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Six charged in theft of artworks from home of U.S. financier Gundlach

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Prosecutors announced on Friday a major break in the investigation of an art heist from the Southern California home of financier Jeffrey Gundlach, charging six people with burglary and other offenses stemming from the caper.

The six, including two arrested in September when the 13 stolen artworks were recovered, pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court to charges of burglary, conspiracy, receiving stolen property and being an accessory after the fact.

The paintings, along with pricey watches, bottles of fine wine and Gundlach's red Porsche sports car were taken from his Santa Monica home while the superstar bond-fund manager and CEO of DoubleLine Capital was away in New York.

The overall value of the stolen property was put at $3.2 million. But the bulk of the massive heist consisted of rare, one-of-a-kind works by contemporary painter Jasper Johns, who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the late Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian and several other artists.

Gundlach had offered a rewards of up to $1.7 million for information leading to the safe return of his art, which also included pieces by Frank Stella, Franz Kline, Guy Rose, Philip Guston and Hanson Duvall Puthuff.

The suspected burglar, Darren Agee Merager, 43, is accused of breaking into the Gundlach residence between September 12 and September 13 to steal the art collection, jewelry and wine, then returning hours later to make off with the Porsche.

Most of the partings were recovered about two weeks later from an automobile stereo shop in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. The store's manager, Jeffrey Nieto, 45, is accused of helping conceal the stolen art and other items.

Merager's 68-year-old mother, Brenda Joyce, and two younger brothers, Wanis George Wahba, 29, and Ely George Wahba, 26, were charged as co-conspirators. Another man, Wilmer Bolosan Cadiz, 40, was charged with conspiracy and receiving stolen property.

Cadiz and Nieto originally were arrested as suspects in the break-in and theft, but police said then that the case remained under investigation and they were unsure who had committed the actual burglary.

Merager, who already was in custody in an unrelated case and has a history of felony convictions, faces more than nine years in state prison if convicted in the Gundlach heist, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office said.

Gundlach made headlines on Wall Street in 2011 when he emerged victorious in a court battle with TCW Group Inc., the asset management firm that had fired him December 2009.

(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Philip Barbara)

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