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Morgan Hill Man Says He Was Swindled Out Of Big Emerald

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The Bahia Emerald, which has an estimated value of $400 million. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

The Bahia Emerald, which has an estimated value of $400 million. (Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Morgan Hill businessman who insists he is the rightful owner of the mysterious Bahia Emerald testified Wednesday that he was swindled out of the 840-pound rock by the same people he’d made previous deals with, including one for a 50-pound emerald that he still owns.

Under questioning from his attorney, Anthony Thomas said that months before he paid $60,000 for the Bahia Emerald, he paid $20,000 for four smaller stones, including the 50-pound gem that has come to be known as the Thomas Emerald.

He said he also paid the same group $74,000 to polish and otherwise prepare the other emeralds for delivery to him.

Thomas says he believes the sellers lied and told him the Bahia Emerald was stolen after they discovered its true value. An often-quoted appraisal puts that value at nearly $400 million, and some others have put it much higher.

Superior Court Judge John A. Kronstadt, who will decide the gem’s true owner, is to rule on Thomas’ claim after testimony in his trial is concluded. After that, Kronstadt will consider other claims, including one from a group of people who say they paid $1.3 million for the stone.

After testimony concluded Wednesday, attorneys for all sides told the judge they need about four more days to complete the Thomas trial. Kronstadt said he would contact them Friday to schedule those dates.

Since it was dug up in Brazil in 2001, the Bahia Emerald has traveled a mystery-shrouded journey.

It was stored for a time in a bank vault in New Orleans that flooded during Hurricane Katrina. It was reported to have been held in Idaho at one point. It was also stored in a warehouse in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte before it disappeared from there. In 2008 authorities seized it in Las Vegas, where it was about to be put up for sale. They now have it under lock and key, awaiting Kronstadt’s ruling.

During cross-examination Tuesday, lawyers for other claimants pressed Thomas to acknowledge he was little more than a tourist when he had himself photographed with the emerald in Brazil in 2001. They also cast doubt on his story that he ever had a bill of purchase for the emerald, which he says was lost when his Northern California home burned down in 2006.

Thomas held fast to his story, saying a former friend and consultant, Ken Conetto, collaborated with the emerald’s sellers to cheat him out of the stone. Conetto, who once had a competing claim for the stone, has since settled it with some of the others.

On Wednesday Thomas testified that it was Conetto who persuaded him to buy the smaller emerald for $20,000 and the Bahia for $60,000. He said those were the prices the Brazilian sellers offered and he never tried to negotiate them down.

“I think you should buy it, I think it’s worth every penny,” he said Conetto told him.

Thomas’ wife, Wendi, supported his story. In brief testimony Wednesday, she said she was not happy when he told her in October 2001 he had bought the emerald, one of the largest in the world. She said she thought that money would have been better spent on a house, which the couple hadn’t yet purchased.

Initially, Thomas said, he had no idea the Bahia Emerald was as valuable as it was. He said at one point he considered giving it to his brother to cut up and use in his business building decorative waterfalls for high-end homes.

“But after I saw it, I liked it and wanted to keep it for myself,” he said.

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