A twisted tale of greed and broken friendships is headed back to court in Los Angeles, where a state judge must decide who rightfully owns the “Bahia emerald,” an 840-pound (381-kilogram), 180,000-carat green gemstone cluster worth at least $400 million. This will be the seventh time that ownership of the gem will go before a judge.
Discovered in the state of Bahia, Brazil, in 2001, by miners Ruy Saraiva Filho and Elson Alves Ribereiro, who sold their find to American Ken Conetto for $60,000, the gem has had about nine self-proclaimed owners since then. Conetto, who has investments in gold and silica mines around the world, says he asked longtime friend and gem collector Anthony Thomas to help find a buyer, but Thomas claims he bought the emerald from Conetto, who pocketed $60,000 and claimed the gem had been stolen in transit to Thomas.
In fact, the Bahia Emerald left Brazil only to begin a bizarre odyssey. Flown from São Paulo, Brazil, to San Jose, California, in 2001, the stone was relocated to a vault in New Orleans just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck, submerging it under 16 feet (4.8 meters) of water for two months before it could be retrieved.
Back in Southern California, the rock was stored in an apparently abandoned office building in San Jose, kept under armed guard at an attorney’s office in Santa Barbara, and then transferred once again to a private vault in South El Monte. Around this time, Conetto attempted to sell the emerald to a buyer, whom he later accused of stealing it. The emerald was then driven to Las Vegas, where it played a supporting role in the fall of fraudster Bernard Madoff and a shady deal between some Colombians that nearly ended in bloodshed in the desert.
In late December 2008, the Los Angeles police seized the emerald from Las Vegas, and it remains to this day in a police evidence locker.
Other current claimants to the stone include Mark Downie, an emerald buyer who claims the emerald is collateral for a loan he made, and FM Holdings, Inc., a privately-held company owned by Kit Morrison, Jerry Ferrara and Todd Armstrong, which persuaded California state court judge John A. Kronstadt in 2011 to tentatively deny Thomas’ claim of ownership as not credible. Because Kronstadt was elevated to a federal judgeship before he could make his finding final, issues remain to be litigated.