NEWARK, N.J. - A truck driver accused of stealing a Goya painting from an unattended transport truck, then claiming he found it in his basement, pleaded guilty yesterday.
Steven Lee Olson, 49, of Carlstadt, pleaded to conspiracy to commit theft under a deal with federal prosecutors. He faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 under the reduced charge.
Olson's neighbor Roman Szurko pleaded guilty Tuesday to the same charge, prosecutors said.
Olson was charged in October with stealing
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a 1778 painting by Spanish master Francisco de Goya.
The painting, insured for $1 million, was on its way to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from Ohio's Toledo Museum of Art in November 2006. It was stolen as the transport drivers spent the night at a Bartonsville, Pa., motel. They discovered the work, nearly 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, missing the next morning.
Olson told U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh that the $50,000 reward wasn't the reason he called authorities.
"I really wanted to get rid of it," Olson said. "At least I turned it back in."
Olson said he didn't destroy the painting because "it kind of grew on me."
His attorney, Joe Ferrante, said his client and Szurko didn't know what they'd find when they cased the van. They didn't know what they had until they read the shipping documents.
"When they got it, they realized it was more than they could handle," Ferrante said.
Within days, Olson contacted federal authorities through an attorney to say he had found the painting in his basement. After a lengthy investigation, authorities concluded the self-employed truck driver had lifted the piece himself.
He was charged with theft of an object of cultural heritage from a museum, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His plea deal gave him a reduced charge and sentence. Sentencing is expected in March.
The painting was returned undamaged to the Toledo museum. In February, the museum allowed the painting to be included for a few weeks in the Guggenheim exhibit.
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