A painting stolen by the mob in New Jersey turns up in Utah
(Utah News Dispatch) The painting was described as priceless. “The Schoolmistress,” a 50-inch oil piece painted in 1784 by John Opie, the renowned English artist whose subjects included members of the English Royal Family.
But in July 1969 it disappeared, stolen from a New Jersey doctor’s home in a salacious crime that implicated a state senator and members of the Gambino crime family.
Nearly 50 years later, the painting turned up in southern Utah; today, it sits in a Newark retirement home belonging to 96-year-old Dr. Francis Wood, the painting’s rightful heir.
“I can tell you over the course of 21 years this is one of the most unique and intriguing cases I’ve had the opportunity to work,” said Gary France, a special agent with the FBI based in St. George.
A botched burglary and housekeeper slip-up implicates a New Jersey senator
Francis’ father, Dr. Earl Wood, purchased the painting during the Great Depression for $7,500 — more than $150,000 in 2024 dollars, according to several inflation calculators. Historians believe the woman depicted in “The Schoolmistress” is actually Opie’s mother; a sister painting currently belongs to England’s Tate Museum.
“The Schoolmistress” hung in the Wood home in Newark, New Jersey for decades until the summer of 1969. That July, three burglars reportedly looking for the family’s expensive, rare coin collection attempted to break in when they were thwarted by an alarm. The criminals fled before the police arrived. The responding officers were accompanied by New Jersey State Sen. Anthony Imperiale, a family friend of the Woods.
One of the Woods’ housekeepers told police, and presumably Imperiale, they were surprised the burglars weren’t after the Opie painting. It was “priceless,” they said.
A week later, the burglars returned and made off with the painting and Earl Wood never saw “The Schoolmistress” again.
In 1975, mobster Gerald Festa admitted to being party to the burglary — in a startling twist, he testified it was Imperiale who orchestrated the break-in, telling a court the three men stopped at the senator’s clubhouse on the way to the Wood residence. “Now we know exactly where it is. Let’s go get it,” Gerald Donnerstag, one of the burglars, allegedly said after the meeting.
“What he thinks and what the truth is are two different things,” Imperiale told the New York Times in 1975, according to an archived article. But with the statute of limitations behind him, the New Jersey senator maintained his innocence and was never charged. Festa was placed in protective custody; Donnerstag was convicted of murder; Austin Castiglione, the third accomplice, pleaded guilty to the burglary.
What happened to “The Schoolmistress” after the burglary remains a mystery. The trial never revealed its location and the FBI believes pressure from law enforcement caused the painting to change hands over the years, likely moving from one mobster to another.
By the 1980s, racketeering cases started closing in on New Jersey’s organized crime groups. A member of the Gambino crime family, Joseph Covello Sr., was swept up in a series of arrests in Florida in 1984, according to an archived Miami Herald article, and pleaded guilty to being a part of a stolen credit card ring. He liquidated his assets, selling multiple homes around the country before his death in the early 1990s.
In 1989, truck driver-turned-businessman James Gullo purchased Covello’s home in Broward County, Florida. A vague statement from the real estate transaction reads: “Large painting in living room hallway.”
Gullo continued what became a successful business career, owning a number of restaurants and running Burger King franchises in Utah and Arizona. He moved to St. George in 1995 with his wife and, according to his obituary, died in 2020 at 85 years old. For decades, Gullo held onto the Opie painting, even bringing it from Florida to St. George, oblivious to its tumultuous history.
“Up until the time of his death, we have no evidence to believe that he knew otherwise that he had this quite significant painting,” said France, the FBI agent.
‘The Schoolmistress’ returns home
France says the FBI gets its fair share of outlandish tips and “fantastical stories.”
“So when Kris Braunberger walked into our office in December of 2021 and started talking about a stolen painting, I was a little skeptical,” France said.
Braunberger, who has an accounting firm in St. George, was tasked by Gullo to liquidate his estate and donate it to various charities, said France. The Opie painting was brought to an appraiser, who wrote: “So, it appears that the subject painting is indeed by John Opie. It is almost certainly the second version of The Schoolmistress,” according to an FBI affidavit filed by France.
France opened an investigation, and reached out to the Wood family. Francis Wood, who was in his 40s when the burglary occurred at his parents’ house, was “completely shocked,” France said, “very skeptical that we had actually recovered this.”
Through records and pictures taken by the Wood family, including a family Christmas photo where the Opie painting is hanging on the wall in the dining room behind them, France was able to confirm the rightful owners of the “The Schoolmistress.”
The bureau paid to have professional art shippers move “The Schoolmistress” back to Newark, nearly 55 years after mobsters snatched it from the walls of Wood’s family home. The 50 by 40 inch painting now hangs in Wood’s nursing home.
“He’s quite thrilled to be able to enjoy that painting every day,” said France.