the Hollywood versions of themselves, in wraparound sunglasses, badges dangling off long chains. Among Gayman’s career highlights is the time he busted Joe Pesci’s ex-wife for the hit she put out on her new lover. One thing they both hate is the emerald case. It’s a whack-a-mole of schemers. Detangling all the rackets and lies is, Miller says, “a puzzle from hell.”
The emerald trade is controlled by hundreds of tiny players. The worth of the gems is, to put it generously, flexible.
Emeralds invite stories—many of them dubious. At various points in history people have believed that emeralds were capable of protecting humans against cholera, infidelity, and evil spirits, and that an emerald placed under the tongue could transform a person into a truth-teller. This 752-pound emerald doesn’t quite fit under the tongue, and it appears to have had zero positive effects. Miller and Gayman got sucked into its orbit on October 8, 2008, when their sergeant forwarded a call. A man with a squeaky voice named Larry Biegler had phoned the cops in a little suburban California town called Temple City, just southeast of Pasadena. He told the officer on duty that his “840-pound” emerald (a lot of people say the emerald weighs 840 pounds, but it doesn’t) had been stolen and that he’d been abducted and released by the Brazilian Mafia. So the detectives climbed into what Miller calls his “mobile office” (a Chevy Blazer), drove 15 miles out to Temple City, and spent the day in the local police station parsing the emerald dossier. The case “was fun,” Miller told me, “at the beginning.”
By Joshua Davis
By Nathan Hurst
By Pete Brook
A thing you should know is that emeralds are complicated. The chemical formula for an emerald is Be3Al2(Si6018). For the green crystals to form, beryllium must be heated to over 750 degrees Fahrenheit, under 7.5 to 21.75 tons of pressure per square inch, in the presence of chromium or vanadium. Given that beryllium exists only in tiny quantities near Earth’s crust, this seldom happens, and even when it does, the resulting crystals, or beryls, as they’re known, are not uniform. Almost all emeralds include cracks and inclusions, aka impurities. On the Mohs scale of hardness, emeralds score 7.5 to 8 out of 10. If you cut along a crack or inclusion, they shatter.
Diamonds, by contrast, are simple: pure carbon. The chemical formula for a diamond is C. Diamonds score a 10 on the Mohs scale. The trade is controlled by a few large players. There’s also a weekly international price sheet, the Rapaport Diamond Price List, that sets value based on the four c’s: carat, clarity, cut, and color. Diamond price is further stabilized by cartels that determine the quantity of gemstones released to market. Meanwhile, the emerald trade is controlled by hundreds of tiny players. The price is, to put it generously, flexible. An emerald costs what someone will pay. Period. The idea that diamonds are more romantic than emeralds is preposterous, a marketing ploy. Diamonds are a product like gold or crude oil: rational, conservative. Emeralds are Turkish rugs. When you buy one you believe that you’ve found a secret treasure and finagled a good deal. Then—weeks, months, years later—the truth comes out: You’ve been had. Time to grip up and face your wounded ego and foist the emerald upon the next guy.
Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the Bahia emerald is theirs.
The market is especially shifty for so-called specimen emeralds—those that are big and weird, destined for curio cases and natural history museums. The emerald in the Sheriff’s Department vault is called the Bahia emerald and it is the consummate specimen: huge, strange, and composed of such low-quality crystals that, were those crystals broken down into smaller rocks, gemologists would call them “fish tank emeralds.” The Bahia emerald, it must also be said, is not pretty. It’s a conglomerate, a geologic chimera—a bunch of large emerald crystals lodged at odd angles in a matrix of black schist. Imagine a petrified Jello mold made by Wilma Flintstone for a dinosaur.
Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”
I too took a bad spin in the emerald’s orbit, pouring endless time into reporting this story, only, for a while at least, to become more confused rather than less. I read thousands of pages of court documents, including legal depositions that read like episodes of Drunk History. Larry Biegler hung up on me. The cops canceled the night before I was supposed to fly to go see them in LA. Then one day last summer my phone rang. “Hello! This is Jerry Ferrara!” a voice bellowed. Ferrara was one of the many people who claim the emerald ruined his life. He had declined to talk to me once before, but now he said he wanted to set the record straight. So he sent me a copy of his unpublished memoir, spent a few hours answering my initial questions, and invited me to visit him in Florida.
When we met, Ferrara brought along a “profiler” named Chrystal. “I call her a bullshit caller,” he said.
Jerry Ferrara is 50 years old, big, hairy, half-Sicilian, and huggable. He’s been gripped by the Bahia emerald for nine of the 16 years it’s been aboveground. The day I arrived in Tampa, he asked me to meet him at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Bottoms Down Weight Loss and signs advertising “$1 med days” and “Find your treasures at Peaches and Pearls Boutique.” He wore dad jeans, white sneakers, and a gray golf shirt. He sat down looking nervous, a little enraged, but also clean-shaven and earnest, like he was going to a job interview.
“The Brazilians are making my life difficult,” he said, referring to his ongoing emerald struggles. “But do I regret it? I don’t regret it.” He folded his hands on the table between us. They looked strong. “I lost my identity. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the guy staring back at me anymore.”
Ferrara heard about the emerald in a low moment. It was November 2007. He was sleeping in his car, scamming free continental breakfasts at hotels for his daughters.
Ferrara brought along a skinny woman named Chrystal (in the movie version of all this, she’d be played by Uma Thurman), whom he introduced as a “profiler,” meaning that she judges character. “I call her a bullshit caller,” he said. They told me there are 14 different personalities. When I asked Chrystal about Jerry’s type, he answered before she could. “She’s going to say I’m an asshole.”
A few minutes later, Ferrara excused himself to get coffee. I asked Chrystal, who had a tasteful purple streak in her hair and wore an emerald necklace, what she really did think about Ferrara’s character.
She glanced at the older woman doing a crossword puzzle next to us as she searched for words. “I’m trying to do this in a way that doesn’t make him look bad,” she said. “Sometimes he’s had to do bad things to protect himself and the people he cares for.”
Ferrara first heard about the Bahia emerald in a low moment. It was November 2007. He was sleeping in his car, scamming free continental breakfasts at hotels for his two daughters, who were sleeping on their aunt’s floor. For the prior seven years he’d been supporting his family through his business, Honest Father Buys Houses, which purchased and resold homes and commercial properties. But then the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Ferrara lost everything, and he started working to right the ship of his life, he says, by selling foreclosed real estate portfolios for Lehman Brothers. When those deals fell through too, Ferrara, frantic, called every broker and every investor he could dial. Eventually, he says, he wound up on the phone with a man named Larry Biegler. (Remember him, of the phone call to the Temple City cops?) Biegler wasn’t really interested in foreclosed property. But he needed someone to help sell a giant emerald.
Cast of Characters
(in alphabetical order)
A plumber from Northern California, with bad Yelp reviews; the one who called the cops.
An against-all-odds lovable guy from San Jose, California; lives in a trailer with his 99-year-old mother.
A SpongeBob lover from outside Tampa, Florida; dabbles in diamonds and real estate; has some pre-Columbian artifacts for sale.
Detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Miller’s partner; loves his job; hates the emerald case.
Detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Gayman’s partner; loves his job; hates the emerald case.
A Mormon from Eagle, Idaho; baby-faced, well-dressed; presents as a family man; tried to buy diamonds and ended up with a giant emerald.
A collector; his house burned down in a mysterious fire; has been in a legal fight with Conetto for years.
The rock had already been through a lot. The Bahia emerald was unearthed in early 2001 from the Carnaiba mine of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Then, according to some (apocryphal) tellings of the emerald’s history, the mule team dragging it through the rain forest was attacked by panthers—or some other animal—and the miners themselves had to carry the 752-pound emerald the rest of the way to civilization. From town it was trucked south to São Paulo and placed under a tarp in a carport at one of the mine owners’ homes. Those miners, it turned out, had a friend and business associate in San Jose, California. His name was Ken Conetto.
Conetto thinks the Bahia emerald is garbage: “That thing is a stinking sack of Siberian seal shit.”
A word about Conetto: Like Ferrara, he’s half-Sicilian and has spent his life looking for deals. He once held the titles to some silica mines in Nevada but never struck it rich. In fact, for the past 11 years, he has lived in a trailer with his mother, Gertrude, who is now 99. Strewn about are half a dozen pairs of eyeglasses, 10 dog leashes, six La-Z-Boy chairs, more pillboxes than I could count, a giant box of Wheaties with Steph Curry on the front, four bicycles, 10 fleece blankets, three television sets (two on). When I visited he offered me coffee cake, oranges, and bottled water and told me to come back whenever I wanted, a kindness unparalleled by many people I call friends. His mind drifts when he talks. The plots he spins can be hard to follow. If he ever comes into real money, he told me, he’s going to buy a big boat, a tri-hull that will do 50 knots—“I won’t be hors d’oeuvres for a shark!” He’s then going to sail that boat up the Adriatic coast and move into the castle he once saw in Dubrovnik. When his tough-guy veneer falls, Conetto is very poignant. He has an adult daughter, Kendall, whom he named after himself; he hasn’t seen her since she was 3. “I wasn’t ready to get married,” he told me of his early life failings. “I just stayed away.” He thinks the Bahia emerald is garbage. “That thing is a stinking sack of Siberian seal shit.” Every time I visited Conetto I left feeling sad.
Back in 2000, during the first internet boom, Conetto knew an affable guy named Tony Thomas who’d sunk a lot of money into a startup that now needed a whole lot more money if Thomas ever wanted to get his initial investment back. According to Thomas’ account in court documents, Conetto offered a convoluted plan to help. Thomas and Conetto would fly to Brazil. With these miners Conetto knew, they’d secure $25 million worth of emeralds (meaning emeralds they could sell for $25 million, though Conetto and Thomas would pay much less). They’d use the emeralds as collateral on a loan, the money from which they’d invest with a so-called high-yield fund that guaranteed huge returns through the International Chamber of Commerce. Thus Thomas’ startup would have the money it needed to stay afloat and Thomas would become a very wealthy man.
In September of 2001, Thomas and Conetto flew to Brazil. In São Paulo, Conetto’s miner friends arranged for them to look at $25 million worth of cut and polished emeralds. That meeting was a disaster—the lapidary shop was dilapidated, and the men who were supposed to finance the transaction failed to show. The miners then tried to make up for it by taking Thomas and Conetto to one of their homes to see a real treasure: the 752-pound emerald in the carport. According to Conetto, a white cat was peeing on the huge stone when they arrived, but still Thomas fell in love. He looked “like he’d found the treasure of Ali Baba,” one of the miners later recalled in court. Thomas, of course, wanted the stone. The miners, records say, set the price at $60,000.
The emerald had been stolen en route to California. Sorry, inside job among the exporters, Conetto said. What can you do?
Nearly everybody involved has a different version of what happened next. Thomas said he flew home and wired the money to São Paulo. Then he set out to determine the emerald’s true value. He reached out to former business associates and received amazing news. The most comparable stone was at the British Museum: a slightly smaller emerald worth $792 million. According to testimony, Thomas passed this information to an appraiser he met in Brazil. On November 5, 2001, the appraiser—supposedly having seen the Bahia—wrote: “Such a rare specimen has never been seen, not even at an international auction house such as Sotheby’s … The stone in this report I estimate is worth $925 million.”
A shocking amount of bullshit happens with big, rare stones. The Gem of Tanzania, a 10,000-carat ruby, was once valued at 11 million British pounds, but that appraisal turned out to be a forgery. The Life and Pride of America, a 1,905-carat sapphire purchased for $10, for a while was valued at $2.28 million. Then a curator at the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Institution examined the rock, declared the color “awful—it’s just kind of muddy gray,” and now that sapphire is a paperweight. Recently, in January 2016, newspapers reported the discovery of the world’s largest blue-star sapphire, the Star of Adam, in Sri Lanka. Its anonymous owner told the BBC that the stone is worth $175 million. We shall see.
During the time the Bahia emerald was bouncing around, out of the mine but not yet in the sheriff’s safe, an emerald billed as the world’s largest was floating about too. This one was named Teodora. It weighed about 25 pounds and was said to be worth $1.15 million. A Canadian gem merchant named Regan Reaney put it up for auction in January 2012—then he was arrested on (possibly unrelated) fraud charges. Teodora, sadly, included a bunch of white beryl, dyed forest green.
As for the Bahia emerald, as Thomas told the court, in November 2001, Conetto told him he’d ship the stone home to Thomas in the US. He waited and waited, but the emerald never arrived. So a few months later he asked Conetto to return to Brazil and investigate what happened, only to learn the very worst: The emerald had been stolen en route to California. Sorry, inside job among the exporters, Conetto said. What can you do?
Conetto has a different story. He claims that Thomas never purchased the stone and that he, Conetto, never promised to mail it home for Thomas. Whatever the case, for the next four years Conetto and his miner friends leveraged the emerald’s appraised value, hatching plans to take out loans against its insurance policy. They did rope in one sucker, but still the miners bickered constantly. So, in 2005, Conetto shipped the emerald, for real this time, to San Jose, California. On the packing slip he wrote “rocha: rochedo—rock” and listed the value at $100.
Tony Thomas and Ken Conetto went to Brazil with a plan to buy $25 million worth of emeralds.
At the Dunkin’ Donuts in Tampa, Ferrara invited me to go with him on what he described as that day’s job. As far as I know, he isn’t a licensed PI, but the job was a stakeout. First we needed to secure what Ferrara called “a low-profile vehicle,” so from the Dunkin’ Donuts we stopped by a U-Haul store, where Ferrara rented a white pickup with an extended cab and excellent air-conditioning. In it, Ferrara, Chrystal, and I then drove to see the client who commissioned the stakeout, a 53-year-old woman who lived in one of Tampa’s endless and endlessly depressing gated communities, each with their own empty roads and swampy lagoons. “It’s almost unbelievable. She lost millions to her husband,” Ferrara told me as we pulled up to the woman’s house. “She’s still got some Kinkade paintings inside.” Ferrara’s job on this case, he said, was “to locate and uncover money and assets” and maybe scare the husband straight. “I do it for the adrenaline,” he said. “There are a lot of sides of me. In a lot of ways I have a very calm Disneyland mentality. Then there’s a side of me that’s very Mafia, wicked mean, cold.”
From there we headed to the stakeout proper, which consisted of sitting in the U-Haul outside a parking structure near Port Tampa Bay. “That’s part of stakeouts,” Ferrara said, several minutes into our boredom. “Sometimes you’ve got to wait it out.” Finally he left the relative nirvana of the air-conditioned truck to try to figure out if the woman’s husband had purchased an expensive car. He walked into the garage and texted Chrystal, “I’m in.” (The garage was open to the public.) In the cab, Chrystal opened her laptop and showed me Ferrara’s website, for a company called Global Quest. It featured pictures of pre-Columbian masks and ancient gold jewelry. “Most of the artifacts come from high individuals. These people don’t want to be known,” Chrystal said. Ferrara discovered these items, or maybe he was just brokering these items—it wasn’t entirely clear. He returned to the U-Haul with pictures of cars and we left. That night, over dinner, he told me that for a while he had a guitar owned by Elvis. He also once had opportunity to sell a Leonardo da Vinci painting. But no art historians would authenticate the work because it was on canvas and da Vinci didn’t paint on canvas. (Ferrara found this position pinched and ridiculous, arguing, “There were sails then, right?”)
Biegler fell instantly in love with the emerald, certain that he could sell it to a wealthy sucker.
It was all so disorienting—the stakeout, the da Vinci painting, the Bahia emerald most of all. Because unlike the pre-Columbian masks and the painting, I knew the 752-pound gemstone really did exist. How it got to a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department vault is complicated, but as best as I could piece together from court documents (and also the obsessive research of a fellow journalist), what happened was this: After Conetto imported the stone to San Jose, he made a deal with Larry Biegler, the man with the squeaky voice. Biegler presented himself as polished and rich. Like Thomas, he fell instantly in love with the emerald, certain that he could sell it to a wealthy sucker. So Biegler made a deal with Conetto. Conetto would sign over to Biegler the rights to sell the emerald. If Biegler sold the stone, they would split the proceeds 50-50.
This was one of the great many moments that tripped me up while reporting this story. Who says to a random business associate, “Hey, you want 50 percent of my $925 million emerald?” But Brazeal, the emerald expert, set me straight: There just aren’t that many buyers for a giant gemstone. Fifty percent of $925 million is $462.5 million, whereas 100 percent of zero is nothing. Thus, after Biegler took possession of the emerald, he made a similar move. He told a gem merchant in New York that he, the gem merchant, could have 10 percent of the sale price if he could sell the rock for more than $25 million. That merchant posted the emerald on eBay (yes). The minimum bid was $19 million and the “buy now” price was $75 million. The listing drew one offer—for $19 million—but Biegler refused to let the gem dealer sell. He claimed to have a $75 million deal in the works.
Among the most amazing qualities of the Bahia emerald is that its charms seem to work every time. One person falls out of its thrall and the next floats right in. In 2007, the person who floated in was my Florida host, Jerry Ferrara. As he tells it, Biegler approached Ferrara and told him that he, Ferrara, seemed like just the guy to sell the stone. At the time Ferrara was desperate and quasi-homeless, and this was exactly what he wanted to hear. “It was just incredible,” Ferrara says. “Biegler showed up with a manila envelope and signed ownership of the world’s largest emerald over to me. He said he was looking for somebody like me.”
Soon Ferrara was tangled up in yet another Biegler operation, trying to sell diamonds to a Mormon guy from Idaho named Kit Morrison. Ferrara describes Morrison as “aloof, very secretive. Likable—no. He wore handmade Italian suits, handmade Italian leather shoes.” Morrison sent Ferrara $1.3 million, supposedly for diamonds, which he’d receive in the future. In return, Ferrara says, he put the Bahia emerald up as collateral. Then that deal fell through—Ferrara did not have any diamonds. So the emerald went to Morrison.
Biegler staged his own supposed kidnapping by a Brazilian warlord, sending word to Ferrara that he needed a ransom paid for his release.
This should have made them enemies but now they had a common interest: turning the giant rock into money. Thus they became partners, if not friends. “It’s like we had a wagon full of gold,” Ferrara explained. “We’re both sleeping by the campfire, one eye open, one hand on your gun under the pillow.” At this point the emerald was in a storage unit, the Commonwealth International depository, in South El Monte, California. Ferrara and Biegler were supposedly the only ones with access to it (although in court, Ferrara and Morrison said Morrison also had access). Ferrara told me that only people who could prove they had the means to buy the emerald could go view it. Sheikhs came to look. Conetto insists that even Bernie Madoff flew out in “his little putt-putt” and planned to buy the emerald for “$91 million in diamonds, $21 million in cash, and three watches worth $15 million.” But sadly, Madoff was arrested two days before that alleged deal could close.
In June of 2008, Biegler disappeared. He had staged his own supposed kidnapping by a Brazilian warlord, sending word to Ferrara that he needed a ransom paid for his release. This sent Ferrara’s mind spinning back to all the times over the past year Biegler had asked Ferrara to send him money, requests Ferrara obliged because he did not want to blow his chance to make millions in an emerald sale. Eventually, Ferrara pieced together the truth: He learned that Biegler was not nearly as polished and rich as he pretended to be. In fact, he was really the proprietor of a business called B & B Plumbing in Citrus Heights, California. “I got taken by a damn plumber! Can you believe that?” Ferrara told me. B & B Plumbing even had lousy Yelp reviews. (“Hired Larry to install a dishwasher. He took my $125 and left …” “NO SHOW!!” One star.)
Furious and betrayed, Ferrara says he managed to get the secretary at Commonwealth International to let him and Morrison remove the emerald from the vault without Biegler present. They loaded the stone into a Cadillac Escalade SUV and headed east, toward Vegas. Biegler, Ferrara says, arrived at Commonwealth International less than 24 hours later to find the emerald gone.
A Regular Gem of a Hoax
Shiny rocks are hard to resist. But upon closer inspection, high-dollar stones often prove to be … not so precious. Here are a few examples. —Jennifer Chaussee
The Gem of Tanzania
When David Unwin bought a massive ruby in 2006, it was valued at $375,000. A year later, when his company was going through bankruptcy, the gem reappeared on his books as a $14 million asset. That document, though, was forged. Eventually the gem sold for about $10,000.
The Life and Pride of America
One day in Tucson, Arizona, a gem dealer bought a 1,905-carat sapphire for $10 from a bin at a gem show. Then an appraisal deemed it worth about $2.28 million. Gemologists disagreed. Today the Life and Pride is a beautiful blue paperweight.
In 2011 scuba divers said they discovered treasure near the famous Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1622. The divers said the gems were rare Colombian emeralds, but they were just cheap emeralds treated with epoxy—and had been sitting on the ocean floor.
In 2012 a Canadian gem merchant announced to the world that his 57,500-carat emerald was worth $1.15 million. He called it Teodora and put it up for auction. Turns out Teodora included a bunch of white beryl, dyed forest green.
The Diamond Hoax of 1872
Cousins from Kentucky led Charles Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. and others to believe there was an amazing gem field on the Colorado border. The investors handed over more than $500,000. Alas, the cousins had simply strewn cheap diamonds, rubies, and emeralds in the dirt.
Ernst & Young/AP Images (Tanzania); Shelly Katz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images (Life and Pride); REUTERS/Andy Clark/Alamy (Teodora); Jan Sochor/Getty Images (Emeralds); Getty Images (Hoax)
The day after I went on the stakeout with Ferrara, we drove the U-Haul pickup to his friend Kris Rotonda’s home. Among Ferrara’s current ventures is working with Rotonda to launch My Pet Shopping Network, which, if all goes according to plan, will be a media behemoth like Home Shopping Network but for pet products. We sat in Rotonda’s living room where his three dogs ran in circles and skidded out on his tile floor, and Rotonda’s young daughter kept toddling in, followed by Rotonda’s wife. The scene was warm, totally regular, and unslick, and in it Ferrara seemed to relax for the first time since I arrived. Rotonda cued up their Pet Shopping Network sizzle reel. On it, he makes a pitch for a product called the Pooch Selfie that includes a tennis ball you clip onto a smartphone so your dog will stare at it and you can take a great selfie of you and your best friend looking into the camera.
“Great, right?” Ferrara said, when the reel finished. It wasn’t half bad. Then Ferrara came down to earth for a bit. “Most of the networks are so busy making dead ends that they don’t have time to meet with us.”
“People in my family think it’s creepy,” Ferrara said, “but my life is extremely hard, anxiety-ridden. SpongeBob gives me relief.”
Ferrara’s life story is filled with pain. He told me his mother walked out when he was 4 and he didn’t see her again until he was 15. His younger sister died in childhood. His stepmother made him sleep with only sheets, not blankets, in the New Jersey winter. One day when he was walking home from an after-school job on a day that was –4 degrees, she drove by but didn’t pick him up. In 2004 his sister asked to borrow money. Ferrara told me that he gave her a few thousand dollars. Then she died of an overdose. Among the more fantastical family tales he told me was that he had an uncle who owned a junkyard in Edison, New Jersey, and when developers bought the land and cleaned it up, they found 79 skeletons buried in the soil.
“Let’s just say I like my soda flat and my cereal soggy,” Ferrara said. This seems to sum up his outlook on life.
I asked if he liked pets and he said, “No! I hate them all! What an asshole!” (He later said he was kidding.)
He doesn’t drink because, he said, “I’m in the limelight,” and alcohol makes him even more of a jerk.
“I hate sports too!”
Ferrara’s lone outlets are smoking Marlboro Blacks and watching SpongeBob SquarePants. “SpongeBob has a personality that cares about everybody, he sees the positive in everybody. He tries to make people laugh,” Ferrara explained. His favorite episode is “Band Geeks,” in which Squidward is set up to fail, yet again. He lies and promises that his nonexistent band will play a huge gig at the Bubble Bowl, the Super Bowl in Bikini Bottom. He scrambles to pull together a band but, Ferrara said, “nobody he knows has talent.” He’s going to humiliate himself. “The show starts. Squidward’s sweating,” Ferrara said. “But then it rocks.” Behind the scenes, SpongeBob steps in and saves him, turning Squidward’s friends into great musicians. Squidward succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.
“People in my family think it’s creepy,” Ferrara said, wrapping up his exegesis, “but my life is extremely hard, anxiety-ridden. SpongeBob gives me relief. Don’t put a horror flick in front of me, don’t put a Mafia movie in front of me. That’s my life.”
After Larry Biegler realized the emerald was gone from the Commonwealth International storage unit, he called the Temple City police and told the officer on duty that his emerald had been stolen and that he’d been abducted and released by the Brazilian Mafia. This triggered the arrival of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives Miller and Gayman. Soon, Ferrara and Morrison became suspects. The detectives took a few weeks to track them down, but by December 15, 2008, Miller and Gayman were in Eagle, Idaho, in the Boise foothills, staking out Morrison’s house. They set a perimeter and shivered in their rental car for two days.
On the third day they knocked on Morrison’s door. His wife answered and said Morrison wasn’t home. As the detectives were talking to her, they saw a man walking around the side of the property and, figuring it was Morrison, tackled him. He turned out to be a cable repairman. Morrison’s wife got Morrison on the phone and he cut a deal with Miller and Gayman. He would meet the detectives in Las Vegas, where he and Ferrara had stored the emerald, and they’d turn the stone over to the Sheriff’s Department on the condition that neither Ferrara nor Morrison would be arrested. So Miller and Gayman flew home to Burbank and assembled a small army, including a dozen officers with assault rifles, and caravanned overnight out I-15 East. When they arrived at the depository at 7 am, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department was already onsite with a SWAT team and helicopter cover. Morrison showed up in a sport coat and slacks, and within the hour Miller and Gayman were wheeling a piano dolly topped with a gargantuan emerald into the desert sun. Everybody took a lot of selfies. Then the detectives loaded the Bahia emerald into a police van, drove it back over the San Gabriel Mountains, and logged it into evidence.
Ferrara spent a lot of days in settlement hearings. Only once did he lunge across the conference table and threaten to beat the shit out of somebody.
As promised, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department threw the question of who owned the Bahia emerald over to the Los Angeles Superior Court. From 2007 to 2015, people began endless legal battles: Conetto sued Morrison, Thomas went after Conetto, the New York gem dealer sued Biegler. Ferrara spent a lot of days in settlement hearings and a lot of nights sleeping in hidden corners of hotel lobbies so he didn’t have to pay for rooms. Only once did he lunge across the conference table and threaten to beat the shit out of somebody.
During the legal proceedings, Biegler disappeared. Conetto got distracted by a friend’s new business that turned manure into electricity. The detectives came to believe that the emerald belonged to Thomas. After all, courts found he was the only litigant who’d ever paid anything for the stone. But Thomas fared poorly at his trial. Several key facts were not on his side. One, he never called FedEx to see what happened to his $925 million package. Two, he claimed his house burned down in 2006 and incinerated his bill of sale. (The court found his claim awfully convenient.) It also turned out, though this was not revealed at trial, that there was no large emerald at the British Museum in London at all. The entire backstory of the $792 million comp was made up.
The court had great difficulty pinning down who owned the emerald or how much it was worth—or, really, any facts at all, because so many men contradicted one another under oath. This led an observer to the possibility that the stone was really a MacGuffin, in the classic Hitchcockian sense—an object that everyone’s chasing but that doesn’t really matter.
Still, in 2011, the judge rejected Thomas’ claim of ownership. Then the judge got a new job, and Thomas asked for a mistrial—which the courts granted. In 2013, a second judge heard all this insanity again. But by that point Ferrara, Morrison, and another guy had gathered into a sort of consortium, under the name FM Holdings. That way someone, any one of them, could reclaim possession of the emerald, sell it, and divide the proceeds.
The LA Superior Court awarded the Bahia emerald to FM Holdings on June 23, 2015.
But perhaps the emerald really is cursed. Before the Sheriff’s Department received the order to release the emerald to FM Holdings, the District Court of DC granted an injunction filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the country of Brazil. Brazil claimed that the Bahia emerald had been illegally exported and really belonged to them.
“I’ll be honest,” says John Nadolenco, the primary lawyer on the case for Brazil. “When I first got the letter”—from Brazil, asking for help repatriating the Bahia emerald—“I thought it was a total hoax. I thought it was one of those Nigerian prince things where they’re going to want us to send a couple million dollars to some bank account and they’re going to take all of our money.” But Nadolenco’s partner asked him to pursue the client. Nadolenco wrote back to the Brazilians with a real proposal, though he couldn’t resist including the jokey promise that his friend Indiana Jones could help reclaim the emerald if his own efforts failed. He got the gig.
Ferrara made his point: Life is tough. People betray you and die. We all need escapes.
So today the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is still—still—holding the emerald, now as evidence for a criminal case they’re building. The limbo is uncomfortable for Ferrara. He’s a big man with big, tenacious, preposterous dreams stuck in a life that feels too banal, empty, and small. My last day in Florida we met up at Cracker Barrel. Ferrara likes the tchotchkes there. During a lull in the conversation, Chrystal told me she worries what will happen if Ferrara loses the emerald for good. “It would devastate him,” she whispered. “It’s his whole life.”
Ferrara and I talked for hours and hours and hours, from the retiree breakfast rush past lunch, through every last detail of the saga. At one point, he placed the salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. He slid them a few inches apart and set his phone on top, like the flat roof of a house. “This is our foundation in life—your mother, your father, friends, teachers, the people that mean something to you.” (He meant the shakers to represent the people and the phone to be your life.)
He slid the shakers out from under the phone. “As these people fail you, these go away, one by one.” The phone, your life, falls.
Before I headed to the airport, we returned the truck to U-Haul and revisited Dunkin’ Donuts for some more iced coffees. We sat outside, in the horrible humid air, so Ferrara could smoke his Marlboros. He mentioned that, along with SpongeBob, he connected with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or at least the title. “Like I wrote one time, ‘We entered a world that was inhabited by dark shadows, the nights would never end, the mornings would never come,’” he said. He didn’t quite get the quote from his own prose correct. But he made his point: Life is tough. People betray you and die. We all need escapes.
I drove to the airport. I boarded my flight. Even before my plane touched down, Ferrara had left me a voicemail. “Call me!” he bellowed, optimistic as ever. “You will never guess what transpired today. As you left, the winds of change blew in.”
I called him back the next morning. He told me a story about the emerald, which I understood less the longer he talked. He also mentioned that he’d been approached about hosting a TV show, a reality treasure-hunter series. He would be the star. It was nice to hear his voice.
Elizabeth Weil (@lizweil) lives in San Francisco and is a contributor for The New York Times Magazine and Outside.
Additional reporting by Brendan Borrell.
This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.
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