San Francisco Art Thief Sentenced To Probation

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San Francisco police officers cart away stolen artwork recovered from an apartment on the 400 block of Ellis St. on June 1, 2010. (CBS)

San Francisco police officers cart away stolen artwork recovered from an apartment on the 400 block of Ellis St. on June 1, 2010. (CBS)

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) — A San Francisco man believed to have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of artworks from local galleries and stashed them inside his Tenderloin residential hotel room was sentenced to probation Wednesday.

Terry Helbing was arrested on June 1, 2010, after allegedly swiping 40 paintings and prints estimated at $15,000 from the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s horticulture library. Police later found a trove of other artworks inside Helbing’s residence in the 400 block of Ellis Street.

Helbing, 53, had been facing 28 felony counts, but on Jan. 5 in San Francisco Superior Court, he agreed to plead guilty to two counts, burglary and receiving stolen property.

His attorney, Kenneth Quigley, had argued at Helbing’s preliminary court hearing last August that his client had mental health issues and an IQ of 66.

Botanical Garden officials had said at the time of Helbing’s arrest that he frequented the garden often and would attend art exhibition openings there.

Botanical Garden Executive Director Michael McKechnie said staff had become suspicious of Helbing, who had spoken to them of his art collection and “seemed to have a passion for art.”

Quigley said at the preliminary hearing that his client had not been in the business of stealing art, but “simply has good taste.”

According to police and prosecutors, Helbing had surreptitiously helped himself to dozens of artworks – mostly paintings, but also a skull from the California Academy of Sciences – in thefts going as far back as 2004.

The total value of the thefts was estimated at close to $200,000, prosecutors said.

As his case was called in court Wednesday afternoon, Helbing greeted Quigley with a loud, “Am I going home today?”

“Where are you going to go?” Quigley asked.

“I have money, I can get a hotel room,” Helbing answered.

In exchange for his guilty plea, Judge Charles Haines sentenced Helbing to four years’ probation and a year in county jail.

After receiving 240 days credit for time already served since his arrest, Helbing was to be released from custody Wednesday, and referred to the city’s Community Justice Center court Thursday, “so that he can get the services necessary,” Quigley said.

Haines also signed orders requiring Helbing to stay away from the horticulture library, the Academy of Sciences, and nine other art galleries in the city.

Attorneys will hold a hearing on the return of the galleries’ property on March 4.

As Helbing was being led out of the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies, he could be heard yelling, “Quigley, Quigley, when are you going to talk to me?”

“As soon as I can,” Quigley called back.

Outside court, Quigley said the Community Justice Center would help find Helbing a place to live.

“He is homeless, he is destitute,” Quigley said.

Asked if he worried whether Helbing could re-offend, Quigley said that question would be better posed to Helbing’s psychiatrist.

According to Quigley, Helbing has been receiving mental health counseling while in custody.

“I wish him the best,” said Quigley. “I have a great deal of sympathy for him. He is a sad character.”

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News contributed to this report.)

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