Last month’s bungled heist of a pricey Artrageous painting, whose proceeds were slotted for the AIDS-related charity Nashville CARES, was a story of high comedy and coldhearted avarice. Now it may also be a story of guilt vs. innocence.
Robert “Dusty” Manus, the suspected thief who was quickly nabbed by Metro police two days after the heist, has come forward claiming Artrageous officials nailed the wrong man. Not only isn’t he the thief, Manus says, he came by the painting only after he convinced the real thief to turn it over to him.
“I’m no saint, don’t get me wrong, but I’m no thief,” says Manus, himself a painter and photographer who hosts a Web site featuring works by local artists.
In fact, at least one police officer seems to corroborate Manus’ story. Sgt. T. Chick says that she is an acquaintance of Manus and that he spoke to her not long after the painting was taken. “He called and wanted to know if he would get in any trouble for returning a painting that a friend of his had stolen,” she says.
Still, nearly a month after the theft, details remain sketchy. This much we know: At the annual Artrageous bash at Gaylord Entertainment Center on Saturday, Oct. 28, an unidentified thief made off with “The Big Apple,” by local artist Joey Clay. The painting fetched $2,550 at silent auction, the highest bid of the evening. Two days later, Manus returned the painting to event organizer Lissa Kelley. The next day, he was arrested and charged with theft of property.
In his arrest warrant, police say Manus “unlawfully and knowingly” obtained possession of stolen property. They say he then tried to sell it at least three times to Will Hendricks, the man who posted the second highest bid for “The Big Apple.” Hendricks reportedly thought he was talking to the person who successfully bid for the painting. He later identified Manus in a photo lineup.
But Manus tells a different story. He says a childhood friend of his walked off with the painting for reasons he does not know. At first, Manus says, he didn’t know it was stolen; he thought his cash-starved friend drunkenly purchased the painting. Standing outside the arena on a windy night, Manus took the painting to examine it. He says he told his friend, “You’re crazy for buying it.” At that point, Manus says Will Hendricks approached the two of them.
Hendricks apparently thought he was talking to the rightful owners of the painting, and he told them how much he liked it. Manus’ friend asked Manus if he thought he should sell it. Manus replied, “Hell, yeah.” Manus, who often sells art for his friends, says he quickly tried to sell Hendricks the painting for around $1,000. (Manus says that he didn’t know the amount of the winning bid.) Hendricks did not have enough cash on hand, but he gave Manus’ friend his card. (Hendricks did not return repeated calls to his office.)
The next day, Manus says, he asked his friend how much he bid on it. According to Manus, his friend said, “I didn’t bid on it.” At that point, Manus says, he realized his friend had stolen the painting. After a few choice words, he told his friend to return it to the Artrageous silent auction organizer, Lissa Kelley. When his friend balked, Manus threatened to call the police. In turn, his friend threatened to destroy the painting. After a nearly two-hour phone conversation, Manus says he convinced his friend to bring the painting to him, so he could return it to Kelley.
Once he knew the painting was stolen, Manus says, he stopped trying to sell it; however, police say that he continued to contact Hendricks about purchasing the painting.
“Dusty just wanted the painting to get returned,” says Pearl Amanfu, Manus’ girlfriend, who was on hand when the painting’s fate was being negotiated. “But the thank-you he got was an arrest warrant.”
Manus says that he and his lawyers have met with police to tell them who the real thief is, but that police were not interested in the information. If the case ever goes to trial, however, he could still call some of those eyewitnesses.
Kelley, the silent auction chair, says that the man she saw remove “The Big Apple” from the wall was not Manus. “I saw someone else take the painting from the panel and it was not him, but that doesn’t mean somebody didn’t pass it to Dusty.”
The fact that Manus wound up in possession of stolen property is not in dispute. But, naturally, some are wondering why, if he was the one who perpetrated the heist, did he later return it? Moreover, why would he talk to a police officer about the stolen painting?
For the alleged theft, Manus is charged with a class D felonywhich means he could spend anywhere from two to four years in prison if convicted. Meanwhile, he faces a preliminary hearing in General Sessions Court this Wednesday.
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