The Rockwell Files

Steven Spielberg's stolen painting, a St. Louis art thief, and a plot to kill Martin Luther King. It could make a helluva movie.

Byers declined the offer, but the House committee found enough circumstantial evidence to believe James Earl Ray may have been motivated by the very same bounty when he gunned down King in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Several inches of snow lay on the ground the night of Sunday, January 29, 1978, when an old Chevrolet Impala pulled up in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Three men in ski masks emerged from the vehicle. One of them carried a sledgehammer.

Robin Eley

In plain sight of people sledding on Art Hill, the men smashed a window and disappeared into the building. Two minutes later at 10:39 p.m., the men exited the museum, taking with them four statues valued at nearly $100,000 — including Frederic Remington's The Bronco Buster, valued at nearly $40,000.

Three weeks later — on Monday, February 20 — thieves once again broke into the museum. This time they smashed through the glass door to the museum's east wing at approximately 8:24 p.m. The burglars went up the east stairway and made off with three bronze sculptures by famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin, best known for his iconic piece The Thinker. By the time the museum guards arrived minutes later, the thieves and the Rodin sculptures — valued at $45,000 — were nowhere to be found.

Eight days after the second museum heist, St. Louis detectives picked up John A. Crenshaw on federal charges of robbing a jewelry store in Illinois. They were interrogating the 25-year-old suspect at police headquarters when Crenshaw shocked police by implicating himself in the museum break-ins.

Crenshaw told the detectives that Russell Byers had taken him to the museum prior to the January 29 robbery and shown him which statues he wanted him to steal. He said Byers paid him and his accomplices $700 for the first museum burglary. Crenshaw burglarized the museum a second time because the first theft had been "so easy." Shortly after both robberies Crenshaw allegedly handed over the stolen art to Byers in a street exchange in the 5500 block of Cabanne Avenue in north city.

Crenshaw suggested that at least six of the seven stolen statues could be found with Byers. The seventh statue, a wood carving of St. Sebastian appraised at $4,500, was hidden away in Crenshaw's garage in north St. Louis. At 11 a.m. some 20 law enforcement officials — including the FBI — descended on Byers' home in Rock Hill. They carried with them a search warrant. When Byers' wife refused them entry, they broke through a door pane and entered the home.

The statues weren't there, but police found plenty of other loot. As Byers' wife and two teenage children stood outside on the lawn, police removed an estimated $300,000 worth of stolen artwork — including two paintings signed by Rembrandt, six oriental rugs, more than 100 silver candelabras, jade dishes and the seven Norman Rockwell lithographs stolen from Arts International in the 1976 burglary.

It would take another several weeks before the police recovered the six missing statues from the museum. Remington's The Bronco Buster turned up in a Goodwill drop box on Forest Park Avenue. Two other statues were found at a hotel on Oakland Avenue. Other statues were found in the back lot of a metal company on Manchester Road.

A few hours after police stormed his home, Byers turned himself into city police. The 46-year-old Byers gave his occupation as a vending-machine dealer. He was released on a $5,000 bond. At the time the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Byers had been arrested in St. Louis City and St. Louis County on several occasions in the 1960s.

In 1965 he had been convicted in U.S. District Court in St. Louis of conspiracy to commit auto theft and was placed on probation. Records show Byers faced two criminal charges in St. Louis County in the 1970s. Both cases remain sealed.

In the weeks and months following the first museum burglary in 1978, two of Byers' and Crenshaw's associates met violent deaths. Twenty-nine-year-old Charles Gunn, who assisted Crenshaw in the first break-in, was found shot in the head February 17 in a north St. Louis alley. On June 11 police discovered the disfigured body of 42-year-old Sam White in a field in Madison County, Illinois. Described by police as "Byers' right-hand man" White had been shot three times and his body so badly burned it took several days to identify him.

After initially implicating Byers in the museum thefts, Crenshaw refused to testify against him in court. Crenshaw was sentenced to four years in prison. Byers got off scot-free.

In July 1978 St. Louis Circuit Attorney George Peach told the Post-Dispatch that without Crenshaw's testimony, the case against Byers was "too weak" to pursue. In St. Louis County, the prosecutor's office gave the newspaper a similar account. They would not file charges against Byers for possessing the Rockwell lithographs stolen from Arts International.

It wasn't just local prosecutors who were dropping charges against Byers. On May 9, 1978, the U.S. House of Representatives granted Byers immunity under the Organized Crime Control Act for any possible prosecution involving his association with a St. Louis-based plot to assassinate Martin Luther King.

Today, those entangled in the legal battle with Steven Spielberg wonder if Byers didn't cut a similar deal to avoid prosecution in the disappearance of Russian Schoolroom. They say given Byers' taste for illicit art, it's likely he's the person who contracted the painting's heist in 1973.

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