Crime: To Catch a Thief

Bob Wittman has recovered more than $100 million in stolen art and artifacts, thrown dozens of violent criminals behind bars, and protected the cultural heritage of half a dozen countries. So why does he think he’s going to Hell?

Don’t shoot!”

Robert Wittman drops to the floor of a Madrid hotel room, yelling for his life while a gang of ­machine-gun-­toting Spaniards storms in. They wave their weapons. Across the room, a man screams. ­Wittman doesn’t look up. Instead, he ­clutches a $4 million painting to his chest with one hand, covers his head with the other, and holds his breath.

It’s late June 2002, and Wittman — far from his home near Chadds Ford — has been in Spain for just four days, trying to broker a deal between Spanish art thieves and Eastern European mobsters who want to buy 10 stolen paintings, worth about $50 million. Over the past few days, he’s charmed the thieves with his professorial intellect, convinced them to bring him a valuable Pieter Brueghel painting to authenticate, and promised them a $10 million payout. He’s laughed at their jokes, made plans for future meetings. All the while, he’s pushed away any thoughts of his own guilt, of the sick feeling he’ll take home with him — of the betrayal. That will come later, when Wittman has time to ponder the state of his soul, the righteousness of his God-given talents.

Right now, he’s too busy pondering his immediate future. The gunmen sweep through Wittman’s hotel room, shouting angrily in Spanish — which Wittman can’t follow. He only hopes they can understand him.

Bueno hombre!” he pleads from the floor. “Don’t shoot!”

FBI Special Agent Bob Wittman considers himself for a moment in his bedroom mirror. At 49, he’s a distinguished middle-aged man: stocky but not paunchy, with crow’s-feet around almond-shaped eyes, and graying dark hair — short, but not too short. He’s neat, tucked-in,
restrained — just how he likes it. Then, to do what he has to do, Wittman starts to shred his carefully constructed image. He loses his gray G-man suit, the polished black wing tips, the crisp white shirt. He locks away his .40-caliber Glock, puts his badge in a drawer. He sheds his law-enforcement devotion to rules, blurs his beliefs in right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. Without fanfare, he lets go of just enough of his conscience to do his job.

A few days earlier, Spanish police called Wittman in his office at the FBI’s Philadelphia headquarters with a plan to lure their country’s most notorious art thieves into a trap, using Wittman as an art professor hired to authenticate the paintings for a potential buyer. The agent readily agreed to help. He had been following the case from afar since August 2001, when the penthouse of Spain’s richest woman was robbed of 17 paintings and several sculptures, including Francisco Goya’s The Swing, worth over $12 million, and works by Brueghel, Camille Pissarro and Juan Gris. Spanish authorities realized almost immediately who the perpetrators were: a violent gang known as the Angel Suarez Flores Organization, on Spain’s most-wanted list for 10 years. But Spanish law required that the thieves be caught with the stolen works in hand before arrests could be made. And for that, the Spaniards needed Wittman.