Saying they destroyed a priceless artifact, a federal judge on Monday handed out prison terms to the two thieves who eight years ago helped themselves to a 17th century gold bar that had been the centerpiece of a Key West museum.
“It had value for the world,” said U.S. District Court Judge Jose Martinez, during a sentencing hearing for both men at the federal courthouse in Key West.
Richard Steven Johnson will serve 63 months in prison for breaking into a display case at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in August 2010 and plucking the gold bar from its perch, where museum visitors had been able to reach in and lift it.
Jarred Goldman, who acted as a lookout, got 40 months despite his claim that he never planned to take part in the crime until he was inside the museum with Johnson.
Both were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and theft of major artwork, which carry a total of 15 years upon conviction.
Johnson told the judge, “I take full responsibility for what I’ve done. When I committed this crime I was a different person. I have no plans of ever committing another crime again.”
Johnson and Goldman apologized to the museum and to the people of Key West for stealing the bar.
“Mr. Goldman is being punished for a really, really bad day that happened eight years ago when he was 24 years old,” Assistant Federal Public Defender Stewart Abrams told the judge.
“He had the chance to walk away and he didn’t,” Martinez said.
Both men must also pay $570,195 in restitution to the museum for the bar, which the museum valued at over $560,000 at the time of the theft. Martinez said he didn’t expect either convict would be able to come up with much money.
Insurance paid the museum about $100,000 for the bar, which was recovered in 1980 by treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his team from a centuries-old shipwreck off the Florida Keys.
But that insurance payment doesn’t begin to weigh the importance of the bar, which was chopped up and sold in Las Vegas for pennies on the dollar, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Marcet, who called it “priceless.”
“That’s the point of view of insurance companies and jewelers,” museum CEO Melissa Kendrick testified Monday as Johnson’s attorney, Chad Piotrowski, argued the bar was worth the rate of gold and no more in an effort to secure a lesser sentence for his client. “As professionals, we don’t see it that way.”
Kendrick said, “The cultural community doesn’t value a Rembrandt for the cost of canvas and the paint.”
A small portion — 1/30th of the total bar, the museum said — was recovered by federal agents with Johnson’s help, but it won’t appear in the museum, said its archaeologist, Corey Malcom.
“It’s a tiny bit,” Malcom said after the sentencing hearing. “It belongs to the insurance company now.”
The gold bar theft case sat dormant for nearly eight years until an anonymous tipster led federal agents to Goldman and Johnson. Goldman identified Johnson to police only after they showed him a photo of the pair together.
Johnson, who pleaded guilty before Goldman went to trial this year, said he would cooperate, but prosecutors didn’t find him to be a credible witness and he did not testify.