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Missing Art Thief’s Lawyer May Fly the Coop

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Accused art thief Luke Brugnara will need to retain new counsel when he is apprehended, his attorney said Monday.

Standing before U.S. District Judge William Alsup in court, attorney Erik Babcock said he has no idea of Brugnara's whereabouts.

"I don't want to have to abandon ship but I have a big conflict here if the government is planning to charge my client with escape or a similar charge or use that evidence at trial in this case," Babcock said. "At this point, I'm a witness."

Alsup was quick to point out the elephant in the room.

"The defendant Luke Brugnara has escaped," the judge said. "At least he was paroled out to the custody of Mr. Babcock and while in the meeting exited the building and hasn't been since or heard from since. So that looks like an escape to me."

"I'll make a finding that he is absent and unavailable," Alsup added.

Brugnara fled the San Francisco Federal Building on Thursday, Feb. 3, during a scheduled meeting with Babcock in the attorneys' lounge. Alsup had ordered in December 2014 that Brugnara be allowed to meet with Babcock to prepare for his trial, provided that Babcock keep an eye on him at all times.

Alsup said the trial for Brugnara, originally set for late March, will likely be pushed back to "whenever we're all back together again."

Until then, Babcock will remain Bruganra's counsel, the judge added.

Alsup said he was hesitant to let Babcock withdraw, as Brugnara has already complained of Alsup "firing" his past attorneys.

"I don't want to be accused of somehow having jumped the gun," the judge said.

Indicating a certainty that Brugnara would be caught and re-arrested, Alsup said a magistrate judge will be able to appoint a new attorney for him.

Babcock noted "it may not be so easy to find someone to take the appointment."

The one-time real estate mogul Brugnara, 51, was indicted in June 2014 for mail fraud, having allegedly ordered and received more than $11 million worth of art.

An attorney for art dealer Walter Maibaum told the court at the Monday hearing that his client is being deprived of his livelihood with the stolen artworks held in evidence.

"My clients are apoplectic on account of this because their artwork is being held as evidence," attorney Allison Davis said. "They need this artwork to make a living, and the longer this goes on they are being prevented from earning a living. They are in dire straits. If Mr. Brugnara is never found we need to do something because it can't be held indefinitely."

Alsup said he wasn't sure what Davis expected him to do. "We are far from being in that spot," the judge said. "I've been in this scenario before. Usually the absconder is found in a few months sometimes in a few days. I can't guarantee that, but if history is a guide, that is the likely scenario."

Alsup added: "We are likely to be having a trial sometime this year. If I'm wrong the day may come when a motion can be made and the artwork returned. This is coming out of the blue for me. You're welcome to make any motion but it's a little early to be hitting the panic button."

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