Painted In A Corner By His Past Art Thief Pays For His Crime, And Pays, And Pays

Posted: May 04, 1986

This is the story of the rise and fall of Laurence McCall.

It is about how McCall - juvenile delinquent, 10th-grade dropout and product of a poor Chester family - fooled the sophisticated art world at age 16, stealing and selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of paintings and, with the proceeds, moving into a luxury apartment complete with a spectacular view of Center City Philadelphia and a parking space for his green Jaguar.

It is about how, at age 19, his life as a rich man ended when authorities arrested him, seized his property and, six months after that, sent him - penniless by then, he says - to federal prison for three years.

And it is about how, although he has served that sentence, Laurence McCall, in the eyes of the federal government, still has a debt to society - one that he will probably continue paying for the rest of his life.

Today, McCall, 26, lives with his mother, in the house in which he was born in the city of Chester. He takes a bus and a train to his part-time job as a clerk in Philadelphia. He nets, in a good week, $90.

And according to his own estimate, he owes the Internal Revenue Service a half a million dollars on his ill-gotten, freely spent and since-lost wealth.

"I'd gladly pay them every dime if I had a means to," McCall said. "But it just keeps increasing and increasing and increasing. By the time I can send them $100, they've tacked on another $10,000."

He makes $4.25 an hour plus commission in his part-time job as a telemarketing clerk for North American Publishing, where he began working in September 1984, about four months after his release from prison.

In 1985, the IRS began garnisheeing his wages, claiming any weekly earnings in excess of $75. They ceased the practice the same year, McCall said, after ''I made an impassioned plea to my employer." McCall spends $21 a week getting to and from work on public transportation, and said he tries to help support a 5-year-old son who lives with his mother in Aston.

But even with the increased take-home pay, McCall said, any hopes of making a dent in his debt have vanished with the penalties and interest that began

accruing, and for which he was billed, while he was still in prison.

For the tax year 1978, for example, the IRS was able to document through bank records that McCall earned - and did not report - $150,631. The taxes due on that were $87,482.70. By last November, however, his debt for that year, with penalties and interest, had risen to $253,787.89, according to IRS documents in his possession.

McCall's tax records show he also owes the IRS at least $62,000 for 1979. Although he does not have records for 1977, he estimates that he owes about $200,000 more in taxes, penalties and interest for that year.

In addition to his debt, McCall said, he is trying to cope with the stigma of being an ex-con, which makes high-paying jobs hard to find, and the mental stress caused by his roller-coaster ride from rags to riches to rags again. For help with that, and as part of the three-year probation that follows his prison sentence, he is seeing a psychologist.

"I think the tax situation is contributing to his problem," said Jon B. Grayson, the psychologist whom McCall visits weekly for help in dealing with his depression. Grayson discussed the case with McCall's consent.

"He gets caught and punished, which is reasonable," Grayson said. "But now, when he wants to go straight, this is an additional burden that puts him in the same sort of no-win situation that contributed to him going into crime in the first place, if not worse."

Grayson is assistant director of Rosemont Counseling Associates and, as part of his practice, works with people on federal probation under a contract with the government. He is also a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Temple Medical School.

"From a clinical point of view," Grayson said, "it seems the punishment in this case goes beyond the crime. He did his time, but he will be paying forever."

McCall, a soft-spoken, articulate man who admits to having stolen at least 50 works of art - including almost half of the contents of the since-closed Alfred O. Deshong Memorial Gallery in Chester - holds no grudges against those who put a stop to his rise from poverty.

But what he can't understand, he says, is why, after causing his fall, they won't let him get back up again.

"I feel in a way this is worse than prison. There you're locked up and you don't see the opportunities that are shut off to you," said McCall, who earned his high school diploma in prison and would like to go on to college - were it not for the fact that his IRS debt prevents him from qualifying for a school loan or any other type of loan.

"The way things are now, it really takes away the incentive - knowing that whatever I make of myself, they will take away."

*

It was while trying to avoid an education that Laurence McCall got one.

After being caught breaking into a building at age 7, about the time his father moved out, McCall was moved from his home on Kerlin Street in Chester into the Southern Home for Children in Philadelphia.

By the time he was 10, he was regularly skipping school, and among the places he and friends would seek sanctuary from truant officers was the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"We would run the subways instead of going to school. But on Mondays, the Art Museum was free and we would go there and run around like wild animals," McCall said.

"After a while, though, the other people left or started going back to school, and I kept going to the museum. Originally I went because I was truant

from school, but then I started going for myself. I started actually looking at what was in there."

McCall's interest in art - as well as reading - continued when he returned home to Chester at age 11.

Though he would continue to skip school, he would often spend his days browsing in the Deshong Gallery or going to the building's library to pore over books about art, history and faraway places.

It was in that library one day that a newspaper story caught his eye.

"It was an article in the New York Times about the increased interest in 19th century European artists. It mentioned an artist named Frederick Voltz and a painting of his that was worth $500 in 1950 that had sold for $15,000 three years earlier. It was pretty much that article that got me interested," McCall said.

Less than 130 feet from where he was reading that article, he said, hung a work by Voltz.

At age 16, he entered the small Deshong museum one day in September 1976. When the guard wasn't looking, he removed two paintings from the wall and put them out a window onto a ledge. Then he went outside, retrieved them and carried them home, hiding them in his basement.

They sat there for five months as McCall debated whether to take them to the New York City auction house mentioned in the newspaper article.

"I just thought that it would be difficult for me at 16 to go there and present myself as an owner, which I never did, and pull it off. I figured I'd get stopped at the front door."

Finally, McCall said, the "need to see money" prevailed over his fears. He put on his best clothes, carefully wrapped the paintings in fiberboard and carried them to the Chester train station. He took a train to New York, then a bus to the prestigious Sotheby Parke Bernet auction house.

"I told them I had a delivery for the 19th century European painting department," McCall recalled. Other than his name and address, few questions were asked, he said, and he left with receipts for the paintings.

"I never expected to receive any kind of money. I thought I'd be caught by then. I remember waiting for the mailman and one day seeing the letter. I thought it was going to say that the ownership of my paintings was in question.

"But it was a check for $34,000. I couldn't believe it. I was 16 at the time. The same day, I deposited it in the bank account I had started two years earlier with $7. There was $10 in it by then, from odd jobs like cutting grass and washing cars."

That week, McCall went shopping for a car. He looked at a Cadillac, but,

because the dealer couldn't promise immediate delivery, he settled on a 1977 Oldsmobile - "I had seen that car in National Geographic, the exact same one."

He paid cash.

Within weeks, he moved out of the house in Chester.

In the next two years, with the money from his art sales, McCall would move up from his Oldsmobile to a Mercedes-Benz to a Rolls-Royce to a Jaguar. He would rent a 30th-floor apartment at the Academy House in Center City, and count basketball star Julius Erving and conductor Riccardo Muti among his neighbors.

He would deliver at least 22 more paintings to Sotheby's, and also do business with at least one New Jersey gallery.

He would travel, buy nice clothes and expensive jewelry, eat at fine restaurants, invest in gold and silver, and make friends without even trying.

"I was going through my money real quick - buying things I never had, going places I'd never gone, seeing things I'd never seen, doing things I'd never done."

He was living a fast and flashy life, when, on Sept. 19, 1979, the end came.

McCall had a gun in his apartment that he said he was keeping as collateral on a loan he had made to a friend. On that day, another acquaintance came to his apartment to borrow the gun, McCall said, and it accidentally discharged when he handed it to him.

The acquaintance fell to the floor with a gunshot wound in his side, and McCall notified Academy House security officers, who called the police.

McCall was charged with attempted murder and was later convicted of simple assault. But police officers investigating the shooting noticed paintings in the apartment - a discovery that led them to suspect that McCall was responsible for the theft of more than $400,000 in paintings and carvings from the Deshong museum between 1976 and 1979.

Shortly after his arrest in the shooting, when the police investigation revealed that McCall had done business with the New York auction house, federal authorities were called in. The FBI seized 22 paintings from Sotheby's - the auction house was not accused of any wrongdoing - on the day they were scheduled for auction. And from McCall's apartment, authorities seized his possessions, including gold, silver and $14,000 in cash.

He was left, he said, with his car, a Lincoln Continental that he sold to pay bail and his attorney.

Because artwork had crossed state lines, federal charges of interstate transportation of stolen property and mail fraud were filed. McCall pleaded guilty to two counts of each and was sentenced to three years in prison and three years' probation.

The tax bills began coming before McCall was sent to the first of four federal prisons in which he would reside - and they would continue to come throughout his incarceration, he said.

"I never thought that a criminal had to file income taxes," McCall said. ''I mean it doesn't make much sense. That would be like tipping them off to what you were doing."

Altogether, McCall said, the IRS documented $307,000 in earnings.

In 1984, McCall was released from prison to a federal halfway house in Camden, where he lived for several months before returning to his mother's home, a three-bedroom duplex in Chester in which his sister, her husband and their four children also live.

McCall said he has tried to negotiate with the IRS and has been to the Philadelphia office at least eight times.

"But it's the classical bureaucracy. You can get nothing from anyone. . . . If they could just go as far as arresting the interest . . ., that would at least give me something to strive for, that would give me a goal."

The IRS declined to discuss McCall's taxes, saying policy prohibits them

from talking about individual cases. But crime, the IRS can tell you, pays, and the wages of sin are not tax-free.

When a criminal is caught and his illegal income can be documented, and the taxes due on that make it worth the effort to pursue, the IRS can and does go after its fair share.

"It's taxable in full," said Larry Batdorf, an IRS spokesman in Washington. "The IRS code states 'from whatever source derived,' and whether it's prostitution, gambling or narcotics, it's taxable just like honest labor."

Grayson, the psychologist, said, "It all seems fairly random and capricious. I don't know how the IRS decides which people who have been convicted of crimes they will seek taxes from.

"The way it is now, there is no incentive for him, and, on one hand, what they're doing is almost like encouraging him to commit crimes," Grayson added.

Said McCall, "One day I had nothing, and the next day I had everything. I can say I made it, but I did it illegally. Now I'd like to channel my energy into a legal venture. How much money I make isn't important. What's important is that it's something I enjoy doing.

"But I see my future, at the rate it's going, as pretty bleak. The only future I see is through education, and I don't see any way I can afford that."

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