The so-called Bahia Emerald weighs 840 pounds and is valued up

The fabled Bahia Emerald, weighing in at about 840 pounds with
an untold monetary value, has been lugged across hemispheres,
claimed by more than a dozen different parties including a
hurricane, gone missing for years at a time and is, needless to
say, already the subject of folklore and urban legend.
The fabled Bahia Emerald, weighing in at about 840 pounds with an untold monetary value, has been lugged across hemispheres, claimed by more than a dozen different parties including a hurricane, gone missing for years at a time and is, needless to say, already the subject of folklore and urban legend.

In fact, while little can be confirmed about the Bahia Emerald and the exact path it has taken since it was discovered in 2001, Anthony Thomas of Morgan Hill has put his arms around it, and at the very least knows it exists.

What is less certain is his claim that it’s his, as is his former friend’s claim that it’s not.

Thomas has had his picture taken with the stone, whose value has been estimated at anywhere from $19 million to $925 million, shortly after it was found in the Brazilian state of Bahia nearly a decade ago.

Thomas claims he bought the 180,000 carat emerald fair-and-square from former friend Ken Conetto, of San Jose, and a pair of Brazilian miners who dug it out of the ground, according to Thomas’ attorney Jeffrey Baruh.

But Conetto, the Brazilians and some other “characters” (Baruh’s label for the disputers) say otherwise, and the monstrous gem will remain in the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office until a final judgment is declared in a bitter, twisting and convoluted lawsuit that is scheduled to go to trial later this month.

“This is the most factually interesting case of my career,” said Baruh, an attorney with Adleson, Hess and Kelly law firm in Campbell. “The emerald has sort of taken on a life of its own.”

The emerald was discovered in the jungle of western Brazil by two local miners who had a previous professional relationship with Conetto, who has been involved in various mining interests – including in Nevada – for more than 30 years, according to Conetto’s attorney Eric Kitchen of Santa Barbara.

Shortly after it was unearthed, the rock was carried to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Thomas traveled shortly after learning about the emerald. He claims he bought the rock from the Brazilians for $60,000, with Conetto facilitating the transaction as a consultant, Baruh said.

The money was wired to the miners’ account in Florida, and Conetto told Thomas he would help arrange shipment of the jewel back to the states.

But Conetto told Thomas that the stone was stolen in Sao Paulo as it was about to be shipped, Baruh said. For several years after that, Thomas considered the emerald gone – he was told that Brazilian police didn’t think the theft was a high priority, and he was advised it would be too dangerous to attempt to track it down himself.

Until the end of 2008, Thomas heard nothing about the emerald.

“He had no idea where the emerald was,” Baruh said. “At the end of 2008, his brother called and told him to turn on CNN, and his emerald was on CNN,” shortly after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office seized it as stolen property.

Apparently Conetto knew where the emerald was for at least part of the time its whereabouts were unknown to Thomas. Conetto’s attorney Kitchen imported the rock to San Jose himself in 2005, Kitchen said.

Conetto had a “historical relationship” with the Brazilian miners, and had a long-term “handshake deal” with them in which he shared the spoils of his mines in Nevada if they shared ownership of some of the emeralds they found in Bahia, Kitchen said. As to how he lost control of the emerald in the first place, Conetto “innocently but mistakenly” delivered bills of sale to a group who was supposed to sell the emerald on his behalf. Instead of selling the rock, the parties used it to borrow money.

Conetto and Thomas first met in 2001, when they began working on an investment project to fund a startup company known as Digital Reflections, Inc., Kitchen said. They agreed that Conetto would help Thomas raise money by gathering stones from his mines and his associates in Brazil, and selling them for profits to finance DRI.

Before traveling to Sao Paulo to buy the rock, Thomas had no experience in mining or jewelry other than a previous emerald purchase from the same miners, Baruh said.

Also involved in the DRI deal was Wayne Catlett, the CEO of DRI who conspired with Conetto to “deprive Anthony Thomas of his property,” while Catlett and Conetto used the emerald as a source to pay off expenses owed by the failing company, Baruh said.

“The emerald was never stolen” as Conetto claimed, Baruh said. “The emerald was always in the possession of the sellers.”

Stolen or not, that brings the Bahia Emerald to the States, where it sat in San Jose for a while. Conetto eventually brought the rock to New Orleans, where it was delivered to an underground vault just three days before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city in 2005. The luggage-sized jewel sat underwater for about a year, before Conetto retrieved it and brought it back to California.

And if the stone’s path couldn’t get any more circuitous, from a vault in El Monte it was tossed around to Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles in a series of attempted sales, culminating in a fraudulent effort by Kit Morrison – another major claimant of the Bahia Emerald – to use it as collateral for a loan, Kitchen explained.

“The police felt that was a theft, and they seized it,” Kitchen said. Since 2008 the rock has been locked up with the Los Angeles County major crimes task force until its ownership can be determined.

The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 24 in Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Kronstadt’s courtroom. Neither Thomas or Conetto could be contacted before press time.

Perhaps even more unclear than who owns the Bahia Emerald is how much it is worth. It has been appraised twice by the same Brazilian appraiser – once for $925 million and once for $370 million, Baruh said. It was once listed on the eBay auction website for $75 million.

The world’s largest carved emerald is owned by a Palo Alto shop Gleim Jeweler, and is about 1-foot tall by 1-foot wide, and about 6 inches in depth, according to store owner Georgie Gleim. It weighs 30 pounds. That rock, which also hails from Bahia, is insured for $1 million.

“There’s such a variety of quality and sizes, and prices (in emeralds), we would have to do some research,” to estimate the Bahia Emerald’s value, Gleim said.

Conetto and the Brazilians who found the stone don’t care what the rock is worth, and if they get it back they plan to donate it to charity, Kitchen said. Conetto wants to donate the emerald to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the American Indian Diabetes Association in San Jose.

“They’ve seen what greed does to people in human nature, and they don’t like it,” Kitchen said. “They want to do something good with the stone. What has happened to the stone is a tragedy and is part of the litigious nature of the American culture.”

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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