Dali sketch theft makes surreal tale

Monday, October 6, 2003

— The crime was ... well, it was surreal.

On an island inhabited by 14,000 accused criminals, a $250,000 Salvador Dali sketch disappeared during a midnight fire drill, replaced by a fake. And the people responsible were not the inmates, but four prison officials, authorities said.

Last week, a former assistant deputy warden admitted his role in the March 1 robbery at the Rikers Island jail and implicated his co-workers in the role-reversing rip-off.

Mitchell Hochhauser, 40, claimed the irreplaceable Dali ink and pencil sketch was destroyed by a skittish co-defendant.

The sketch depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a jailhouse fixture since 1965, when the artist planned a visit. Dali instead called in sick, sending a note that promised "a wonderful gift for the prisoners."

He sent a sketch of the crucifix, and it was safe in the prison, authorities said, until March 1.

Hochhauser and Benny Nuzzo were in charge that night, working with officers Timothy Pina and Greg Sokol. The two bosses staged a fire drill as a distraction while the two officers swiped the sketch from its display case, authorities said.

The foursome hoped for a big payday, officials said -- but other officers noticed the fake almost immediately. The suspects were under arrest by mid-June. By then, a nervous Nuzzo had already destroyed the sketch, Hochhauser said in court.