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' involvement might also explain why no one has been charged with the theft — and why the FBI failed to close in on the painting in 1988 and 1989 when its agents claim the police report went missing.

Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but Byers himself does not entirely rule it out.

Robin Eley
Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom.
Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom.

Russell Byers' modest brick home sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in the quiet suburb of Rock Hill. It's the same house police raided back in 1978. A picture window with a blue awning faces out into the front lawn. Two yapping Yorkshire terriers announce the arrival of anyone who steps near the property.

On a recent weekday afternoon the silhouette of a man appears behind a screened door. Before I can even reach the driveway, the man calls out: "Who are you? What do you want?"

I explain that I'm looking for Russell Byers. I want to talk to him about some art thefts back in the 1970s. The man responds that Byers is not home, and even if he were, why would he want to talk? "What's in it for him?"

I'm curious if he knows anything about a famous Norman Rockwell painting stolen in 1973. The painting, I explain, is now in the possession of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

"It's a hell of a story, isn't it?" the man responds. "Maybe there's a lot more to it than you know." After a few minutes the man steps outside and walks over to where I'm standing in the driveway. A wrought-iron fence separates us.

At 76 years old, Byers no longer appears like the underworld thug newspaper articles once made him out to be. In fact, he looks downright grandfatherly. His white hair is parted neatly down the side. He wears slip-on loafers with blue socks, a pair of stone-colored khakis and a short-sleeve Oxford cloth shirt. A silver Rolex dangles from his left arm.

Byers' cheeks are a ruddy pink. He blinks his blue eyes constantly — the result, he says, of surgery to relieve a problem with his tear ducts. "Don't think I'm retarded," he says of the blinking. "I still have all my marbles."

Byers then returns to the matter at hand: his possible connection to stolen Rockwell painting. "Why would I want to tell you anything about that? Why would I want the aggravation and the humiliation?"

I tell him that the statute of limitations for the theft has long since expired. I ask him if anyone else has contacted him about Russian Schoolroom. The FBI, he confirms, has asked him about the painting. Any more information, says Byers, will cost me. He wants money to talk.

I tell him that it's against the policy of the RFT to pay sources, adding that I doubted the New York Times paid him when it interviewed him for a front-page story on July 26, 1978, which revealed for the first time Byers' role in a St. Louis plot to assassinate King.

"I was in Newsweek and Time magazine, too," boasts Byers. "But none of them got the whole story."

The article published in the New York Times in 1978 described Byers' testimony before the House committee as an "embarrassment" to the FBI. According to the Times article — and backed by congressional reports — an informant first told the FBI in 1973 that Byers knew of a conspiracy hatched in St. Louis in the 1960s to kill the civil rights leader. But the FBI misfiled the information and it did not come to light until 1978 — long after several of the key players in the scheme were dead and gone.

When contacted by the House committee in 1978, Byers first denied any knowledge that he'd been offered money to kill King. Later he agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. Byers, according to congressional reports, told the committee that he was approached in late 1966 or '67 by John Kauffmann, a former St. Louis stockbroker and owner of a motel and drug company in Imperial.

The two men had a business relationship of sorts, with Kauffmann accepting payment from Byers in exchange for allowing him to squirrel away stolen merchandise at Kauffmann's Jefferson County motel. Byers told the committee that in '66 or '67 Kauffmann asked him if he would like to make $50,000.

The following comes directly from the committee report: "Kauffmann told him to meet him at 6:30 that evening, which Byers did, and together they drove to the home in Imperial of John Sutherland, a St. Louis patent attorney. The three men met in a study that Byers described as decorated with Confederate flags and Civil War memorabilia. There was a rug replica of a Confederate flag as well, and Sutherland was wearing what appeared to Byers to be a Confederate colonel's hat.

"After some social conversation, Byers asked Sutherland what he would have to do for the $50,000. Sutherland said he would have to kill, or arrange to have killed, Dr. Martin Luther King. Byers, who told the committee he did not know at the time who Dr. King was, asked where that amount of money would come from.

"Sutherland told him he belonged to a secret southern organization that had plenty of money. According to Byers, no names were mentioned. Byers said he neither accepted nor rejected the offer, indicating he would think it over. Outside the door of Sutherland's home, however, he told Kauffmann he was not interested."

« Previous Page
Next Page »