Detail from Salt River Canyon. Wieghorst sold paintings to John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan bought his work, and Barry Goldwater wrote the foreword to the only biography written about him.
The Louis Almeida case should be closed. During a seven-year period in the ’80s, he took San Diego art collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars through forgeries and fraud. At least, that’s what he admitted to when he was caught in 1989. He was sent to prison that same year, served his time, and was released in July 1994. But Almeida’s elaborate cons, ten years or more in the making, were never dismantled completely. They continue to play themselves out, and only Almeida knows where and how they will end.
Olaf Wieghorst, c. 1976. Wieghorst, a long-time resident of El Cajon, was prolific and hugely successful. His paintings sold literally as fast as he could make them — and at six-figure prices.
Almeida limited his counterfeiting to one artist, the late Western painter Olaf Wieghorst. It was a smart choice. Wieghorst, a long-time resident of El Cajon, was prolific and hugely successful. His paintings sold literally as fast as he could make them — and at six-figure prices. He was very popular in San Diego, “a local gem,” as one admirer put it, which gave Almeida a ready base to cultivate. For an added whiff of legitimacy, Almeida, a skilled frame-maker in his own right, was Wieghorst’s personal framer and friend.
Louis Almeida, left, from a December 1971 Decor magazine article on the Thackeray Gallery in Hillcrest
At his trial, Almeida, in a last-minute surprise, pleaded guilty to six counts of grand theft. In exchange, the prosecution dropped six more. Then came several months of wrangling over restitution. In the end, Almeida went to jail for the maximum term without repaying anyone and without answering dozens of questions about his crimes. Then–assistant district attorney Lantz Lewis (who has left the office and could not be reached) drew up 56 of them for the court. They are laid out on three single-spaced pages in Almeida’s case file in the older records section of San Diego Superior Court.
Orlando Bonaguidi: “He could hardly pay the rent. What could a man like that do with the money?"
“Questions for Louis Esquivel Almeida,” reads the heading. Here’s a sampling: Who made the forgeries? Where were they made? What other fakes exist and where are they? Who now possesses the originals that have never been returned? Some of the fakes were elaborate photographic reproductions. Who did them? Did the operator know he or she was taking part in a criminal enterprise? Who else did Almeida sell forgeries to? Are there more forgeries still on the market or stashed away somewhere? How many people were in on the plan? Was Almeida forced by someone else to commit his crimes? If so, by whom? How many times had he faked the signature of Roy Wieghorst, Olaf’s son and business agent, who now manages the Wieghorst estate?”
A simple color photograph, enlarged to match the original, was Almeida’s favorite technique. That’s how he copied a signed print of the Navajo Madonna, which would have sold for as much as $5000. Almeida offered his versions for $3000.
Finally, two more the DA didn’t mention: Why did he do it, and how did he think he’d get away with it?
“They’re buying the man as much as the art,” Martin Petersen says of Wieghorst. Petersen is curator of paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art and an authority on and acquaintance of the painter. Wieghorst must have been quite a man. In 1972 a pair of his paintings sold for $1 million, a record price for a living artist at the time. Doug Jones, who owns the Jones Gallery in La Jolla, can instantly recall the first time he saw Wieghorst’s work some 40 years ago, when Jones was a boy. “He was painting some bucking horses on the counter of a store that sold Western gear. I thought that was just magic.”
Roy Wieghorst: "Louie was a habitual liar. I could understand if he was doing it in Arizona, but right here in the community where my father lived?”
At the height of his popularity in the ’50s and ’60s, Wieghorst sold paintings to Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. Wealthy conservatives admired him, too. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan bought his work, and would-be president Barry Goldwater wrote the foreword to the only biography written about him, William Reed’s Olaf Wieghorst (1969, Northland Press, Flagstaff). “When I first saw a painting by Olaf Wieghorst,” Goldwater writes, “I knew I had to have that painting…I see the Navajo faces, the long hair, the saddles, the horses, and I can know the Navajo.” Wieghorst was “a giant of a man, barrel-chested with muscular arms and hands as big as two of mine and twice as strong. He looked to me anything but an artist…”
Grace and George Thackeray. George was one of Wieghorst’s first friends when Wieghorst arrived in El Cajon. They painted together. “I used to travel to shows with him a lot.”
“The horse has been my greatest teacher,” Wieghorst told Reed. “But he was not alone. The rolling prairies, the snow-capped mountains, the desert, the cow-camps, the breaking-corrals, the bawling calf, running iron, and the dusty trail of a cattle drive…I have sat on the rim of some canyon for hours at a time, watching rolling thunderclouds, clear summer skies, arid desert, and blue-green mountain country…As I watched nature’s wonders, it dawned on me how small and insignificant I was.”
Wieghorst was born into a middle-class Danish family in 1899, and as a boy spent time around horses. His father sent him to a Russian acrobat to be trained as a professional performer in Copenhagen, and in 1912, when Wieghorst was 13, the Jack Joyce Circus and Wild West Show came to town. It was a sensation. Painters Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, to whom Olaf would be compared later, were widely admired.
The star of the Jack Joyce was “the grandest thing I had ever seen,” Wieghorst recalled to his biographer. He was “dressed in goatskin chaps, a big ‘20-gallon’ cowboy hat and a bright red shirt with leather cuffs.” After the First World War, he moved to New York City and met his future wife, Mabel Walters. A newsreel about the U.S. Cavalry chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico inspired him to sign up for the Army. Seven years after seeing his first bucking bronco, he was finally headed west, to Ft. Bliss, Texas.
“I was completely taken with those cavalry horses,” he told Reed. “They were beautiful animals.” He sketched them with whatever materials he could find. He was documenting the closing days of the horse soldier, witnessing scenes that now can only be approximated on film, like a 3000-horse review at Ft. Bliss that climaxed in a mass cavalry charge.
In 1922 he was mustered out at age 23, along with some friends with whom he’d agreed to start a ranch. The informal partnership broke up when Wieghorst decided to take a job with a rancher in New Mexico named Cunningham. Wieghorst quit after several seasons, but Cunningham had made an impression. Wieghorst later incorporated the Cunningham “quarter-circle 2c” brand into his personal hallmark.
Wieghorst returned to New York City where Mabel Walters was waiting for him. Like many Army veterans, he applied to the police department. A brief stint on foot patrol in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, ended when he refused to take a bribe. He transferred to the mounted patrol and was promoted to the elite Central Park bridle path patrol in 1930. His son Roy was born that same year. Starting in the mid-’30s, Wieghorst began to sell more of his works at prices ranging from $25 to $100. He also painted calendar illustrations and privately commissioned horse portraits.
By December of 1944, he was confident enough to retire from the force, taking a pension of $1500 a year. His first investment was $850 in a used house trailer. On January 1, 1945, 26 years to the day after he’d done so the first time, he headed west again and settled in El Cajon. By 1955, there was a waiting list of people who wanted Wieghorsts.
Orland Bonaguidi, an 82-year-old retired businessman and Wieghorst collector, had started “buying the man.” In his younger years, Bonaguidi covered literally the same territory that Wieghorst celebrates in his paintings. “I followed his footsteps,” Bonaguidi says, sounding and looking like the El Paso native he is. We meet at Victor’s, a venerable coffee shop/cocktail lounge/de facto clubhouse for the Mission Bay Golf Course. When I arrive, he’s eating two fried eggs and hash browns.
After World War II, Bonaguidi started a roofing company in San Diego, eventually designing the roofs of the Guggenheim Museum and San Francisco International Airport. The business, though, was decades in the making, while he “fell in love with [Wieghorst’s] pictures” long before he could afford them. “That,” he adds ruefully, was “my entrée to Louis [Almeida].”
Bonaguidi didn’t see his first Wieghorst until the early 1970s. It was hanging in George Thackeray’s gallery in Hillcrest. “I thought, ‘I know this country.’ The more I met him, the better I liked him. Normally you think of an artist as some little guy with a long beard and a paintbrush. He was just the opposite. This great big husky man with a warm smile who’d talk to you.”
Bonaguidi bought prints priced at a couple thousand dollars. “If you buy one painting and you spend that kind of money [five or six figures], you’ve got one painting. But over the years, I’ve accumulated maybe 30 signed prints.”
Nearly all his Wieghorsts came from Almeida, whose Brentwood Gallery was near the roofing factory. “He knew I was an ardent Wieghorst fan. One day he calls me and says, ‘I can get you an original [painting] for about $35,000.’ I went up and looked at it. It was beautiful. I didn’t have the money, but my son Ron did. We bought the damn thing. [Almeida] even let me chisel him down $5000.”
Later, in the living room of his house in Ocean Beach, Bonaguidi takes the painting down from the wall. A not very distinguished cowboy scene, the horse and rider indifferently portrayed, it’s about two feet square, which would justify the lower price. The trademark signature is in the corner. Unfortunately, it’s a forgery. The “Wieghorst” Bonaguidi is holding in his hands “turned out to be a switch.” Bonaguidi has never bothered to pursue the matter legally. “I’m going to take his signature off, though,” he says, “so no one else gets fooled,” and because it’s an insult to Wieghorst’s reputation.
Bonaguidi is more upset by the loss of a $6000 boxed set of prints, 13 original numbered lithographs. “Louie said, ‘I can sell those for you. Make a couple of thousand. Do you want to?’ I didn’t really, but I needed the money. So I gave him the prints. That’s the last I saw of them…Then one day I got a call from a lady in La Jolla, and she asked if I knew Louie. Indeed I did. She had a small painting by Olaf, and it was a forgery.” This was Marilyn Pavel, who, along with her husband Frank, helped break the Almeida case. Bonaguidi says, “I sat down with Louie in his office, and I said, ‘Louie, now tell me. I don’t want any bullshit. Is [my painting] an original or is it not?’ And Louis said, ‘I swear,’ you know Mexicans, ‘on my mother’s grave.’ I said, ‘All right.’ ”
Later, Bonaguidi felt betrayed and foolish. He’d known Louie for about 15 years. “I liked him. He was an impressive person…but always broke. He’d come to me and say, ‘Orland, I can’t pay the rent. I need a couple of hundred dollars.’ That’s how I accumulated so many paintings. When he needed money, he had something to sell.”
As for the 13 prints, Bonaguidi says, “Louie knows who’s got those. He better have them stashed away, because I don’t know how he’s going to make any money.”
Marilyn Pavel can laugh now about how she and her husband, dentist Frank Pavel, brought Almeida to justice. They are also among the few people to get back their original, though it took years and cost thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees.
In 1982, when the market was still strong, they bought a painting, Watering His Pony, from an Arizona dealer for $50,000. Almeida was the intermediary. While it was still at his gallery, he asked them if they’d like to sell it. “Possibly,” Marilyn Pavel recalls they replied. We are talking in the living room of her house overlooking the bay.
“At the time,” Marilyn says, “Wieghorst was very popular. Almeida said, ‘I’m showing it to this bank, to this person here.’ Whether he was showing it to anyone, we’ll never know.”
Two weeks later, Watering His Pony was sold to a San Diego bail bondsman for $20,000, but Almeida never told the Pavels or gave them any money. He stalled them for five years. “He wouldn’t return my calls. Then I went by his studio, and the door was locked and there was a notice that he hadn’t paid some tax.
“Finally I said to Manuel [Almeida’s brother-in-law Manuel Castañon], ‘Do I have to call the authorities to have this painting returned?’ at which point I got a call from [Louis Almeida] right away. He said he’d been down visiting his sick father all those many months. It was not returned until the following year. And it was crated. We thought, ‘We’re interested in selling that painting,’ so we uncrated it, and I said, ‘It’s been a while, but I don’t recall it looking like that.’ ”
Floyd Jones (no relation to Doug Jones), owner of the Art World Western Heritage Gallery, told the Pavels it was a fake. “We were stunned, but given all that background, it began to make sense.” The Pavels confronted Almeida and demanded their original. Then they called the authorities.
Their fake was one of the few done on canvas, but “it wasn’t even the right dimensions.” What was supposed to be a night scene had “lots of yellow ochre.” It didn’t match the photograph they’d taken for the insurance company.
Pavel has had no contact with Almeida since the trial. “His pleading guilty and taking the rap meant that he didn’t have to reveal who was helping him.” I show her the 56 questions. “We had questions for him. I don’t know that these are all ours, but ours are included in that.” Almeida “was really a very good con artist. He had a lot of doctors on the string. Lawyers, developers.” The Pavels won a judgment of $158,000 from Almeida, though there’s no prospect of collecting. They have put their original for sale on consignment at Art World. “It’s an early Wieghorst. If someone were interested in the scope of his work, they’d like it.”
Roy Wieghorst isn’t optimistic about unraveling Almeida’s secrets. “Louie was a difficult person to deal with. We asked him while he was in prison who did these photos,” the forgeries made to look like lithographs. He named a photo lab, and Wieghorst sued it. “Louie described where it was located,” but they discovered that the lab had never been located on that spot, “so we dropped the suit. Louie was a habitual liar,” Roy concludes. “I could understand if he was doing it in Arizona, but right here in the community where my father lived?”
As for motive, Wieghorst heard stories that Almeida “went to Vegas, threw money around, rented lots of rooms. Others said he never gambled. Still others predicted he’d go south, to Mexico.” When the judge encouraged him to cooperate, “Louie would never say anything. He just took the full sentence. You wonder why he would do that unless he had money stashed away in Mexico.”
Roy figures in his father’s biography as an ancillary character, a 15-year-old uprooted from his native Queens and dropped into a trailer park in El Cajon. The only child and only son of a strong-willed father, he doesn’t seem to have rebelled seriously against Olaf. While Olaf was alive, Roy kept control over the number and quality of prints that were produced. With his father’s death in 1988, he became the leading Wieghorst authority.
We meet in Roy’s spacious 1960 designer-built house above El Cajon. Heavy beams and industrial-strength fittings are melded with large expanses of glass and blond wood. The living room looks out on scrub-covered hills.
In the casual social salad of San Diego in the ’40s and ’50s, Roy was thrown together with Almeida. He speaks about Almeida without emotion. “It’s amazing how many people were taken in.” It’s equally amazing how simple-minded most of Almeida’s methods were. Wieghorst has identified four. A simple color photograph, enlarged to match the original, was Almeida’s favorite technique. That’s how he copied a signed print of the Navajo Madonna, which would have sold for as much as $5000. Almeida offered his versions for $3000. “Many people thought it was a bargain.”
Another work Almeida copied more than once was an old pencil drawing that was “very, very black. He just put it in a Xerox machine and pushed 100 [percent].” This deception was so hard to detect, Roy had to bring in experts from Xerox.
“Way number three, he hired someone and showed them an original, and they actually made a copy of it.” No artist was ever found, but Wieghorst thinks most of the work was done in the U.S. He only had one copy made, “that we know of,” Roy says. “I often wonder where he is now and what he’s doing. Maybe he’s sipping a piña colada on the beach in Acapulco.”
Almeida has a good reason to lie low: a $300,000 civil judgment Wieghorst won against him for federal copyright violations. “ Louie doesn’t have any assets that we know of. But it’s good for ten years and can be renewed again for another ten years.”
Almeida’s ingratitude nettles him the most. “We would go out of our way” to refer business to him. “My father would see Louie in the gallery, and he always had a sad story about how his kid was sick and he didn’t have the money to pay the doctor. My father was a pushover, and he’d hand him $100. Then to turn around and do all these forgeries.”
After the Almeida case broke, Roy offered to authenticate some people’s holdings, but “They were afraid that they have lost their investment. This way, they don’t know, and they can turn around and sell it and in all good conscience say it’s an original Wieghorst as far as they know.”
Roy and I walk to Olaf’s studio, built in 1956, “where my father did most of his major paintings.” It has thick adobe walls and is cool and dark, yet a skylight lets in a filtered north light, which makes the place glow. “And it’s quiet,” Wieghorst says. “At one time he had two feet of dirt on the roof and had grass growing up there.”
Wieghorst’s reputation rests on his eye for detail as much as his artistic vision. In his biography, he told Reed he felt obligated to be historically accurate because “all the information the future generations will get of the passing of the West must surely come from the pen of the author and the brush of the artist.”
The San Diego Museum of Art’s Martin Petersen appreciates the power Wieghorst exerts over his fans. Wieghorst exhibitions at the museum in 1962 and 1976 drew record crowds. “His emphasis was on the details that satisfied the aesthetics of that kind of collector. A lot of painters jumped on the bandwagon, but they didn’t really know the Western lifestyle.”
Petersen worries that “the art is the least thing discussed” about Western artists. When that’s examined, some aesthetic patterns emerge. In Wieghorst’s case, Petersen sees a progression. “As he developed as an artist, it’s the landscape that dominates, and the horse and the rider are relegated to a corner, and man looks at nature in awe.” Petersen likes “the really ambiguous things. There’s a boss man with a herd of cattle and there’s so much dust, you don’t see much else. I loved his rainy scenes.
“Olaf’s works have held up pretty well. His watercolors can sell for $10,000, which is not bad. Maybe four figures for drawings. He had a devoted following, and as long as they’re around…”
Wieghorst consciously crafted his image. “He tried to look like Charlie Russell. He felt Russell was the epitome of the Western painter,” with “a theatrical dash. He was a charming person, as was his wife May. He used to go fishing with Roy Rogers. He did a little watercolor of John Wayne.”
About five or six years before he died, Wieghorst glimpsed the macabre side of artistic success. His car ran off the road and caught fire, and he and his wife were burned. A gallery that carried a lot of his work announced that he’d died.
How did Almeida think he could get away with his crimes? Bonaguidi sees him as simply blinded by greed. Roy Weighorst mentioned Clifford Irving’s 1969 book Fake!, about legendary Impressionist forger Elmyr de Hory. “ ‘He’s a charming man…and he can smile right in your face and tell the most awful lies.’ ” It’s hard to denounce fakes. A gallery owner told Irving, “ ‘You have to do it gently. If you say “fake,” you insult a man’s intelligence, you wound his vanity, and you probably lose him as a customer.’ ”
That may explain the thin court file of letters of condemnation against Almeida and the tepid tone of the ones in support. Almeida could only produce half a dozen people to write in in his favor. As belated evidence of his attempts at restitution, he filed two handwritten pledges of loans, one from his sisters. There was also a vague letter from another frame-shop owner saying he might pay as much as $40,000 to buy Almeida out.
On the opposing side of the ledger, only three of the victims named in the criminal complaint, all doctors, put down their thoughts in writing. Frank Pavel gave a dispassionate account of Almeida’s misdeeds, ending by saying he “has cost us a great deal monetarily as well as personal anxiety and stress.”
One Dr. Stewart G. Belote scrawled an angry note to the judge, urging him to impose “the maximum sentence allowable by law.”
Belote was the third and last person to whom Almeida “sold” the Arizona Trails. It had been placed on consignment in 1983 by Shirley Landenheim, a San Diego resident who had bought it directly from Roy Wieghorst for $20,000. In 1986 Almeida convinced Belote to pay him $15,000 for a partial share in the work, without telling Belote he didn’t actually own it. By then, Almeida had made upwards of $100,000 by selling and reselling Arizona Trails.
Belote wrote: “His record with us was one of repeated misrepresentation, lying and deceit, and to my knowledge he has shown little or no remorse for his actions.”
Dentist Lawrence Andrews paid $40,000 for Arizona Trails. He preferred to write, he told the court, because he was afraid of “future retaliation” by Almeida, “a world-class liar and con man.” Andrews figured his total losses at Almeida’s hands to be more than $100,000. “[I]t will take me ten years of hard work to recover my retirement fund losses,” he wrote.
For a time, Shirley Landenheim thought she was one of Almeida’s few victims to get back her original, the Arizona Trails that Almeida trafficked in for so many years. It has been valued at $200,000, she says. Six months after she left it with Almeida, a San Diego man named David Scott bought it for $50,000. Almeida kept the news — and the cash — to himself. He had Scott make his check out to “M. Castenon [sic],” according to the DA’s statement of facts. Landenheim lost patience and demanded her painting back. Almeida stalled for six years.
“He drummed up all these stories,” she recalled in a phone conversation. Meanwhile, David Scott placed the painting on consignment with Almeida for resale. Almeida told him that in April of 1986, one “D. Canaro” had bought it for $37,000, making an initial down payment of $18,000. That last sum is all Scott saw for his $50,000 investment. As the DA put it, Scott “never received the remainder of the purchase price, never met D. Canaro, nor did he ever see Arizona Trails again.”
Landenheim knew nothing about Scott. She just wanted her painting back. Finally, she thought it had been returned to her in January of 1989. “We never even unwrapped it,” Landenheim says, but put it straight in a bank vault. When she heard about Almeida’s arrest, she brought it down to the police station, still in the brown paper. “Roy said, ‘Look in the corner of the picture.’ ” There was a white spot. “‘That’s the reflection of a flash bulb,’” he said.
Retired interior designer Muriel Kinney was one of the few to write in support of Almeida. She’d used him to frame pictures “for over 20 years.” She still patronizes the business of Almeida’s brother-in-law, Manuel Castañon. “The old-timers used him a lot,” she said in a recent interview. Before starting her own business, she worked for the design firm of Cannell and Chaffin. Kinney never had her clients buy art from Almeida, but “he would help me design the frame to fit what I had done.”
Almeida, she said, was “the mouthy one, a real talker, kind of a con artist. Manuel was in the background. He was shy.” Castañon has set up his framing shop in a “suite” that’s little more than a large garage in an industrial park off Miramar Boulevard near the naval air station. He moved here after the trial. The tenants are small businesses for whom a UPS delivery is a big event. There’s no walk-in trade. Castañon’s customers must know where he is.
Castañon was my only link to Almeida. His wife is Almeida’s ex-wife’s sister. Although he only hears from him a couple of times a year, he agreed to deliver a letter from me asking for a chance to talk. No go, Castañon reported back apologetically in his halting English. Just asking got him into trouble with his wife and in-laws. Still, he agreed to see me at his framing shop.
At the start of Almeida’s troubles, “we were all mad at him.” Castañon didn’t know what was going on, he says. “We just did the work. He was the one who sold.” Castañon was never charged with a crime, and it makes sense that Almeida would have kept his scheming to himself. The more people who knew about his illegal profits, the more people with whom he’d have to share them.
However, many of Almeida’s victims, who asked to remain nameless, scoff at Castañon’s claims of ignorance. At the very least, they wonder, how could he have framed copies of the same “original” print so many times without having questions?
When Almeida was arrested, he said that nearly all of the money he’d stolen had been used to pay back taxes. But he still owed the government tens of thousands of dollars when he went to jail.
“He could hardly pay the rent,” Bonaguidi says, echoing others’ wonderment. “What could a man like that do with the money? You do one of three things. You either gamble it like hell, or you’re on narcotics, or the one that will take it quicker than all of that is a woman. I never saw a strange woman in Louis’s shop. And I bet I was in there 200 times. And he didn’t look like he was on narcotics to me. I’m not a young kid. I’d recognize that in a minute. He wore a dirty shirt, slacks. No show. He had an old van. The only thing he enjoyed doing was going to the baseball game.”
“Louie might have been a sharp swindler,” Roy Wieghorst says. “He didn’t drive a big fancy car. He might have all this money in a Swiss bank…The police found shoeboxes full of money order receipts. He didn’t even have a checkbook. He owed everyone. You really wonder what happened to all that money.”
After the trial, “Manuel called me half a dozen times,” Bonaguidi recalls. “I don’t know if Manuel knew what was going on. After what happened to me and the others, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the family.” Castañon “closed the shop, practically threw everything away.”
Almeida’s divorce from Alicia, his wife of 28 years, produced the most extensive paper trail. Many of those he conned wonder if the divorce wasn’t a counterfeit, too. For instance, although the 1987 Tribune profile quoted him to the effect that he surrounded himself with Western paintings at home, the only reference to art in the Almeidas’ community property declaration is the word “paintings,” written on one line, whose value was “unknown.”
According to the court papers, Alicia initiated the breakup in March 1988, around the time the Pavels were pressing for the return of Watering His Pony, Shirley Landenheim was demanding her Arizona Trails back, and the IRS had asked for $15,000 in back taxes for employee withholding at the gallery. Also, two civil judgments totaling nearly $25,000 had been awarded against Almeida’s business, and he had borrowed $22,500 from a San Diego lawyer friend, pledging his house in El Cajon as collateral.
In her pleadings, Alicia said the IRS had seized their motor boat, trailer, and a 1983 Dodge van. “Our large motor home [valued by Alicia at $19,000] has also recently ‘disappeared,’ and I have no knowledge of its present whereabouts.”
For his side, Almeida said he was a high school graduate with an income of $24,000 a year. His son, Louis Almeida, Jr., was said to be making the same amount. Alicia’s yearly earnings came to $6000.
She asserted that Almeida had a history of spending large sums of cash. From 1978 to 1987, a period in which he admitted owing money to the IRS, she said that he paid $18,000 cash for a new Camaro for his daughter and $3500 for a boat for his son. Almeida disputed her figures but didn’t deny paying in cash. The Camaro, he claimed, cost only $7400 plus “artwork,” and the boat wasn’t as expensive as she’d said.
According to the court files, the couple reconciled from May to November of 1988. Official proceedings recommenced in early 1989, around the time of Almeida’s arrest.
After he pleaded guilty, his criminal trial became entangled in the divorce. As late as September of 1989, Almeida told the judge in his criminal case that the divorce was the reason he couldn’t pay restitution. He didn’t mention that the value of his and Alicia’s holdings was far less than what he owed his victims. On the divorce side, Almeida’s lawyer argued that he shouldn’t be sent to jail on the criminal charges until the civil case was settled.
As he faced ruin, Almeida put on a stunning display of brinksmanship. The main issue in the divorce was the sale of their house. He wanted to assume full title by buying out Alicia for $45,000 cash, substantially less than her half-share of the $160,000 asking price. It was more than fair, he argued, because he had so many debts to pay off. She countered that they had been incurred by Almeida on behalf of the Brentwood Gallery and weren’t her responsibility.
Almeida’s cash offer was made at the same time he was claiming poverty in his criminal case. There’s no indication where the $45,000 would have come from.
In the summer of 1989, Alicia was granted permission by the court to put the house on the market over the objections of Almeida, who was still living there with her (albeit with separate sleeping arrangements). Almeida continued to resist. Alicia alleged that he didn’t allow a real estate agent inside with prospective buyers (a contention the agent supported); on another day, Almeida locked Alicia out, forcing her to break in with help from the police; he poked holes in the walls to spy on her, Alicia said, and left her obscene notes; in another form of sabotage, he left cigarette butts, beer cans, and dirty laundry lying around and refused to flush the toilet; he untied their son’s admittedly violent dog, who nearly bit an agent.
Alicia finally called Animal Control to remove the pet. Almeida told the court their son was “very angry” and “punched several holes in the walls and scattered trash in the house.” He also admitted that “I have left ashtrays and an occasional beverage container behind.”
The pleadings continued after Almeida went to prison. By the end, he was acting as his own lawyer and writing letters from his cell. The house was sold and some debts paid. None of his victims received any money.
I ask Castañon about current relations between Almeida and Alicia. “They see each other,” he says.
Almeida got his start at George Thackeray’s gallery in the late ’50s. He and his wife Grace agreed to talk to me at their house in Ocean Beach, a dark, wood-shingled structure on the side of a hill. Inside is a profusion of paintings and sculptures, not surprising given their years of buying, selling, framing, restoring, promoting, and collecting art in San Diego.
George was one of Wieghorst’s first friends when Wieghorst arrived in El Cajon. They painted together. “I used to travel to shows with him a lot.” They went all over the Southwest, including the Cunningham ranch. “If you rode up the canyon, you’d hear thwump-thwump — shots, bullets, hitting a tree. He must have been in his 80s then.
We look at a Wieghorst painting called Spring Rain, a dark, impressionistic work, one of about a dozen Wieghorsts on the walls. Thackeray can remember when Wieghorst painted it. “It was raining cats and dogs, and he couldn’t sleep. So he got up and started that painting. He called me up and said, ‘George, come on over. I want to show you something.’ So I went over, and there it was… Everywhere you looked [in his house] was a gun. Remember, he was a retired New York City cop.”
Almeida just showed up one day looking for work. “I had a lot of guys working for me,” George says. Almeida stayed “for 12 years.” Thackeray says now that he believes Almeida cheated him of untold amounts of money during that time.
At first, George ran the gallery by himself, most of his time taken up with restoration work and appraisals. At the counter, writing up bills for jobs and collecting the payments was Almeida. “He’d write $15 tickets for $150 jobs” and pocket the difference, George claims.
Their relationship began to unravel when Almeida tried to steal a customer. George had told the person there’d be a bit of a delay on a framing job, so Almeida offered to do it right away and charge less. He hadn’t counted on the customer’s loyalty to Thackeray. “The guy called us up and told us about it, so we got suspicious,” Thackeray says. Later, Almeida had the client for an appraisal make the check out to him. “Then we started checking the books. It was enormous what he was bleeding us for, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 — we never did know.”
“The proof that he really was fleecing George over the years was that as soon as he left, the business started making money,” Grace says. “More was going out than was coming in. Over a period of four or five months, I kept track of every single order there was, and he couldn’t get away with it.”
The Thackerays helped Almeida buy his first house and had offered him an equity share in their business, which would grow larger the longer he stayed. “I can’t get over what I did in those days,” George says now, his voice rising in disbelief. Almeida’s response to their offer made Grace wonder. He wanted to know how much cash he could get for his share on the spot. “The minute he did that,” she says, “I reached over and took the contract away.
“He in the meantime had gotten our whole mailing list” by taking home receipts and copying the customer information off them one at a time. “He conned a lot of our customers into dealing with him, too.”
George gave him vacation time and told him to never come back. He remembers his last glimpse of Almeida. “He stood at the end of the alley crying. I didn’t soften. I let him cry. He was such a good actor.”
EDITOR'S UPDATE: In 2006, Roy Wieghurst opted not to renew the $300,000 civil judgment against Almeida.