Breaking Bad: How A Former High School Teacher And His Wife In New Mexico May Become World-Class Art Thieves

DjoY-gOU4AAR-EqA A new discovery may have solved the long-standing mystery of who stole a Willem de Kooning painting worth more than $100 million.  The theft in 1985 was a brazen crime by a man and a woman who cut out “Woman-Ochre” from its frame in November 1985. The painting was found a year ago at a home in New Mexico belonging to Jerry and Rita Alter. A newly discovered picture not only puts the couple in Tucson the day before the heist but it shows a striking resemblance to the suspects.

The two thieves fled in a red sports car.  The painting was later found behind a bedroom door in the home of the Alters in Tucson.  It also turns out that the couple preferred red cars their entire lives.

(PHOTO: University of Arizona Museum of Art)

The couple died at 81 when they passed in 2012 and 2017.  The estate was sold to an antique shop owner, David Van Auker, who discovered the painting in the master bedroom. Later Auker was told that the painting may be an original and contacted the FBI.


If true, it is a movie script that rights itself — a cross between Breaking Bad and Ocean 11 (or in this case, Ocean 2).  Jerry Alter, a professional musician and a band teacher in New York City schools.  He suddenly left teaching at age 47 and the couple  moved to rural New Mexico in 1977.  They drew up the lans for their simply ranch-style house on top of a mesa.   Rita Alter started work as a speech pathologist for the local school district. They were know to visit art museums.
The idea of this couple deciding to steal one of the most valuable paintings in the world is fascinating.  The idea that they then kept it in their ranch house for their own enjoyment only magnifies the intrigue.
Indeed, Jerry could easily be Walter aka Heisenberg from the movie:

112 thoughts on “Breaking Bad: How A Former High School Teacher And His Wife In New Mexico May Become World-Class Art Thieves”

  1. For those who “define” art…

    He had walked some distance through the woods as he often had done before. He headed towards a break in the tree line that over looked a valley. When he got there he was amazed at what he got to witness. It was a sunset like no other he had seen before. A sunset so amazing that he could barely believe what he was seeing. Being an artist, so he thought, he always kept some paper and pencil with him. Although he didn’t have his paint, he went on to illustrate and take notes of the finest detail he could about what he saw. He also stopped at moments to try to burn the image into his memory. Anxious to get back to his place he found himself having to stop from running back. He would tell no one about this encounter with beauty. His medium would be his painting of the moment. Over and over he tried but he never could quite capture the scene. Something would always be “just” off. Just when he was about to give up he tried one more time. He was almost scared to start for he knew one more failure would probably break him. Not this time though. The paint flowed effortlessly. He felt he was almost possessed by the strokes of his brush. Everything was coming so easy and it all came together. He stood back and looked at the painting and he closed his eyes to see the “etched” image he had stored in his memory of that day. As he opened his eyes and looked at the painting he thought to himself, “Wow, It’s as if my eyes are still shut”. He was pleased.

    He couldn’t wait for the paint to dry to show this miracle to his piers.

    Surely, they would see it and join in his celebration of such a wonderful piece. Walking without barely touching the ground, he brought his painting to his piers. He wanted to be last to show off his masterpiece since he knew it would blow them away. The anticipation was killing him. Piece after piece went by. He felt bad since he knew he wasn’t giving his best attention to the other pieces, but he thought, who would blame him once they witnessed his. So his big moment came, his smile reached ear to ear as he unveiled his work of art. His piers sat and waited in anticipation. Once it was unveiled they stared and stared and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. After a minute or so one of them said, “I don’t get it! Where’s the message?” Shortly, another piped in, “Yeah, what is the point here? It’s just a picture, there’s no statement being made.” The comments started spreading like wild fire and soon it was concluded that this wasn’t art.

    Message? Statement? What were these people talking about? He didn’t understand. Why didn’t they embrace this wonderful painting? There was no statement or meaning, it was simply recalling an amazing moment provided by God not unlike retelling a wonderful story that you would share. He took his painting and left his piers in utter disgust. First he was upset, then mad, but eventually sadness had taken over his mood.

    Days passed after his banishment from the “art” community. While walking down the street one day he heard a wonderful sound. He was hearing a guitar player some distance away. So he followed the sounds until he came across the source of the magical tune. He stood and listened and when the player stopped he asked, “What is that you are playing?” The guitarist responded, “Oh, it is just something that I wrote after listening to the birds outside of my window one morning. They inspired it” “Wow”, the man said, “Have you recorded it?” The guitarists shaking his head said, “No, Seems all people are interested in today is music with a statement or some message. It’s not about the notes and their arrangements anymore, in fact you’re the first to even acknowledge my work. I am not considered an ‘artist’.” Once again this made the man sad and angry.

    He kept thinking about the guitarist and his own personal experience over and over again as he walked. Soon he came across a car that was designed by some engineer that was obviously inspired by the beautiful curves of the female body. He wondered how the engineer incorporated the lines in such a way as to make the car look as if it was moving a 100mph while parked. His attention was suddenly pulled away from the car. He could here the closing arguments coming out of the local courthouse window. He sat and listened as the passion flowed from the lawyers’ mouth. He didn’t know anything about the case being debated but what he heard sounded and felt like poetry. A bricklayer down the street was finishing a wall. The pattern was mesmerizing. A traffic cop at the intersection directing the flow of cars was so in tune with the rhythm of the street that it seemed as if he was dancing. The man stopped and soaked all of this in and began to realize that he was surrounded, bombarded if you will, by art that wouldn’t be recognized by the community for it had no statement other than, “I exist”.

    So he did the only thing he could do.

    He took his new comforted feeling and he went to back to that break in the woods that overlooked the valley and waited for the sun to make another statement.

    Be careful of the “Walls” that you build when you try to define art. It may just narrow your vision of what art is or can be.

      1. Thank you. I wrote that to my nephew when he went to college as a music major and started coming back with a pompous attitude about what was “art”.

        1. Jim—I hear you loud and clear about music majors! I was one….and had a double major in music so I was around other musicians 24/7. They drove me crazy with their attitudes, and are the reason that it’s hard for me to fully embrace opera. They were SO uppity and condescending ….it turned me off to opera completely….except for a couple of tenor arias, and the Pearl Fishers duet. You are a wise man to send your nephew such a letter. College music departments could use you at production rehearsals, not for sound checks, but for ego checks..LOL

    1. That was beautiful, Jim.

      En plein air is a difficult chase. There is no reference photograph, and the light changes moment to moment. Love the genre.

      1. Thanks Karen, I figured no one would even read it since it is kind of long. I find it tough though to defend the bed art you described or the urine crucifix.

    2. Jim22:
      Under the laws of logic, if art is defined as everything it is also defined as nothing. Be careful about the walls you tear down in defining art! Nice story though.

      1. mespo……Your lead-in sentence is provocative….and interesting! Puts me in mind of the Nazi’s stealing all of that art in WW2. I’m not much of a Nazi historian, but I don’t think they gave a flip about the art, do you?? I think it was such a coup…..such an incredible power play! Maybe I’m wrong?

        1. Cindy Bragg – Hitler wanted to build a huge art museum in Berlin. Both he and Goering were big art lovers. I am not sure about Goebbels. There were fights over who got what art objects.

          1. Paul C…..P.S. I have a request for the next group of people who want to occupy Paris……Please in the name of god dismantle that pyramid at the Louvre!! It looks stupid. I know it’s Pei, but honestly, he might as well have built a barn and petting zoo there, in my opinion. I’m so glad I went to Paris in 1965……when it was still classic Louvre.

            1. Cindy Bragg – I do not like it either but I have just seen it in pictures and films. I have an architect friend who has seen it close up and does like it. Generally, I trust his judgment but not on this. 😉

              1. Paul C….You’ve got good taste!
                Speaking of stolen art, how ’bout all of the obelisks (stolen from Egypt)all over Europe, including the Vatican! Just learned of that…..I don’t know much of European history.Anyway, that is a travesty!

                1. Cindy Bragg – there is a lot of art stolen from everywhere. We can thank the French for the Rosetta Stone.

        2. Cindy Bragg:

          The point is that if art is everything, then the concept of art is debased such that the term “art” has no meaning at all.

          1. mespo – Frank Lloyd Wright said that if people buy it, it is art.

          2. mespo…I agree with your statement…you’re a deeper think than I, because I didn’t fully understand that that was the message of Jim’s story. Your statement is a potent one, and one with which I tend to agree. As for the mammary major at TSU, photographed on the steps…Jeeze! ” Let’s see……If I want to really stick-it to those sexual predators on campus, and show them how sick and lowlife men who sexually assault women really are, then what should I do? I know! I’ll take my clothes off in public! Yeah, that makes sense! ” LOL Well, it is LBJ’s alma mater, so it’s fitting, in a way. I did not care for the man. ..Texas crude.
            Thanks mespo!

  2. Art paintings are in the eye of the beholder. Those who steal them need to go to jail.

  3. Off topic. New topic. Needed topic: Why America fights in Afghanistan?
    How many troops are there? How much money do we spend? Who are we fighting? Should we pullout now like Trump’s father should have?

  4. I have a painters drop cloth 8’x10’ which I have worked on for years the movement in color is absolutely beautiful. I’m willing to let any museum or collector have it for half the price of this thing and I will sign it for free.

  5. “They were know to visit art museums.” Does Trump do the editing for JT’s articles?

    1. How do we know a newb post? The post comprises a grammar complaint. Take note that our intrepid host posts at the earliest hours of the day, between midnight and 2am in his E. time zone. His resume takes an hour to read, he constantly adds to it, and to say he has a long work day is grotesque understatement. He posts without editing and has frankly informed readers to take it or leave it.

      This blog reaches over 3M subscribers not for stellar grammar but for informed and sometimes unique views on law and ethics.

      John Cusack interviewed Turley circa 2012. In that interview, Turley accurately describes the several felony crimes then-POTUS Obama committed, and his utter disdain for the law, viewing the US Constitution as a means to his political ends, not and end to itself. Turley is the most powerful and prestigious person of whom I know with the courage and honesty to express this view.

      I strongly disagree with Turley on several points. But for that Cusack interview alone, I shall always hold him in the highest possible regard for any person with his stature in the world. And kudos for the actor Cusack also.

      His grammar errors herein are of zero consequence v. the immense good he does stating truth to power.

    2. Your TDS is so severe you have to bring up Trump in a thread that has absolutely ZERO to do with politics??

      1. Yeah, he should have waited for a thread on stupidity. Why don’t you start one?

  6. I have been through many museums. Without exception I find many paintings that I love, many that are, well, ho-hum, and a few. a very few, that I find to be really bad. A point made earlier, there is a big difference between a photograph of canvas and the real thing. If you like a print, you will love the real thing. I don’t like the painting they stole based on the picture of it here, but it may have a special brilliance in the real thing.

  7. That painting and it’s price is indicative of how dysfunctional and stupid the art market it. State governments might do their part for cultural sanity by enacting legislation commanding the closure of studio art departments at state schools and limiting the franchise to maintain art history faculties to one or two research universities in the system. If there’s a state museum, the legislature can and should limit its franchise to the collection of art works produced prior to 1919, compelling the sale of everything else. Congress could enact similar legislation vis a vis the Smithsonian.

    1. Spastics — Somebody recently gave Washington State University several tens of millions for a new art museum. They didn’t turn it down.

      And by the way, Kandinsky did his work after 1919.

          1. If the gift doesn’t come with an endowment which pays for the maintenance and staffing, it’s a cost to the state. The people who want that are academics, for whom ‘mo’ money for us’ is the guiding principle.

    2. DSS – as someone who buys and collects art, the art market fluctuates like any other market. If you buy something retail it will take you at least 5 years to make a profit on it.

        1. Karen S – that is like asking which is your favorite child. 😉 Generally, various artists in different periods.

    3. Yeah, Spastic, if you’re an anti-intellectual, you might mandate the liquidation of art collections under state ownership. ‘Genuine’ anti-intellectuals have no use for art.

      1. What’s amusing about you is that you’re a caricature. No conceit is too stale for you to give voice to it. Couldn’t you come up with some innovative conceit?

  8. One has to see the original. Reproductions don’t have the same impact.

    1. David Benson owes me nine citations (one from the OED) and the source of a quotation, after eleven weeks, and needs to cite all his work from now on. – you saw the original on the back of their bedroom door? Did you recognize it as an original?

      1. Paul C Schulte, the comment was a generality. For example, Crows in a Cornfield, which I have seen, has an impact that even the best reproductions fail to capture. Similarly for other Van Gogh paintings. And so on.

        1. David Benson owes me nine citations (one from the OED) and the source of a quotation, after eleven weeks, and needs to cite all his work from now on. – I spend all my vacations going to art museums. I had rather hope to do northern California this year, however with the fires that has put a crimp in my plans. I may run over for a quicky at the Getty though.

          You do state the obvious. It is like the Manafort trial. Those who are attending the trial probably have a different take on the trial then those who are reporting in the press or tv and getting their reports second and third-hand.

          1. Paul – we damn near lost the Getty last year from a fire set by a homeless encampment. Better see it while it still stands.

              1. Like the Titanic was unsinkable? The museum claims it’s the safest place in the world for art. Sounds like famous last words.

                They have a million gallon water tank on site, reverse air filtration, and the building is travertine. They’ve done everything they can think of. They are still located in the hills off Sepulveda, surrounded by dry brush. Burning brush can blow on fire winds.

                Hopefully no fire will ever touch that serene place.

  9. Well, if they had been caught, and I was their lawyer, I would argue the painting was worth objectively less than $250, or whatever the limit is for misdemeanor theft in New Mexico.

    People who pay millions for crap like this are like the people in The Emperor’s New Clothes, who pretend to see its value because they are afraid to say what they really think.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. +1000

      What amazes me is that in 60 years or more this bubble has never burst. At some point we’re going to have a cultural shift and people for whom six-digit sums are sofa change are going to realize that that tulip bulb isn’t worth a townhouse. No clue when that day comes.

      1. I am not sure that it will pop like a bubble. Maybe it will just be a piece by piece rejection by subsequent buyers who just don’t see the “value” of the work. Plus, can you imagine the exposure of a bank or lender who has taken something like this as collateral???

        Another possible end to it is the increasing ability to duplicate this stuff on canvas. There are companies that will for a $100 more or less reproduce a piece of art on canvas. and ship it to you. Over time I bet the technology will improve to where a person can not tell real from fake.

        Squeeky Fromm
        Girl Reporter

        1. The counter-argument always is, “she or he was the first to use the style or technique”. Not quite on the level of Thomas Alva Edison or Alexander Bell, but still, priority counts…

  10. That painting would take the lead right out of my pencil. I could not hang it in the bedroom, except maybe the closet.

  11. When our daughter was 18 months old, I bought a canvas, some brushes and oils and let her “paint” until she got tired. She was so cute as she worked on her masterpiece. We’ve had it hanging in our home all these years.
    But put it next to a Pollock and I defy anyone to tell the difference! 🙂

    1. Cindy Bragg – I can tell the difference from a Pollack. I hated him so much when I was teaching art history that I started to look for the real thing every place I could. I actually changed my mind on Pollack after seeing one of his pieces in SF. If your daughter’s masterpiece is not 8′ x 4′ and painted with house paint then that would be a tip-off. Pollack didn’t work in oils. 😉

      1. Paul C. Schulte…. Oh, YOU’RE talking about JACKSON Pollock……I was talking about Herb Pollock at Econo Lube & Tune Auto Care. Herb works in oils : )

        1. Cindy Bragg – I hate to think what your house looked like when she was done. So, what, her medium was WD-40?

          1. Paul C LOL….Yes, the family size..
            So you are an art history teacher?
            Could we see some ID please?

      2. I’ve seen original Pollacks in a museum in Boston. I didn’t change my mind.

        1. DSS – Once I saw a couple of originals and could study them, I could see the rhythms in his works. I know it seems chaotic, but it is not. There is a method to his madness. Once I could see the rhythms, they became very peaceful and soothing.

          1. Really? The art teacher of my acquaintance who was a sometime Pollack defender did so on the basis of their ‘energy’.

        2. Teach. & Paul C….A word in your ear: According to Wikipedia on MY ipad, Jackson Pollock’s last name does not have an “A” in it. Are y’all using the spelling reserved for intellectuals, such as yourselves, or are you, God forgive me, “mistaken”?

          1. Cindy Bragg – I am mistaken and you are right, it is Pollock. Nice catch. 🙂

            1. Paul C. I thought you were doing it on purpose..LOL… because you and so many here are clearly so incredibly well-read and intellectual. I’m just ridin’ side-saddle, takin’ it all in.

          1. Teach. & Paul C….A word in your ear: According to Wikipedia on MY ipad, Jackson Pollock’s last name does not have an “A” in it. Are y’all using the spelling reserved for intellectuals, such as yourselves, or are you, God forgive me, “mistaken”?

  12. The biggest crime is that this painting would be considered one of the most valuable paintings in the world.

    Art is a hobby of mine. There is no comparison of modern art with the classical masters – not in technique, composition, proportions, or skill. I also do not consider Jackson Pollock’s works to be masterpieces, either. It’s dribbles of paint.

    Can anyone seriously consider Willem de Kooning to be superior to, for example, Bouguereau? A few of the notable Impressionists were quite skilled at evoking a mood or feeling but they, too, sacrificed craft and artistry for simplicity, a trend that unfortunately continued until anything can be called “art” nowadays.

    For God’s sake, Tracey Emin’s messy bed and a radius of detritus sold at Christy’s for 2.54 million pounds. A. Messy. Bed. It had used condoms, empty bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, and stained sheets, and some jack wagon paid millions of dollars for it.

    Group think suspends reason. Artists rebelled against the monumental difficulty of competing with the enduring works of the masters. Only the greatest talent and thousands of hours of application, industry, training, and practice can produce that level of accomplishment. Instead, anyone can be an artist, and anything can be art. Perhaps that is so, but it is certainly not on the same echelon of quality, workmanship, color combinations, and artistry. To proclaim that Kooning’s childish swirls of paint is a masterpiece requires such a suspension of reason. Sure, any individual could find it appealing, but no one could consider it as skilled as a classical master. Appeal is subjective, but skill is objective.

        1. Cindy – I agree. Skin tone is notoriously difficult to capture without looking necrotic or ghastly. Bouguereau is one of my favorites for portraits and light.

        1. Squeeky – did it come with the fungus or algae or did you add that as your own touch? 😉

        2. Ah, yes, the Satyr and Nymphs. Greco-Roman myths and religion were common topics of the day.

    1. Aaaaaand upon reading about “My Bed” which sold for millions, it was revealed that part of the “display” included Emin’s underwear stained with her menstrual blood, and her fitted sheet was stained with sweat…or whatever. And that’s art worth millions of dollars.

      Perhaps this is a litmus test for the critical reasoning skills of the general public.

      1. Karen—That Emin is not normal! Sickening, actually. As far as American artists, I have always liked Edward Hopper’s pieces….most of them. Four years ago I was reading New Mexico magazine, and saw the announcement of an exhibit of artists who had lived as a community in Santa Fe in the 1920’s. Hopper was in that group. His “Ranch House, Santa Fe” (on loan from the NE) was part of the exhibit. Knowing I would probably not have another chance to see a real Hopper, we drove to Santa Fe Museum of Art. It was thrilling for me. I liked the simplicity of “Ranch House”, and we’ve always loved New Mex. so it was a perfect trip. So glad that Mrs. sticky fingers Alter, who was still alive at that time, was not fond of Hopper ….It was not that big of a canvas. and she only lived a couple of hours away..LOL

        1. Edward Hopper’s paintings often evoke a wistful feeling, at least for me. I like when I am moved by a piece of art. I was not familiar with “Ranch House”, and looked it up. It must have been amazing to see it in person. My first thought was, “a proper grey porch!” You don’t see the grey flooring so much out here. I don’t know what it is about Hopper, but I find it emotive. One of the ones I like best is the lighthouse.

          1. Karen…yes! that porch! I’m so glad you like the Hopper.
            We have a wonderful new art center in our little burg, that is actually quite impressive. Our daughter was a docent for awhile, and now is an administrative assistant. (she is actually a professional flamenco dancer, but took lots of art history at Loyola, N’Orleans) N’Orleans had a wonderful gallery,btw But, we are all amazed at some of the really fine art by locals in our area that are displayed at our new center! There are some amazingly talented people everywhere you go… just have to look for it.

            1. Oh, I just love flamenco! Just beautiful to watch. Also, that museum sounds lovely. It’s wonderful to see local talent showcased.

              1. Karen….Yes it is….Our daughter danced in New York, N’Orleans,
                (Jazzfest) etc…but she wanted to come home when she got maried. We were surprised but pleased! Local talent is exhilarating! BTW, I too like Lighthouse painting by Hopper…My brother and wife spend every summer in Maine……those Lighthouses are so iconic up there… is Wyeth, of course.

    2. Karen,

      It is easy to be an art critic since everyone has an opinion. I used to have a bad opinion about “modern” or “abstract” art before I talked to a ceramics teacher I once had. He put it more or less this way. Any artist can draw say a tree. But what if you start stripping away the noise of a tree and work down to just the essence of the tree. What if you painted just “tree-ness” instead of the tree? Let individual people fill in their interpretation of the tree. Painting a realistic tree is boring and spoon feeding the public. To me, it is somewhat like a comedian who uses the “F” word. It’s to easy.

      The arts to me have always had a problem in that it seems so finite. Take music for instance. The are only so many “Smoke On The Water” or Beethoven 5th’s out there. Now we are left with Bieber.

      1. Jim22:

        “But what if you start stripping away the noise of a tree and work down to just the essence of the tree. What if you painted just “tree-ness” instead of the tree?”


        Your ceramic artist friend just proved she’s master in the fine art of gobbledygook. Painting a tree is boring only if you don’t know how or are too lazy. You don’t have to be entirely realistic but crap is crap.

        1. I disagree. It takes a certain talent to see through on object and pull out its essential geometry and not everyone can do it.

          1. True that but not everyone can do a backflip. The question is whether or not that act is useful or desirable. A melting clock doesn’t seem to advance the artistic ball too much to me — with apologies to Dali.

      2. Chinese brush art suggests more than defines every detail. A brush stroke can evoke the essence of the animal, fish, or flower. It can portray even wind. The technique of suggestion can be expertly and beautifully done.

        I don’t see technique, artistry, or skill in de Kooning. I see the Emperor’s New Clothes. When I hate art, I hate it with a passion. Are her feet bleeding?

        Even if I don’t like a piece, I can appreciate the skill, or color choice, or composition, or…something. One can usually grasp at something, anything, positive to say. I think that standards have suffered in modern days. When “Everyone I’ve Slept With” is considered art, that’s a problem.

  13. Not my taste in art, but obviously Mr. & Mrs. Alter had sophisticated palates.

  14. If they were alive, I’m sure that they would say that they are being framed.

  15. Stealing that garish “art” was a public service especially since they kept it under wraps. If the only definition of art you know is that it evokes a feeling, color mine nauseous.

      1. It’s worth whatever the last sucker art connoisseur was willing to pay.

        1. You said it right. “Value” is entirely subjective, and cannot be measured in any objective way.

      2. How could Andy Warhol’s identical paintings of a can of soup sell for millions of dollars? People are so gullible. The name “Warhol” has cache, but everyone must at some point be thinking, “I am looking at a cartoonish drawing of a can of soup.”

        1. Warhol was at least manifesting skill in producing reproductions of recognizable objects. Before he was an art-world phenomenon he was a commercial illustrator.

          1. DSS – Warhol had an art factory where other people did his work for him. He did the PR.

        2. And unfortunately, you couldn’t open the can of soup and at least get a meal out of it.

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Res ipsa loquitur – The thing itself speaks
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