Do you truly know the people around you? Your friends, your relatives, the seemingly innocent family down the block… Are they really as cookie-cutter as they seem, or are they just really good at keeping their dark secrets under wraps?
When investigators discovered a peculiar asset in the home of a New Mexico couple, nobody could believe the odd details that emerged. Yet every piece of evidence suggested this well-loved pair had really pulled off one of the biggest crimes of the 1980s…
Rita and Jerry Alter always seemed like regular middle-class Americans. They lived off a modest teacher’s salary and had lived in Cliff, New Mexico, since the late 1970s. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Jerry loved adventure, art, and traveling. In fact, he had written and self-published several books about his experiences in over 140 different countries.
His beloved wife Rita was a beacon of kindness, patience, and positivity. She was working as a speech pathologist in the public school system, and she was always there to support Jerry in everything he undertook.
Despite their friendly demeanor, the Alters kept to themselves. Their neighbors reported that they were a lovely couple but hard to really know, which explains how they were able to keep a secret for decades.
Sadly, Jerry passed away of old age in 2011, with Rita passing away 5 years later. They left behind their fully grown children Barbara and Joseph, as well as their favorite nephew, Ron Roseman.
Because Ron lived closer to the Cliff home than Barbara or Joseph, he was left in charge of the Alters’ estate and assets. He ended up putting their home up for sale and inviting antique dealers to assess their possessions.
One of these art dealers was David Van Auker from Silver City, who walked through the Alters’ home and quickly found himself drawn to one particular piece of art…
The painting was a mid-20th-century painting featuring an abstract interpretation of a nude woman, which hung in the master bedroom, away from any prying eyes.
Unable to let the painting go, and afraid that somebody else might snatch it up, Van Auker bid $2,000 for all of the estate’s assets. It wasn’t as much as Ron had hoped for, but he was happy to finish up the transactions.
As soon as Van Auker returned to Silver City, the painting kept intruding on his thoughtd. He just knew that he had something special in his car and was determined to find out what it was.
Luckily for him, Silver City is home to an unusually large population of local and revered artists, many of which often went to Van Auker’s antique store to add to their own collections.
A few days after Van Auker placed the abstract on display in his store, an artist with a sharp eye dropped in and immediately recognized the piece as a work of a very famous artist.
“That’s a Willem De Kooning!” he exclaimed. De Kooning was a Dutch expressionist who moved to the United States in the 1960s and became the highest paid Dutch painter of all time.
De Kooning’s works have ranged in price anywhere from tens of millions to hundreds of millions, so van Auker immediately knew that if this was truly his work, he would be sitting on a goldmine.
At first, he refused to believe it was true. There was no way that he had just stumbled upon a painting of that kind of historical and monetary value in the home of a schoolteacher in a small town in New Mexico… right?
Still, it was only natural for Van Auker to secretly hope that it was true, and as more and more customers pointed out the resemblance to De Kooning’s works, he had to stop wondering and find out once and for all.
When he began to research the painter properly, the art dealer couldn’t believe his eyes. After hours of surfing the web, he had found an article about the Arizona Museum of Art that also mentioned the painting…
The article mentioned the morning of November 29, 1985, when an unknown couple drove into Tucson, Arizona, to visit its biggest, most popular museum. It was still early, and the doors were not even opened yet.
A local security guard was unlocking the entrance to admit a member of staff to enter the premises when a young man and an older woman approached him and struck up a conversation.
While the woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, chit-chatted with the security guard about everything from art to the weather, the young man was able to slip into the building, making a beeline to the third floor.
After only a few minutes, the man reappeared by the woman’s side, and rather than going into the museum, they made a hasty exit. The fact that they didn’t actually stay to visit the museum was highly suspicious to the guard who went to investigate.
As it turns out, he was the only security personnel on the grounds at the time, and there were no surveillance cameras. However, it quickly became clear what the mysterious man was after.
On the third floor, an incredible painting was missing from its frame: “Woman-Ochre” by Willem De Kooning. The police found no fingerprints. Their only clue was the rust-colored sports car — no license plate number.
De Kooning, who died in 1997, was one of the most prominent painters of the mid-century abstract expressionist movement. “Woman III,” another painting in the same series as “W,” sold for $137.5 million.
Since De Kooning’s works remained some of the most marketable art pieces in the world to this day, the mystery of the stolen painting would simply not fly, and yet it remained unsolved for decades.
As art dealer Van Auker read the article about the robbery over and over again, the reality of the situation truly began to dawn on him: he may be in possession of an invaluable, stolen piece of history!
That night, he lay awake holding a gun, ready to protect the painting at all costs. He had already contacted the museum in Tucson, and the top brass there planned to visit him the next day to investigate.
The professionals were truly in disbelief when they first viewed the piece. Soon De Kooning’s signature was analyzed by a handwriting expert while chemicals were used to determine the age of the painting.
Finally, the results were in: the painting was the real thing. The Alters had not just a world-famous painting hanging in their bedroom; they’d had a stolen world-famous painting hanging in their bedroom.
Still, the question remained: how did these middle-class folks even come across an art piece that was now worth $160 million? Did they realize its worth, or could they even be the culprits?
Over the course of the following months, details surfaced suggesting that the quiet couple were not quite as innocent as they seemed to be. Once the investigation started, certain aspects of their lives just didn’t add up.
The pair enjoyed an expensive lifestyle of travel and leisure despite earning their limited income. Even more surprising was the million dollars they had in their savings account by the time they passed.
Their amazed but loyal nephew, Ron Roseman, simply believed that his aunt and uncle had made some good investments and were careful with their money, but there was no evidence that could confirm this.
Unfortunately for Ron, more incriminating evidence was found. In 2018, a photograph surfaced that confirmed Jerry and Rita were in Tucson for Thanksgiving in 1985, just a day before the museum was robbed…
Investigative journalists also found that Jerry Alter drove a similar sports car as was described by the security guard. Also, both of their detailed daily journal entries were empty on the day of the robbery.
Many believe that a police sketch bears a striking resemblance to the couple. Some have suggested that the young man was the Alters’ son Joseph, wit, a disguised Jerry taking on the role of the female suspect.
As if things didn’t look bad enough, a short story surfaced that was written by Jerry himself. It was the story of two women who befriended a security guard – only to to steal an emerald jewel from under the unsuspecting guard’s nose…
At the end of the story, the women placed the jewel on display in a spot where only she could see it! This could not be a coincidence — it was the story of the De Kooning painting heist in disguise!
Even though all the signs pointed to the late Rita and Jerry Alter being guilty of stealing the painting, the evidence was all circumstantial. As of February of 2019, the case was still open.
People who knew the Alters doubted they would do something like that, and claimed the police sketches didn’t actually look like them. They gave the quiet couple quite the benefit of the doubt!
Today, the painting is safely housed in the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Even though it has been quite a while since it was recovered, the institution is still in the process of restoring it after years of neglect.
Although the investigation is ongoing, there have been no arrests in relation to the mystery. The world will never know whether the Alters pulled off this heist, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a story for the ages.