In 2008, Jason Lee walked into the home of Dennis Hopper with a camera in hand. Lee was starring in the sitcom My Name Is Earl at the time, but he also harbored a love for being behind the lens. “Photography has not only become important to me,” the actor said back in 2006. “It’s become vital. I think about it as much as I think about my family, or food.”
He was there to shoot the director and star of Easy Rider for Anthem, an arts and culture magazine. “I didn’t know Hopper,” says Lee. “But I was certainly flattered when he said, ‘I love your work.’ All I could do was kind of laugh and say, ‘Same goes for me. Thanks for letting me in your home to photograph you.’ ” The two shared career parallels. Before making the switch to movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks or the recent Selena Gomez comedy Behaving Badly, Lee—a former professional skateboarder—specialized in offbeat indies like Mallrats and Dogma. Of course Hopper, a hell-raiser from the start, had set the standard for offbeat with his roles in Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. It was during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause that James Dean encouraged him to pursue his interest in photography. Hopper would go on to contract for magazines, and his images documenting the art scene of the 1960s (he was the first to purchase one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can paintings; the price: $100) would be featured in exhibitions.
Every ambitious photographer needs a “look,” an aesthetic to call his or her own. Lee likes to use a large-format Polaroid from the 1930s, ducking his head under a black cloth in order to see the image through the old lens. With each snap of the shutter, he removes the sheet film from the camera and runs it through a processor to develop it on the spot, a procedure that can be painfully slow. “I think things are moving too fast and that we forget to stop and smell the fucking roses,” says Lee, who sometimes sounds like a boy who’s just discovered the F-word. “I shoot exclusively on film because part of me is trying to hold onto the past.”
Lee set up in the living room and trained the vintage Wollensak on the actor, who, 72 years old at the time, sat wearing a sport jacket and cocked his head up to the right, his white goatee accentuating gaunt cheeks. Hopper remained still as Lee scrambled to develop each shot. Finally, on the seventh try, the image Lee was hoping for emerged. “Hopper looked at it and gave it the big thumbs-up,” says Lee.
The photo ran in Anthem’s fall issue. There were no prints, digital copies, or negatives of the eight-by-ten-inch Polaroid, which Lee hung in his Cape Cod-style home in Pasadena. He cherished the image, all the more so after Hopper died of prostate cancer in 2010. The following year, when some friends who owned THIS Los Angeles, a gallery in Highland Park, were putting on an exhibition of friends’ work, Lee even volunteered to show it off.
This Los Angeles wasn’t exactly a major showcase. Founded by Jeremy Weiss, his wife, Claire, and three other photographers, it was befitting of the small galleries and gentrified bars that have been slowly sprouting in Highland Park as home buyers from the creative class have found themselves priced out of neighborhoods like Eagle Rock and Silver Lake. On the evening of February 4, 2011, the 400-square-foot gallery was packed with hundreds of people jabbering with one another, getting loaded on free whiskey and wine amid pieces by artists who ranged from Shepard Fairey to relative unknowns. The portrait of Hopper was the only piece not for sale.
At 10:50, as the gallery was closing and the crowd had thinned, a small man walked in, casually lifted the framed Polaroid off the wall, and bolted out the front door. A friend of the gallery owners gave chase, but the thief, who sprinted down Figueroa, made a left onto 59th Avenue and disappeared into an alley. Dennis Hopper was gone.
It was a case Hopper might have appreciated. In 1956, to impress a girl—the writer Gwen Davis—he pilfered a cardboard cutout of Anthony Perkins from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and left it in her backyard. After seeing the Marcel Duchamp show at the Pasadena Art Museum in the early 1960s, he was inspired by the Frenchman’s idea of elevating everyday objects like urinals and bicycle wheels to art. So Hopper snatched a sign from the Hotel Green, where Duchamp was staying, and had him autograph it. “I went into a whole area of stealing things,” Hopper said, including road signs and a Mobil Oil flying red horse. All the while he was building an art collection that would be auctioned off for well over $10 million after his death.
Because of the abundance of such high-ticket collections in the city and the frequency with which thieves target them, the LAPD operates an art theft detail whose detectives have tracked down Gainsboroughs and Picassos, Caravaggios and Warhols. Lee’s portrait hardly qualified. Instead the case went to the LAPD’s Northeast station, and Lee offered a $25,000 reward. “I mean, it’s Dennis-fucking-Hopper,” says the 44-year-old. “He’s iconic. It may not mean a lot to other people, but it’s the only eight-by-ten-inch Polaroid of Dennis Hopper to exist on Planet Earth.” However, there was little to go on other than a description of the thief being a male around five feet seven and wearing a gray hoodie. The security guard at the gallery had already knocked off for the night, and the memory card from the camera that had been taking periodic shots of the scene had filled to capacity a half hour before Hopper was removed from the wall.
The gallery’s owners had saved money for nine years before opening the space along a stretch of Figueroa better known for its liquor stores and Laundromats. Jeremy and Claire Weiss had dated during high school in New Jersey and attended the New England School of Photography. Their goals for the 2010 opening of THIS Los Angeles were simple: to expose art to Eastsiders unlikely to travel to an exhibition in Culver City or Beverly Hills, and to provide an audience for their friends’ work. Jeremy, a former skater who calls Lee “a hero of mine,” met the actor in 2008, and the two clicked. “He takes photography seriously,” says Jeremy. “We started becoming friends.” Lee loaned a portrait he’d taken of architectural photographer Julius Shulman to the gallery for its first annual exhibition. He offered the Hopper for its second.
Adversity has a way of bringing friends together—and of driving them apart. Lee blamed the gallery. “For me,” he says, “you look at the crowd, you look at the group mentality, and you look at the location of the gallery and the people who were there. But that’s just me being a pro skater and knowing that world and knowing that those people are not always the most upstanding. A lot of them just go for the free beer. I mean, when you go to an exhibition at Ace Gallery, there’s probably not a very good chance that some dude in a hoodie is going to run in and grab a piece.” Lee had valued the photo at $25,000, says Jeremy, “but we didn’t realize it had been insured for so much, and we wanted to avoid having our insurance companies battle it out for fear of getting dropped”—effectively killing their business. So Lee offered the gallery owners a compromise: They’d pay $12,500 to go toward a private eye. Lee’s representative hired a white-collar crime specialist who, with little evidence to go on, stalled out after several months.
Lee, an Orange County native, turned to Hunt Private Investigations in Laguna Hills, whose owner, Bill Hunt, was a former San Clemente chief of police. The case was stale and a year-and-a-half old, with plenty of unanswered questions: Was the thief a pro? Some sophisticated criminal in the art world who’d eluded detection? Had the photo been sold on the black market? Or destroyed? “We’re not Houdini,” Hunt said, “but we’ll do everything we can.”
He assigned an investigator named Greg Kading to the case in the fall of 2012. With a square jaw, curly brown hair, and confident swagger, the youthful 51-year-old looks more the movie star than Lee, whose graying beard is notably thicker than the hair on his scalp. Kading—an ex-LAPD cold case detective who’d investigated the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls—discovered that a month after the theft, THIS Los Angeles had received an e-mail from a person using the alias “Zander Ovinsky,” who expressed interest in a reward and offered a lead: a man named Troy Allman. One of the gallery owners had taken it to the cops but says nobody followed up. Kading and Hunt located somebody by that name in Ohio with a DUI and a string of trespassing charges. The problem was that while the suspect in the Hopper theft was supposed to be five feet seven, Allman stood closer to six feet three.
After persuading an LAPD detective to help him get a search warrant, Kading learned that the e-mailer’s real name was Andy Dobson, a custom skateboard maker in Vancouver. Dobson was hesitant—“he didn’t want any of his skater clients to know he helped rat out the thief,” says Kading—but eventually he told the detective that during a trip to Guadalajara in February 2011, shortly after the theft, he met Allman in a shop; the skate logo on Dobson’s jacket had caught his eye. It turned out that Allman, described as a skater with an ankle tattoo of a tamale riding a deck, knew some of Dobson’s friends in Mexico. “Troy invites Dobson over to his place,” says Kading, “and they start partying together.” Dobson (who didn’t respond to attempts to contact him for this story) thought the guy was colorful, even if he was a “boisterous jerk.” Allman allegedly showed off Lee’s photo and bragged about stealing it from a gallery in L.A. Dobson also described how friends of his and Allman’s in Guadalajara had reportedly been snorting cocaine off the photo and “throwing it around like a Frisbee,” says Kading. When Allman returned to California, according to Dobson, he left the photo with a mutual buddy in Mexico.
For Lee there was no choice: Kading needed to fly to Guadalajara. The actor paid for Dobson, too, so the skateboard maker could help locate Allman’s old apartment and the man he believed had the photo now. That Dobson went at all was unexpected, given his concerns about being a snitch; what Kading didn’t know was that he had warned somebody ahead of time. “I’ve been dragged down here by some PI who’s on Trays [sic] case,” Dobson messaged his friend on Facebook. “They’re trying to find you.”
With help like that, it’s no surprise Kading’s quest led nowhere. Weeks after returning, the detective called Claire Weiss at THIS Los Angeles to see whether she knew Troy Allman. Weiss didn’t, but it turned out that the woman standing beside her did. As Kading scribbled everything down, the woman (who asked to remain anonymous for her own protection) explained that Allman had been seeing a friend of hers named Jessica Wassil. A San Francisco painter whose work was on display at the gallery the night of the theft, Wassil had driven from the Bay Area with Allman, who was 32, for the show. There was somebody else, too: a short, quiet fellow named Neima Firouzi, who’d become friends with Allman while they were students at UC Santa Cruz. Firouzi had met up with Allman and Wassil before the show, and after several drinks at THIS Los Angeles, they all crashed at the woman’s place. The next morning Wassil returned to San Francisco, Allman left for Mexico, and Firouzi went home.
On April 3, 2013, Hunt and Kading flew to San Francisco to see Wassil. The artist—who appears in the documentary Mortified Nation, featuring adults who share embarrassing childhood diary entries onstage—admits today that she tried to shield Firouzi to spare his hopes of becoming a teacher. During the interview with the detectives, however, she did confirm that she knew Allman and, in fact, had spotted him two days before the detectives’ arrival, on April 1. More important, according to Kading, she described how Allman and Firouzi had disappeared at the end of the art show and called her from several blocks away, asking for a ride. Wassil denies this. “I had no involvement in it other than I just didn’t know what to do and told [Firouzi] to give it back,” she says. But she also sees what happened as somewhat fitting. “Dennis Hopper was a crazy person, and Troy is an equally insane person. In this weird, beautifully twisted way, the soul of Dennis Hopper’s painting being taken by an equally crazy person to Mexico instead of being on the wall of some bourgeois actor… ,” she says before dropping the thought.
Kading and hunt had a good feeling as they knocked on the door of the 1920s Pasadena bungalow where Firouzi was living. Wearing a wrinkled T-shirt and reeking of booze, Firouzi looked much younger than his 28 years. Without asking what they wanted, he led the detectives into the den, where he explained that he had plans to become an elementary schoolteacher. “He played coy with us,” says Kading, “and was measuring us up with his eyes. He was definitely scared but slowly began to talk.” Firouzi admitted to stealing the photo and handing it off to Allman several blocks away. “Troy has a way of talking to me,” he said, blaming the scheme on his friend. As far as Firouzi knew, running off with the Polaroid was just something to do. Wassil, he claimed, argued there was no way to return the portrait without getting in trouble, and Allman said he would handle it.
Seven months after taking the case, Kading gave LAPD detectives Firouzi’s confession. Charged with grand theft and burglary, Firouzi pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft, receiving three years’ probation and an order to pay Lee $14,000 in restitution to help offset Hunt and Kading’s fees. Four days after confronting Firouzi, Kading got a call from Aaron Farley, a co-owner of THIS Los Angeles. The gallery was going out of business, and Farley had been preparing a final exhibition. Unpacking pieces of art that sat in a heap of mail, he found himself staring face-to-face with Lee’s photo. Dennis Hopper had returned.
“Don’t move,” Kading told Farley. “I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
Later that night Kading and Hunt rushed over to Lee’s home carrying the Polaroid, its protective glass scored with razor blade marks. Donning latex gloves—the picture hadn’t been dusted for prints yet—Lee removed the photo to check the serial number he’d etched on the opposite side. It matched. “I was blown away,” he says. “How the fuck did it come back? That kind of stuff should not happen. I was totally emotional.”
“Honestly,” says Kading, “I thought it had been destroyed. Who in the world would hold onto it after all this time?”
More to the point, who sent the photograph to the gallery? The postal stamp seemed to tell the story: It had been mailed from San Francisco on April 1, the same day Wassil said she spotted Allman there. Kading believes he stirred things up in Mexico just enough for Allman to return the Polaroid. “April Fools,” says Lee. “He was a smart-ass right until the end.” The photo now hangs in Lee’s home office, which he’s equipped with a thicker door and a dead bolt. Allman remains at large, a warrant hanging over him.