Stolen Trophies Feared Melted, Sold in Decade-Old Racing Museum Heist

National Museum of Racing | Horsephotos

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Arrests have been made and one fugitive is still at large in the recent cracking of an alleged theft network that targeted sporting museums between 1999 and 2019. Included in the crime spree was the 2013 smash-and-grab heist of five trophies worth an estimated $400,000 from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

According to the felony indictment, there appears to be no hope for recovering the looted trophies, three of which were solid gold, and one of which was the 1903 Belmont Stakes trophy valued at $150,000.

That's because in the hours following the theft, two of the alleged conspirators drove 215 miles south to a bar that one of them owned in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and “melted the trophies down into easily transportable metal pieces.”

The very next day, the alleged thieves drove to New York City, where they sold the raw materials “for approximately $150,000 to $160,000,” the indictment stated.

A methodology of target-steal-melt-sell was the blueprint for how at least nine known individuals broke into 14 museums in the Eastern United States over a 20-year span, ripping off artwork, sporting hardware, and high-value, antique memorabilia.

According to the June 6 indictment filed by prosecutors in U.S. District Court (Middle District of Pennsylvania), 20 of the stolen pieces are considered “objects of cultural heritage” as defined by the federal criminal code because they are “either over 100 years old and worth in excess of $5,000 [or] less than 100 years old and worth at least $100,000.”

The alleged thieves are also accused of a 2012 robbery at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York, where they made off with 14 trophies and other awards worth over $300,000.

They also hit museums related with baseball, boxing and golf, looting nine World Series rings and other items once belonging to New York Yankees greats Yogi Berra and Roger Maris; six championship title-fight belts; and the U.S. amateur golf trophy once awarded to Ben Hogan.

The alleged thieves also dabbled in popular art and firearms, hauling off paintings by Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, plus three antique firearms worth a combined $1 million.

The trophies and awards would be stripped “of the gemstones and other valuable attachments prior to melting the objects down into easily transportable bars, disks, pucks, and other small pieces of the valuable metals,” the indictment stated.

The “objects of cultural heritage which could not be broken down, such as antique firearms and paintings,” were then sold on the black market, the indictment stated.

On one occasion, one of the alleged conspirators burned a painting by the 19th Century artist Jasper Cropsey valued at $500,000 out of fear that the artwork would be seized as evidence against the members of the conspiracy. The exact fate of many of the stolen objects remains unknown.

In its coverage of a June 15 press conference, the New York Times reported that prosecutors underscored “the remarkable disregard that the suspects had for such culturally significant memorabilia, given how the melted down pieces were sold for a fraction of what the actual items had actually been worth.”

But, the Times added, “their tactic seemed to indicate that the suspects fully understood the shadowy scheme they were engaging in, preferring easy money grabs over underground dealings that would put them more at risk of being caught.”

Charged via indictment were four Pennsylvania men: Nicholas Dombek, 53; Damien Boland, 47; Alfred Atsus, 47; and Joseph Atsus, 48. They were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork, concealment or disposal of objects of cultural heritage, and interstate transportation of stolen property.

Dombek was further charged with a substantive count of interstate transportation of stolen property. The Times reported he was still at large as a fugitive at the time of the press conference.

Five other Pennsylvanians were charged by “felony information” (meaning a grand jury's vote was not required) for the same conspiracy: Thomas Trotta, 48; Frank Tassiello, 50; Daryl Rinker, 50; Dawn Trotta, 51; and Ralph Parry, 45.

The indictment gave a glimpse of how the National Racing Museum heist was planned and executed.

It is unclear, though, if the thieves intentionally timed their break-in there to coincide with a relative lull in Saratoga. The racing season at the historic track right across the street had just concluded 10 days before, making for a mass exodus of tourists and racing-industry workers.

“Prior to Sept. 13, 2013, Nicholas DOMBEK, Damien BOLAND, and Conspirator No. 1 made multiple visits to the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame [to] view objects of cultural heritage displayed therein and to observe the security measures protecting said objects,” the indictment stated.

Then, in the overnight hours of Sept. 13, Boland drove Conspirator No. 1 to Saratoga, “where Conspirator No. 1 entered the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame without authorization, smashed multiple glass display cases with a center-punch tool and grinder, and stole and removed five trophies displayed therein.”

Published news accounts at the time described how the thief was able to navigate the unlit corridors of the landmark Union Avenue building without triggering perimeter alarms.

In the museum's steeplechase gallery, Conspirator No. 1 took trophies from the 1914 Brook Cup Handicap Steeplechase (won by Compliment) and the 1923 Grand National Steeplechase (won by Sergeant Murphy). He then moved to the post-Civil War gallery, and from a single case pilfered trophies from the 1903 Belmont S. (won by Africander), the 1903 Brighton Cup (won by Hermis), and the 1905 Saratoga Special (won by Mohawk II).

Upon exiting the museum, Boland drove Conspirator No. 1 and the looted objects 1.7 miles to the parking lot of the Saratoga Casino Hotel, where Conspirator No. 1 transferred the trophies to his own car. The two then drove their separate vehicles 190 miles south to the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant in Dickson City, Pennsylvania, “to inventory the trophies stolen,” the indictment stated.

They then proceeded another seven miles or so to Scranton, where they met up at a bar called Collier's, owned by Boland, to melt down the trophies, the indictment stated.

The next day they drove together to New York City “and sold the pieces to an individual known to the Grand Jury,” the indictment stated.

After Sept. 14, “Conspirator No. 1 paid Nicholas DOMBEK $30,000 from the proceeds…in exchange for DOMBEK's help in planning the theft,” the indictment stated.

The maximum penalty under federal law for the conspiracy count is a five-year imprisonment, while each of the other offenses calls for a 10-year maximum sentence.

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