This 2008 file photo provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department shows the so-called Bahia Emerald
AP Photo/Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, File
Beware the Bahia Emerald.
SEEING GREEN

Brazil is trying to reclaim an enormous cursed emerald from a bickering cast of con men

By Jenni Avins

Tomorrow (March 30), a Los Angeles court will hear arguments that may determine the fate of an 840-pound (381 kg), boulder-sized emerald whose exact location is a closely-guarded secret. Much is disputed about the stone—most notably, its ownership—but what seems nearly unarguable that the emerald carries a curse.

With gleaming green rods protruding from its rocky body, the Bahia Emerald bears a more than passing resemblance to Kryptonite. And just as that mythical mineral robbed Superman of his powers, the emerald has robbed many men (and all who have tussled with it do seem to be men) of their better judgment.

Or perhaps it’s just that when a particularly greed-stricken sort of guy meets the stone, all he can see is green.

Perfect emeralds can be worth more than diamonds, but the one in question is far from perfect. It is merely enormous. When the gemstone was hauled out of the earth in 2001, in a remote section of Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia—where the GDP per person is under $7,000—it was the largest uncut emerald on the planet, at 180,000 carats.

(Just for some perspective, the Colombian gumdrops dangling from Angelina Jolie’s earlobes at the Oscars in 2009 were 115 carats.)

An ensemble of rogues

Within months of its discovery, the emerald had found its way into the hands of Tony Thomas. As Brendan Borrell chronicles in his fantastic telling of the tale at Bloomberg Business, Thomas was a 37-year old entrepreneurial investor in California during the dot-com boom. He had invested heavily in a company that made cutting-edge TVs. When the company’s CEO, Wayne Catlett, told Thomas the business was desperate for cash, Thomas contacted (of all people!) a mining consultant, Ken Conetto, who led him to the Bahia Emerald—by then, sitting under a tarp in a São Paulo garage.

The idea was to get a generous appraisal for the stone and use it as collateral for loans. What followed was a 14-year caper of con men repeatedly double-crossing one another while the emerald wended its way from Brazil to the US and thence around the country. As the story goes, it has been submerged in a New Orleans storage unit during Hurricane Katrina, stolen from a storage vault in East Los Angeles, and hidden in Las Vegas.

As it traveled, it accumulated layers of unverifiable lore. At one point a diamond dealer put the stone on eBay and claimed a pair of black panthers had attacked a mule cart carrying it out of the jungle. Some say it also bankrolled a Bernie Madoff scheme. In addition to Thomas, Catlett, and Conetto, the ensemble of characters trying to get their paws on it included two real-estate developers, Jerry Ferrara and Larry Biegler—the latter of whom claimed to be married to a Rockwell Tools heiress—and Kit Morrison, an Idaho-based businessman in the market for some diamonds. (If you can’t wait for the inevitable feature film, we suggest pairing Borrell’s Bloomberg Business story with this short documentary by National Geographic.)

Kit Morrison and Jerry Ferrara apparently have a book forthcoming: “We entered a world where nothing was what it seemed and no one was to be trusted, a place where the sun never shines and morning never comes,” says the website. Neither replied to Quartz’s emails.

It finally all began to unravel in 2008 when Biegler told Morrison he would get him some diamonds if Morrison wired him $1.3 million in advance. As a surety, Biegler promised Morrison a stake in the Bahia Emerald. The money came; the diamonds didn’t; and Biegler disappeared, eventually resurfacing to claim he’d been kidnapped by the “Brazilian mafia.” Ferrara and Morrison then teamed up against him and drove off with the emerald, at which point Biegler went to the Los Angeles police.

Some weeks later, two L.A. detectives crossed state lines and arrived at Morrison’s home in Idaho. They scared his wife, tackled the cable guy, and got Morrison, who wasn’t there, on the phone. Eventually, he said he’d take them to the emerald in Las Vegas—to which they went in a six-vehicle convoy from Los Angeles with semi-automatic assault rifles and a helicopter escort.

A “national treasure”

Since the emerald entered a Los Angeles sheriff’s vault, a series of men involved with the stone’s comedy of errors and extortion have stepped forward to bicker, sue one another for ownership, and issue press releases telling their sides of the story.

One of the aggrieved parties is now the Brazilian government.

Late in the game, Brazil got wind of the Bahia Emerald, and decided none of these jokers should get to keep it. Last August, its government hired a lawyer, John Nadolenco, in the Los Angeles office of Mayer Brown, to fight to repatriate the Bahia Emerald. Tomorrow Nadolenco will argue that the Los Angeles superior court should dismiss the latest case for ownership, which pitted Conetto against Morrison.

“The Emerald is (literally) a piece of Brazil that belongs to Brazil and in Brazil,” reads Nadolenco’s brief for the case. “It is the subject of this action by a number of parties who claim they somehow own it. They don’t. The Bahia Emerald is, and always has been, the property of Brazil.”

Nadolenco—who has not even been allowed to see the gem his client is trying to recover, so closely is it being guarded—told Quartz there’s no doubt the emerald counts as a national treasure, which means it has belonged to Brazil all along. “I don’t think it’s a debate here,” said Nadolenco. “You could have a debate about a lot of other stones, but not an 840-pound emerald.”

If the case is dismissed, Brazil will be one step closer to getting the Bahia Emerald out of the Los Angeles sheriff’s vault, though it will probably take diplomatic intervention to get it back home. According to Nadolenco’s brief, the intention is to send it to the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

There, the Bahia Emerald should be safe from greedy speculators. Or perhaps, at last, they will be safe from it.