Elizabeth Weil, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Outside, says she doesn’t write about “super important” things. But her warm and captivating voice has animated every subject she’s chosen to tackle over her 22-year career writing for magazines. An inveterate generalist, she says her stories have tended to follow her own interests in life: maternity issues when her kids were small, education when her kids started school, science and sports because she likes them.
“Be open to the funny while you’re reporting. Look for it. And look for ways to love your subjects, too.”
Her story on “The Curse of the Bahia Emerald,” published in Wired in March, came out of a crime story phase a couple years ago. It’s a surreal saga about a cast of wacky characters fighting over who owns a 752-pound emerald from Brazil, which could be worth $925 million or virtually nothing. It has all the trappings of caper film meets slapstick. (Calling the Coen brothers.)
I talked to her about writing this kooky tale, finding her voice and what “contributing writer” really means. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This is a pretty weird story. How did it come about?
I was trolling for story ideas, reading the crime section of the Los Angeles Times. I had only ever written two crime stories, and I wanted to find one that was human and funny. There was a news story about the Bahia Emerald, and I thought it was so crazy that there was this giant emerald, and no one knew who owned it. I talked to a lawyer representing some of the people involved to write the pitch, and off I went. Then it was impossible to report.
What do you mean?
It was so hard to learn anything. It was complicated and confusing, and none of the principals would talk to me. The lawyer I talked to originally had told me his clients would talk, but they didn’t. I got some court documents, and people’s testimony under oath was contradictory. I got in touch with Brendan Borrell, who’d written about the emerald for Bloomberg, and he said: “This story is a nightmare. You should run.” He sent me tons of primary documents—in a way, I had too many. And it was clear by that point that the emerald wasn’t worth nearly as much as people were saying. I wrote a draft for the Times, but they ended up suggesting I take it elsewhere. I ended up writing it for Maria Streshinsky at Wired. In the meantime, Jerry Ferrara [one of the men involved in the emerald escapade] called me and was like, “I’ll talk to you now.”
You mentioned Jerry was “your kind of character.” What kind is that?
Poignant and emotional. I really like a tough guy who’s not actually tough and is kind of open about it.
It seemed clear that some of the things your characters told you was BS or sort of pie-in-the-sky. How do you approach reporting with potentially untrustworthy sources?
I’ve found that if you’re going to use it, you just have to be totally clear that it’s not that credible. Like “this is a person telling you this story,” not “this is a set of facts.” When I was initially trying to write the story in a straighter way, it was hard because it just didn’t add up. It wasn’t ever going to make sense to take details from many different places, like you would in a normal story where people are telling the truth, and recreate some event. It had to be a story about these people who are all insane, and that had to be a feature of the piece instead of trying to hide it. Often if something isn’t working, it’s better to lean into weirdness and not try to cover it up. The reader can feel it if your voice is tentative.
Do you outline your stories before you write?
Sort of. I try to figure out what the sections might be on a piece of paper, often on a plane ride home. Once I’m back in my office, I start filling in notes, usually from memory at first. I keep doing that until the story is done, then I go to my notes and transcripts and make the notes more and more precise. I think: “Does this feel right? What would need to happen here to get it to feel right?” It’s very intuitive. I’ll often end up with a document that’s as long as the story but not in full sentences, just bits of language that are voicey, notes and quotes. A lot of the way I think about stories is in the voice and in the emotional arc.
“My working title on this story was ‘Some Dreamers of a Certain Dream.’ Like a lot of writers (and especially female writers of a certain age who live in California), I have a Didion problem.”
Do you feel like your voice changes across stories and publications?
Certain publications have different thresholds for how voicey they want things, but I feel like it has changed more over time than publication to publication. I’m much more interested in voice now. When I look at my earlier stuff, it’s not very interesting to me anymore. By voice, I mean character and emotion. It’s another layer of how to read the story that you’re telling. I almost never write about things that are actually super important in the world, so part of what I’m doing is entertaining people. It’s the fun part to me now.
Can someone actively develop their voice, and if so, how?
That’s a good question. First-person writing obviously helps, because it’s clear that you have the authority to have whatever voice you want if you’re writing as yourself. I think it helps you get into that groove and then sort of spreads. Some of it, I think, is feeling like you have the right to have a voice, as opposed to just relaying the facts, even if you’re writing about events in other people’s lives.
Besides reading the crime section of the LA Times, how do most of your story ideas come to you?
Reading stuff like smaller, particularly non-New York papers. Because I live in California and don’t want to travel all the time, I like to find local stories. I feel like there’s a part of my brain, for better or worse, that just has this filter on in conversation and reading, all the time.
When do you decide to say, “Yes, I’m going to pursue this story”? Is it enough to feel like you can sell it, or does it have to meet certain criteria?
I have to want to write it now. I have to think that it can be good. I think a ton of freelancers have picked stories and been assigned stories that were never going to be that good. They just didn’t have the right mix of stuff. I think: Am I still interested enough to do the reporting to write a good pitch? A lot of stories fall apart just in trying to write a decent pitch.
I think many people are curious: What does the title of contributing writer actually mean?
It means different things at different places. At The Times Magazine, it means you have a contract that lays out how many stories you’re going to do per year and what your fees will be. But you only get paid if you do the stories. They don’t have to assign them to you, and you might do more stories. It’s kind of a guess about how much work you might do, and then what you actually do is separate. With Outside it’s just kind of, “We like you.” There’s no commitment.
Do people ask for that title, or do editors have to offer it?
I asked for both of them. I think people should ask for stuff, especially young women. Those things matter if you’re a freelancer. It matters for credibility, and it matters to me emotionally to feel like there is some form to my independent contractor life.
By Elizabeth Weil
Wired. March 2017
Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a mini-fridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million. Tell me about the decision to start with the emerald, rather than the action surrounding it. Were you trying to establish the stone as a character in itself? Also, I love the comparisons you used to illuminate size. Do you come up with these intuitively or sit there Googling how much the average sumo wrestler weighs? Haha. No sitting around Googling, but a lot of staring at pictures of the emerald and meanwhile procrastinating and seeing a post from a friend about going to a sumo match. But to answer your question, I wanted to start with the emerald because that’s the hook, or at least it was for me: How is it possible that something this huge and (purportedly) this valuable has no rightful owner?
Eight years ago the emerald was logged into evidence by detectives Scott Miller and Mark Gayman of the Sheriff’s Major Crimes Bureau. The two men are longtime veterans: 30 years for Miller, 28 for Gayman. They dress as the Hollywood versions of themselves, in wraparound sunglasses, badges dangling off long chains. ED: Such a great description. Among Gayman’s career highlights is the time he busted Joe Pesci’s ex-wife for the hit she put out on her new lover. One thing they both hate is the emerald case. It’s a whack-a-mole of schemers. Detangling all the rackets and lies is, Miller says, “a puzzle from hell.”
Emeralds invite stories—many of them dubious. At various points in history people have believed that emeralds were capable of protecting humans against cholera, infidelity, and evil spirits, and that an emerald placed under the tongue could transform a person into a truth-teller. This 752-pound emerald doesn’t quite fit under the tongue, and it appears to have had zero positive effects. Why did you want to bring in this mystical element up front, before going into the story of the Bahia Emerald? I wanted to get the “emeralds are weird” storyline going early, so readers would know this isn’t going to be a regular crime caper. Miller and Gayman got sucked into its orbit on October 8, 2008, when their sergeant forwarded a call. A man with a squeaky voice named Larry Biegler had phoned the cops in a little suburban California town called Temple City, just southeast of Pasadena. Where is the detail about his “squeaky voice” from, since it doesn’t sound like you interviewed Biegler? I didn’t interview him, but I heard tapes of him. He told the officer on duty that his “840-pound” emerald (a lot of people say the emerald weighs 840 pounds, but it doesn’t) had been stolen and that he’d been abducted and released by the Brazilian Mafia. So the detectives climbed into what Miller calls his “mobile office” (a Chevy Blazer), drove 15 miles out to Temple City, and spent the day in the local police station parsing the emerald dossier. The case “was fun,” Miller told me, “at the beginning.”
A thing you should know is that emeralds are complicated. The chemical formula for an emerald is Be3Al2(Si6018). For the green crystals to form, beryllium must be heated to over 750 degrees Fahrenheit, under 7.5 to 21.75 tons of pressure per square inch, in the presence of chromium or vanadium. Given that beryllium exists only in tiny quantities near Earth’s crust, this seldom happens, and even when it does, the resulting crystals, or beryls, as they’re known, are not uniform. Almost all emeralds include cracks and inclusions, aka impurities. On the Mohs scale of hardness, emeralds score 7.5 to 8 out of 10. If you cut along a crack or inclusion, they shatter. This paragraph and the next two give quite a bit of background, including some detailed chemistry. Why did you think it was necessary to get into the weeds on this and to include it so close to the top? This was partly the editor’s choice; my early drafts did not have this material up high. But Wired is science-y, and more to the point, the chemistry could also help bolster the story, or “emerald character”: Emeralds are impure. Emeralds are contradictory. Emeralds crack.
Diamonds, by contrast, are simple: pure carbon. The chemical formula for a diamond is C. Diamonds score a 10 on the Mohs scale. The trade is controlled by a few large players. There’s also a weekly international price sheet, the Rapaport Diamond Price List, that sets value based on the four c’s: carat, clarity, cut, and color. Diamond price is further stabilized by cartels that determine the quantity of gemstones released to market. Meanwhile, the emerald trade is controlled by hundreds of tiny players. The price is, to put it generously, flexible. An emerald costs what someone will pay. Period. The idea that diamonds are more romantic than emeralds is preposterous, a marketing ploy. Diamonds are a product like gold or crude oil: rational, conservative. Emeralds are Turkish rugs. When you buy one you believe that you’ve found a secret treasure and finagled a good deal. Then—weeks, months, years later—the truth comes out: You’ve been had. Time to grip up and face your wounded ego and foist the emerald upon the next guy. Why was comparing emeralds to diamonds useful? This was also about setting up the “emerald character” and the nature of the piece. This is a really weird story! I wanted to make sure readers were going to be ready for that. If you go into this hoping for a straight crime piece, you’re going to be very disappointed on a lot of levels.
The market is especially shifty for so-called specimen emeralds—those that are big and weird, destined for curio cases and natural history museums. The emerald in the Sheriff’s Department vault is called the Bahia emerald and it is the consummate specimen: huge, strange, and composed of such low-quality crystals that, were those crystals broken down into smaller rocks, gemologists would call them “fish tank emeralds.” The Bahia emerald, it must also be said, is not pretty. It’s a conglomerate, a geologic chimera—a bunch of large emerald crystals lodged at odd angles in a matrix of black schist. Imagine a petrified Jello mold made by Wilma Flintstone for a dinosaur. Love this! Were you consciously trying to add humor to the piece? Yes! This story is essentially a comedy. Maria Streshinsky, the editor, also gets a lot of credit for that line. I had the petrified Jello mold in there for a long time, and I think she added Wilma.
Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. Why was it worth including this summary at the risk of giving things away? Again, the story is a disappointment unless you’re primed for what you’re getting into. This isn’t a story about a very important gemstone; this is a story about hapless, poignant conmen who can’t let go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”
I too took a bad spin in the emerald’s orbit, pouring endless time into reporting this story, only, for a while at least, to become more confused rather than less. I read thousands of pages of court documents, including legal depositions that read like episodes of Drunk History. Larry Biegler hung up on me. The cops canceled the night before I was supposed to fly to go see them in LA. Then one day last summer my phone rang. “Hello! This is Jerry Ferrara!” a voice bellowed. Ferrara was one of the many people who claim the emerald ruined his life. He had declined to talk to me once before, but now he said he wanted to set the record straight. So he sent me a copy of his unpublished memoir, spent a few hours answering my initial questions, and invited me to visit him in Florida. Do you often write about your reporting process? Why was it needed here? I’m a fan of judicious first-person. It’s another layer. Jerry’s desire to tell me about his experience, and the way he told it, became a real part of the story.
Jerry Ferrara is 50 years old, big, hairy, half-Sicilian, and huggable. I love that your descriptions are so unpretentious and reflect your voice. How did you get comfortable with describing people as plain “old” and “hairy,” or even “huggable,” which injects a personal point of view? It’s all personal! Even when you pretend it’s not. I also felt like readers needed to know that I was telling them the truth, not overselling or prettying things up, because so many people in this story are compulsive liars. (For a long time, in the draft I described Jerry as looking like a life-sized mafia don plush toy, but the editors made me take that out.) He’s been gripped by the Bahia emerald for nine of the 16 years it’s been aboveground. The day I arrived in Tampa, he asked me to meet him at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Bottoms Down Weight Loss and signs advertising $1 MED DAYS and FIND YOUR TREASURES AT PEACHES AND PEARLS BOUTIQUE. I’m reading Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, and she often uses signs just this way in her stories—they communicate so much! Is this a common technique for you? What other scenic details have you found speak volumes? I think signs work well because, of course, there are a million signs around, and you can pick the ones that forward your narrative. I used to use this device more than I do now. It’s the same with song lyrics: They can do a lot of work for you. But I’m pretty sensitive to writers using that device now. It’s easy to overdo it or think it works better for the reader than it really does. He wore dad jeans, white sneakers, and a gray golf shirt. He sat down looking nervous, a little enraged, but also clean-shaven and earnest, like he was going to a job interview.
“The Brazilians are making my life difficult,” he said, referring to his ongoing emerald struggles. “But do I regret it? I don’t regret it.” He folded his hands on the table between us. They looked strong. “I lost my identity. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the guy staring back at me anymore.”
Ferrara brought along a skinny woman named Chrystal (in the movie version of all this, she’d be played by Uma Thurman), whom he introduced as a “profiler,” meaning that she judges character. “I call her a bullshit caller,” he said. They told me there are 14 different personalities. When I asked Chrystal about Jerry’s type, he answered before she could. “She’s going to say I’m an asshole.”
A few minutes later, Ferrara excused himself to get coffee. I asked Chrystal, who had a tasteful purple streak in her hair and wore an emerald necklace, what she really did think about Ferrara’s character.
She glanced at the older woman doing a crossword puzzle next to us as she searched for words. “I’m trying to do this in a way that doesn’t make him look bad,” she said. “Sometimes he’s had to do bad things to protect himself and the people he cares for.” Her response is so telling. Did you push her on what she meant? I don’t think I pushed her after this. I didn’t want to break the little trust we had established. We’d just met like ten minutes before.
Ferrara first heard about the Bahia emerald in a low moment. It was November 2007. He was sleeping in his car, scamming free continental breakfasts at hotels for his two daughters, who were sleeping on their aunt’s floor. For the prior seven years he’d been supporting his family through his business, Honest Father Buys Houses, which purchased and resold homes and commercial properties. But then the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Ferrara lost everything, and he started working to right the ship of his life, he says, by selling foreclosed real estate portfolios for Lehman Brothers. When those deals fell through too, Ferrara, frantic, called every broker and every investor he could dial. Eventually, he says, he wound up on the phone with a man named Larry Biegler. (Remember him, of the phone call to the Temple City cops?) Why did it seem that readers would need a reminder at this point? Everybody got so confused reading drafts of this story. There were so many characters, and they all had sort of similar names. The story really had too much plot. One of the hardest parts of writing it was figuring out how to streamline, what could be left out. Biegler wasn’t really interested in foreclosed property. But he needed someone to help sell a giant emerald.
The rock had already been through a lot. The Bahia emerald was unearthed in early 2001 from the Carnaiba mine of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Then, according to some (apocryphal) tellings of the emerald’s history, the mule team dragging it through the rain forest was attacked by panthers—or some other animal—and the miners themselves had to carry the 752-pound emerald the rest of the way to civilization. From town it was trucked south to São Paulo and placed under a tarp in a carport at one of the mine owners’ homes. Those miners, it turned out, had a friend and business associate in San Jose, California. His name was Ken Conetto.
A word about Conetto: Like Ferrara, he’s half-Sicilian and has spent his life looking for deals. He once held the titles to some silica mines in Nevada but never struck it rich. In fact, for the past 11 years, he has lived in a trailer with his mother, Gertrude, who is now 99. Strewn about are half a dozen pairs of eyeglasses, 10 dog leashes, six La-Z-Boy chairs, more pillboxes than I could count, a giant box of Wheaties with Steph Curry on the front, four bicycles, 10 fleece blankets, three television sets (two on). Why did you include these specific counts? Specific is always good, right? Plus it was just so crazy and chaotic in there. I wanted to capture that, as a way to capture him. When I visited he offered me coffee cake, oranges, and bottled water and told me to come back whenever I wanted, a kindness unparalleled by many people I call friends. His mind drifts when he talks. The plots he spins can be hard to follow. If he ever comes into real money, he told me, he’s going to buy a big boat, a tri-hull that will do 50 knots—“I won’t be hors d’oeuvres for a shark!” He’s then going to sail that boat up the Adriatic coast and move into the castle he once saw in Dubrovnik. When his tough-guy veneer falls, Conetto is very poignant. He has an adult daughter, Kendall, whom he named after himself; he hasn’t seen her since she was 3. “I wasn’t ready to get married,” he told me of his early life failings. “I just stayed away.” He thinks the Bahia emerald is garbage. “That thing is a stinking sack of Siberian seal shit.” What an amazing quote. The alliteration! Every time I visited Conetto I left feeling sad. Why did you put this impression in? I’m always really interested in how things feel. Aren’t we all?
Back in 2000, during the first internet boom, Conetto knew an affable guy named Tony Thomas who’d sunk a lot of money into a startup that now needed a whole lot more money if Thomas ever wanted to get his initial investment back. According to Thomas’ account in court documents, Conetto offered a convoluted plan to help. Thomas and Conetto would fly to Brazil. With these miners Conetto knew, they’d secure $25 million worth of emeralds (meaning emeralds they could sell for $25 million, though Conetto and Thomas would pay much less). They’d use the emeralds as collateral on a loan, the money from which they’d invest with a so-called high-yield fund that guaranteed huge returns through the International Chamber of Commerce. Thus Thomas’ startup would have the money it needed to stay afloat and Thomas would become a very wealthy man.
In September of 2001, Thomas and Conetto flew to Brazil. In São Paulo, Conetto’s miner friends arranged for them to look at $25 million worth of cut and polished emeralds. That meeting was a disaster—the lapidary shop was dilapidated, and the men who were supposed to finance the transaction failed to show. The miners then tried to make up for it by taking Thomas and Conetto to one of their homes to see a real treasure: the 752-pound emerald in the carport. According to Conetto, a white cat was peeing on the huge stone when they arrived, but still Thomas fell in love. He looked “like he’d found the treasure of Ali Baba,” one of the miners later recalled in court. Thomas, of course, wanted the stone. The miners, records say, set the price at $60,000.
Nearly everybody involved has a different version of what happened next. How did you approach writing a sequence of events in which the people involved have different versions of the truth? This is a nightmare. I approached it by beating my head against my computer for six months. Thomas said he flew home and wired the money to São Paulo. Then he set out to determine the emerald’s true value. He reached out to former business associates and received amazing news. The most comparable stone was at the British Museum: a slightly smaller emerald worth $792 million. According to testimony, Thomas passed this information to an appraiser he met in Brazil. On November 5, 2001, the appraiser—supposedly having seen the Bahia—wrote: “Such a rare specimen has never been seen, not even at an international auction house such as Sotheby’s… The stone in this report I estimate is worth $925 million.”
A shocking amount of bullshit happens with big, rare stones. This is such a straight-talk way of putting it. Does this come naturally to you, or have you worked over time to cut away the frills and get to plain language? I’m not even sure! But like I said earlier, I think part of my job in the story was helping the reader make sense of all the chaos. I had to be the opposite of an unreliable narrator. The Gem of Tanzania, a 10,000-carat ruby, was once valued at 11 million British pounds, but that appraisal turned out to be a forgery. The Life and Pride of America, a 1,905-carat sapphire purchased for $10, for a while was valued at $2.28 million. Then a curator at the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Institution examined the rock, declared the color “awful—it’s just kind of muddy gray,” and now that sapphire is a paperweight. Recently, in January 2016, newspapers reported the discovery of the world’s largest blue-star sapphire, the Star of Adam, in Sri Lanka. Its anonymous owner told the BBC that the stone is worth $175 million. We shall see.
During the time the Bahia emerald was bouncing around, out of the mine but not yet in the sheriff’s safe, an emerald billed as the world’s largest was floating about too. This one was named Teodora. It weighed about 25 pounds and was said to be worth $1.15 million. A Canadian gem merchant named Regan Reaney put it up for auction in January 2012—then he was arrested on (possibly unrelated) fraud charges. Teodora, sadly, included a bunch of white beryl, dyed forest green.
As for the Bahia emerald, as Thomas told the court, in November 2001, Conetto told him he’d ship the stone home to Thomas in the US. He waited and waited, but the emerald never arrived. So a few months later he asked Conetto to return to Brazil and investigate what happened, only to learn the very worst: The emerald had been stolen en route to California. Sorry, inside job among the exporters, Conetto said. What can you do?
Conetto has a different story. He claims that Thomas never purchased the stone and that he, Conetto, never promised to mail it home for Thomas. Whatever the case, for the next four years Conetto and his miner friends leveraged the emerald’s appraised value, hatching plans to take out loans against its insurance policy. They did rope in one sucker, but still the miners bickered constantly. So, in 2005, Conetto shipped the emerald, for real this time, to San Jose, California. On the packing slip he wrote “ROCHA: ROCHEDO–ROCK” and listed the value at $100.
At the Dunkin’ Donuts in Tampa, Ferrara invited me to go with him on what he described as that day’s job. As far as I know, he isn’t a licensed PI, but the job was a stakeout. First we needed to secure what Ferrara called “a low-profile vehicle,” so from the Dunkin’ Donuts we stopped by a U-Haul store, where Ferrara rented a white pickup with an extended cab and excellent air-conditioning. In it, Ferrara, Chrystal, and I then drove to see the client who commissioned the stakeout, a 53-year-old woman who lived in one of Tampa’s endless and endlessly depressing gated communities, each with their own empty roads and swampy lagoons. “It’s almost unbelievable. She lost millions to her husband,” Ferrara told me as we pulled up to the woman’s house. “She’s still got some Kinkade paintings inside.” Ferrara’s job on this case, he said, was “to locate and uncover money and assets” and maybe scare the husband straight. “I do it for the adrenaline,” he said. “There are a lot of sides of me. In a lot of ways I have a very calm Disneyland mentality. Then there’s a side of me that’s very Mafia, wicked mean, cold.”
From there we headed to the stakeout proper, which consisted of sitting in the U-Haul outside a parking structure near Port Tampa Bay. “That’s part of stakeouts,” Ferrara said, several minutes into our boredom. “Sometimes you’ve got to wait it out.” Finally he left the relative nirvana of the air-conditioned truck to try to figure out if the woman’s husband had purchased an expensive car. He walked into the garage and texted Chrystal, “I’m in.” (The garage was open to the public.) That’s funny. What are some of your tips for injecting humor into a piece? Be open to the funny while you’re reporting. Look for it. And look for ways to love your subjects, too. In the cab, Chrystal opened her laptop and showed me Ferrara’s website, for a company called Global Quest. It featured pictures of pre-Columbian masks and ancient gold jewelry. “Most of the artifacts come from high individuals. These people don’t want to be known,” Chrystal said. Ferrara discovered these items, or maybe he was just brokering these items—it wasn’t entirely clear. When you’re unsure of the facts, when are you OK with leaving that ambiguity in, and when do you need to get to the bottom of it? This story was so much about the ways people fudge things for themselves and others. It seems fine to be unsure of the facts when the story is about the impossibility of getting a stable set of facts. If the story is about the facts themselves, then of course you need to get to the bottom of it. There was no bottom here. He returned to the U-Haul with pictures of cars and we left. That night, over dinner, he told me that for a while he had a guitar owned by Elvis. He also once had opportunity to sell a Leonardo da Vinci painting. But no art historians would authenticate the work because it was on canvas and da Vinci didn’t paint on canvas. (Ferrara found this position pinched and ridiculous, arguing, “There were sails then, right?”)
It was all so disorienting—the stakeout, the da Vinci painting, the Bahia emerald most of all. Because unlike the pre-Columbian masks and the painting, I knew the 752-pound gemstone really did exist. How it got to a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department vault is complicated, but as best as I could piece together from court documents (and also the obsessive research of a fellow journalist), what happened was this: Who was the fellow journalist, and how did you come to work with him or her? Brendan Borrell! He’s credited on the piece for his reporting. He spent a VERY long time collecting primary sources and doing interviews. I reached out to him when I was having trouble getting some phone numbers and asked him if he wanted to work together. After Conetto imported the stone to San Jose, he made a deal with Larry Biegler, the man with the squeaky voice. Biegler presented himself as polished and rich. Like Thomas, he fell instantly in love with the emerald, certain that he could sell it to a wealthy sucker. So Biegler made a deal with Conetto. Conetto would sign over to Biegler the rights to sell the emerald. If Biegler sold the stone, they would split the proceeds 50-50.
This was one of the great many moments that tripped me up while reporting this story. Who says to a random business associate, “Hey, you want 50 percent of my $925 million emerald?” But Brazeal, the emerald expert, set me straight: There just aren’t that many buyers for a giant gemstone. Fifty percent of $925 million is $462.5 million, whereas 100 percent of zero is nothing. Why was it important to be transparent about your reporting process here? All of this was in service of the story really being about these characters and what it was like to walk into their strange reality. They all lie to each other all the time—it’s hard to know what to believe. So it was a great relief to me when I finally got a sane person, an academic, on the phone and he explained things to me in terms that I could understand. Thus, after Biegler took possession of the emerald, he made a similar move. He told a gem merchant in New York that he, the gem merchant, could have 10 percent of the sale price if he could sell the rock for more than $25 million. That merchant posted the emerald on eBay (yes). The minimum bid was $19 million and the “buy now” price was $75 million. The listing drew one offer—for $19 million—but Biegler refused to let the gem dealer sell. He claimed to have a $75 million deal in the works.
Among the most amazing qualities of the Bahia emerald is that its charms seem to work every time. One person falls out of its thrall and the next floats right in. In 2007, the person who floated in was my Florida host, Jerry Ferrara. As he tells it, Biegler approached Ferrara and told him that he, Ferrara, seemed like just the guy to sell the stone. At the time Ferrara was desperate and quasi-homeless, and this was exactly what he wanted to hear. “It was just incredible,” Ferrara says. “Biegler showed up with a manila envelope and signed ownership of the world’s largest emerald over to me. He said he was looking for somebody like me.” What did you make of this? Did you feel like you understood it differently than Ferrara did? This is so poignant and sad! Jerry was in this really vulnerable moment, really down, and somebody said they were looking for someone like him. I really felt for Jerry, and it also is straight out of the conman playbook.
Soon Ferrara was tangled up in yet another Biegler operation, trying to sell diamonds to a Mormon guy from Idaho named Kit Morrison. Ferrara describes Morrison as “aloof, very secretive. Likable—no. He wore handmade Italian suits, handmade Italian leather shoes.” Morrison sent Ferrara $1.3 million, supposedly for diamonds, which he’d receive in the future. In return, Ferrara says, he put the Bahia emerald up as collateral. Then that deal fell through—Ferrara did not have any diamonds. So the emerald went to Morrison.
This should have made them enemies but now they had a common interest: turning the giant rock into money. Thus they became partners, if not friends. “It’s like we had a wagon full of gold,” Ferrara explained. “We’re both sleeping by the campfire, one eye open, one hand on your gun under the pillow.” At this point the emerald was in a storage unit, the Commonwealth International depository, in South El Monte, California. Ferrara and Biegler were supposedly the only ones with access to it (although in court, Ferrara and Morrison said Morrison also had access). Ferrara told me that only people who could prove they had the means to buy the emerald could go view it. Sheikhs came to look. Conetto insists that even Bernie Madoff flew out in “his little putt-putt” and planned to buy the emerald for “$91 million in diamonds, $21 million in cash, and three watches worth $15 million.” Did you or the magazine try to fact check this? We kept this as Conetto’s version of the story. It’s the reality he lives in, which is pretty different from objective reality. But sadly, Madoff was arrested two days before that alleged deal could close.
In June of 2008, Biegler disappeared. He had staged his own supposed kidnapping by a Brazilian warlord, sending word to Ferrara that he needed a ransom paid for his release. This sent Ferrara’s mind spinning back to all the times over the past year Biegler had asked Ferrara to send him money, requests Ferrara obliged because he did not want to blow his chance to make millions in an emerald sale. Eventually, Ferrara pieced together the truth: He learned that Biegler was not nearly as polished and rich as he pretended to be. In fact, he was really the proprietor of a business called B & B Plumbing in Citrus Heights, California. “I got taken by a damn plumber! Can you believe that?” Ferrara told me. B & B Plumbing even had lousy Yelp reviews. (“Hired Larry to install a dishwasher. He took my $125 and left …” “NO SHOW!!” One star.)
Furious and betrayed, Ferrara says he managed to get the secretary at Commonwealth International to let him and Morrison remove the emerald from the vault without Biegler present. They loaded the stone into a Cadillac Escalade SUV and headed east, toward Vegas. Biegler, Ferrara says, arrived at Commonwealth International less than 24 hours later to find the emerald gone.
The day after I went on the stakeout with Ferrara, we drove the U-Haul pickup to his friend Kris Rotonda’s home. Did you set up your activities with Ferrara before the visit, or did you just show up and tag along? I just told him I wanted to tag along on his life. We didn’t have any real plan. While I was waiting for my connecting flight to take off to get to Florida he texted to say he was going on a stakeout the next day and asked if I wanted to go along. Yes, please! Then, like a lot of people I think, he liked that somebody wanted to listen to him and see his world. Among Ferrara’s current ventures is working with Rotonda to launch My Pet Shopping Network, which, if all goes according to plan, will be a media behemoth like Home Shopping Network but for pet products. We sat in Rotonda’s living room where his three dogs ran in circles and skidded out on his tile floor, and Rotonda’s young daughter kept toddling in, followed by Rotonda’s wife. The scene was warm, totally regular, and unslick, and in it Ferrara seemed to relax for the first time since I arrived. Rotonda cued up their Pet Shopping Network sizzle reel. On it, he makes a pitch for a product called the Pooch Selfie that includes a tennis ball you clip onto a smartphone so your dog will stare at it and you can take a great selfie of you and your best friend looking into the camera.
“Great, right?” Ferrara said, when the reel finished. It wasn’t half bad. Then Ferrara came down to earth for a bit. “Most of the networks are so busy making dead ends that they don’t have time to meet with us.”
Ferrara’s life story is filled with pain. He told me his mother walked out when he was 4 and he didn’t see her again until he was 15. His younger sister died in childhood. His stepmother made him sleep with only sheets, not blankets, in the New Jersey winter. One day when he was walking home from an after-school job on a day that was –4 degrees, she drove by but didn’t pick him up. In 2004 his sister asked to borrow money. Ferrara told me that he gave her a few thousand dollars. Then she died of an overdose. Among the more fantastical family tales he told me was that he had an uncle who owned a junkyard in Edison, New Jersey, and when developers bought the land and cleaned it up, they found 79 skeletons buried in the soil. Did you or the magazine try to verify these things, or did you take his word for it? This was left in the “fantastical family tales” language as well. But there really is a Ferrara gangster family. Vincent “the Animal” Ferrara.
“Let’s just say I like my soda flat and my cereal soggy,” Ferrara said. So good. With such colorful characters, did you feel like you almost had too much good material? I was so grateful that Jerry finally agreed to let me come visit and that he was such a fantastic character. I kind of love him. This seems to sum up his outlook on life.
I asked if he liked pets and he said, “No! I hate them all! What an asshole!” (He later said he was kidding.)
He doesn’t drink because, he said, “I’m in the limelight,” and alcohol makes him even more of a jerk.
“I hate sports too!”
Ferrara’s lone outlets are smoking Marlboro Blacks and watching SpongeBob SquarePants. How did you get this out of him? I asked a really boring question—“What do you do to relax?”—and this all just came out. The trick, if there is one, is finding a way to feel genuine affection for your subjects so they feel safe telling you this stuff. “SpongeBob has a personality that cares about everybody, he sees the positive in everybody. He tries to make people laugh,” Ferrara explained. His favorite episode is “Band Geeks,” in which Squidward is set up to fail, yet again. He lies and promises that his nonexistent band will play a huge gig at the Bubble Bowl, the Super Bowl in Bikini Bottom. He scrambles to pull together a band but, Ferrara said, “nobody he knows has talent.” He’s going to humiliate himself. “The show starts. Squidward’s sweating,” Ferrara said. “But then it rocks.” Behind the scenes, SpongeBob steps in and saves him, turning Squidward’s friends into great musicians. Squidward succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.
“People in my family think it’s creepy,” Ferrara said, wrapping up his exegesis, “but my life is extremely hard, anxiety-ridden. SpongeBob gives me relief. Don’t put a horror flick in front of me, don’t put a Mafia movie in front of me. That’s my life.”
After Larry Biegler realized the emerald was gone from the Commonwealth International storage unit, he called the Temple City police and told the officer on duty that his emerald had been stolen and that he’d been abducted and released by the Brazilian Mafia. This triggered the arrival of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives Miller and Gayman. Soon, Ferrara and Morrison became suspects. The detectives took a few weeks to track them down, but by December 15, 2008, Miller and Gayman were in Eagle, Idaho, in the Boise foothills, staking out Morrison’s house. They set a perimeter and shivered in their rental car for two days.
On the third day they knocked on Morrison’s door. His wife answered and said Morrison wasn’t home. As the detectives were talking to her, they saw a man walking around the side of the property and, figuring it was Morrison, tackled him. He turned out to be a cable repairman. Morrison’s wife got Morrison on the phone and he cut a deal with Miller and Gayman. He would meet the detectives in Las Vegas, where he and Ferrara had stored the emerald, and they’d turn the stone over to the Sheriff’s Department on the condition that neither Ferrara nor Morrison would be arrested. So Miller and Gayman flew home to Burbank and assembled a small army, including a dozen officers with assault rifles, and caravanned overnight out I-15 East. When they arrived at the depository at 7 am, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department was already onsite with a SWAT team and helicopter cover. Morrison showed up in a sport coat and slacks, and within the hour Miller and Gayman were wheeling a piano dolly topped with a gargantuan emerald into the desert sun. Everybody took a lot of selfies. Then the detectives loaded the Bahia emerald into a police van, drove it back over the San Gabriel Mountains, and logged it into evidence.
As promised, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department threw the question of who owned the Bahia emerald over to the Los Angeles Superior Court. From 2007 to 2015, people began endless legal battles: Conetto sued Morrison, Thomas went after Conetto, the New York gem dealer sued Biegler. Ferrara spent a lot of days in settlement hearings and a lot of nights sleeping in hidden corners of hotel lobbies so he didn’t have to pay for rooms. Only once did he lunge across the conference table and threaten to beat the shit out of somebody. Did you ask, or did he volunteer that detail? I asked, but he was happy to tell.
During the legal proceedings, Biegler disappeared. Conetto got distracted by a friend’s new business that turned manure into electricity. The detectives came to believe that the emerald belonged to Thomas. After all, courts found he was the only litigant who’d ever paid anything for the stone. But Thomas fared poorly at his trial. Several key facts were not on his side. One, he never called FedEx to see what happened to his $925 million package. Two, he claimed his house burned down in 2006 and incinerated his bill of sale. (The court found his claim awfully convenient.) It also turned out, though this was not revealed at trial, that there was no large emerald at the British Museum in London at all. The entire backstory of the $792 million comp was made up.
The court had great difficulty pinning down who owned the emerald or how much it was worth—or, really, any facts at all, because so many men contradicted one another under oath. This led an observer to the possibility that the stone was really a MacGuffin, in the classic Hitchcockian sense—an object that everyone’s chasing but that doesn’t really matter.
Still, in 2011, the judge rejected Thomas’ claim of ownership. Then the judge got a new job, and Thomas asked for a mistrial—which the courts granted. In 2013, a second judge heard all this insanity again. But by that point Ferrara, Morrison, and another guy had gathered into a sort of consortium, under the name FM Holdings. That way someone, any one of them, could reclaim possession of the emerald, sell it, and divide the proceeds. You seem to have condensed a lot. How did you decide which of the legal proceedings to summarize and which to spell out in detail? Was the story originally much longer? The condensing was the hardest part and took lots of editorial help. Thank you, Maria!
The LA Superior Court awarded the Bahia emerald to FM Holdings on June 23, 2015.
But perhaps the emerald really is cursed. Before the Sheriff’s Department received the order to release the emerald to FM Holdings, the District Court of DC granted an injunction filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the country of Brazil. Brazil claimed that the Bahia emerald had been illegally exported and really belonged to them.
“I’ll be honest,” says John Nadolenco, the primary lawyer on the case for Brazil. “When I first got the letter”—from Brazil, asking for help repatriating the Bahia emerald—“I thought it was a total hoax. I thought it was one of those Nigerian prince things where they’re going to want us to send a couple million dollars to some bank account and they’re going to take all of our money.” But Nadolenco’s partner asked him to pursue the client. Nadolenco wrote back to the Brazilians with a real proposal, though he couldn’t resist including the jokey promise that his friend Indiana Jones could help reclaim the emerald if his own efforts failed. He got the gig.
So today the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is still—still—holding the emerald, now as evidence for a criminal case they’re building. Why did you choose not to go into that case in detail? There was just much too much plot in this story. Everything that could come out had to come out. The limbo is uncomfortable for Ferrara. He’s a big man with big, tenacious, preposterous dreams stuck in a life that feels too banal, empty, and small. My last day in Florida we met up at Cracker Barrel. Ferrara likes the tchotchkes there. During a lull in the conversation, Chrystal told me she worries what will happen if Ferrara loses the emerald for good. “It would devastate him,” she whispered. “It’s his whole life.”
Ferrara and I talked for hours and hours and hours, from the retiree breakfast rush past lunch, through every last detail of the saga. At one point, he placed the salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. He slid them a few inches apart and set his phone on top, like the flat roof of a house. “This is our foundation in life—your mother, your father, friends, teachers, the people that mean something to you.” (He meant the shakers to represent the people and the phone to be your life.)
He slid the shakers out from under the phone. “As these people fail you, these go away, one by one.” The phone, your life, falls.
Before I headed to the airport, we returned the truck to U-Haul and revisited Dunkin’ Donuts for some more iced coffees. We sat outside, in the horrible humid air, so Ferrara could smoke his Marlboros. He mentioned that, along with SpongeBob, he connected with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or at least the title. “Like I wrote one time, ‘We entered a world that was inhabited by dark shadows, the nights would never end, the mornings would never come,’” he said. He didn’t quite get the quote from his own prose correct. But he made his point: Life is tough. People betray you and die. We all need escapes.
I drove to the airport. I boarded my flight. Even before my plane touched down, Ferrara had left me a voicemail. “Call me!” he bellowed, optimistic as ever. “You will never guess what transpired today. As you left, the winds of change blew in.”
I called him back the next morning. He told me a story about the emerald, which I understood less the longer he talked. He also mentioned that he’d been approached about hosting a TV show, a reality treasure-hunter series. He would be the star. It was nice to hear his voice. Tell me about what you were trying to get across with this ending. That I really liked Jerry’s crazy self and that I accepted him for who he is. He’s a beautiful deluded dreamer. My working title on this story was “Some Dreamers of a Certain Dream.” Like a lot of writers (and especially female writers of a certain age who live in California), I have a Didion problem. Thank you for caring about this piece! It caused so much heartache for so long. Xoxo