Helbling has a tendency to repeat the same phrases — and then, as time passes, return to earlier subjects and repeat those phrases yet again. He's on an endless loop. But it is difficult to get him to say what he does not wish to say. Throughout a series of interviews, he steadfastly refuses to admit any guilt regarding his felony charges of burglary and receiving stolen property, even after he had pleaded guilty and been convicted. He uses vague terms like "what I am accused of" and "the things they found in my room."

Still, over the course of many hours, Helbling does utter a few eyebrow-raising comments. Complaining he should be treated with "more compassion," he astoundingly likens himself to serial killer Ted Bundy — "except he's bad." He also lets it slip that "I'm not committing any more burglaries once I get out of here," and "I'm not that bad of a guy. I don't normally commit felonies." In the same breath as claiming he hasn't broken the law, he insists SF Weekly break the law by sneaking a McDonald's hamburger past the jail guards for him: "You could hide it in your bag. You could smuggle it in."

Helbling refuses to review police photos of his room. Those snapshots, along with memories, are all that remain of it. He smirks, with obvious pride. "Too bad y'all didn't see the room."

Glancing between a pair of canvases mounted in the window, you can spy the attendant at Nevska Gallery on Geary sitting at his desk. When he turns his back, you can see that, too.

In March 2008, Joel — who goes by just one name — was seated at that desk. A $9,000 Alexander Baxter still life had been yanked off the wall just the week before. But Joel wasn't worried. Gallery workers had installed extra hooks on the back of another Baxter painting hanging in the same place, not two feet from the door. And a camera was pointed at just that spot. So when Joel heard the sound of hooks being torn from the wall, it came as a surprise. Had he been peering at his monitor, he might have caught a glimpse of the thief. But that would have been his only chance. It turns out there was a compatibility problem between the camera and computer; the image was never recorded.

Joel sprinted to the front of the gallery — a dash SF Weekly later timed at six seconds flat. Several months after the second Baxter was stolen in the course of a week, Terry Helbling would saunter in and plunk $3,000 in cash into Joel's palm for a third — which, notably, was hanging quite a ways from the door. All three Baxters were later discovered in Helbling's room. But, on the day of the theft, the culprit vanished without a trace.

Of course, vanishing without a trace is a Helbling specialty. In the mid-1980s, he reckoned he'd had enough of Houston. "He decided to pick up and leave," his younger brother, Ingemar, recalls. After a decade working as a blade and saw sharpener, "he had tons of money. He bought guns, he bought jewelry, he had the best stuff a man could own. He got rid of it one day and said he was gone. We done seen him off on a bus. I told him to take care, and when you get settled in, call us. And he never did." Some years later, Ingemar did get a call — from a homeless shelter in New York City, informing him Terry had been sleeping in parks.

Helbling told court-appointed psychiatrist Roland Levy that his mental handicap began at age 10 when he "suffered a head injury when bouncing on a bed." Ingemar, however, paints a darker picture. He claims his brother was struck in the head by a hammer viciously hurled by a foster mother. All four Helbling siblings were temporarily placed in foster care in the mid-1960s. When Terry was 16, his mother was killed by a drunken driver. "Terry was very close to my mother. After she passed, he just wanted to be off to hisself," Ingemar recalls. "He went off to hisself, I went off to myself. The whole family went off to themselves. We all kind of split up."

Helbling's great joy in life — aside from obtaining "the best stuff a man can own" — was art. His own art. He drew prodigiously at John H. Reagan High School, where records indicate he was a member of the junior class for three straight years. His modest Houston apartment was full of pen-and-ink sketches of animals, people, and landscapes. Louise Kuhn, who employed the lifelong bachelor at Circle Saw in Houston for a decade, recalls that he'd often bring in gifts for her — paperweights and other knickknacks she still has to this day. He also gave her drawings, "cartoon pictures of Daffy Duck or something like that. And they were good."

Around a dozen years ago, Helbling dropped back in on his family in Houston. For several hours, he regaled everyone with amazing stories of how he'd traversed the country by bus and foot, visited Disneyland, taken up jogging, and become an experienced skydiver. He then said goodbye to his family — the last words they exchanged — and accomplished something every bit as unlikely as his fanciful tales: He moved to San Francisco, obtained a castle in the sky, and filled it with art.

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8 comments
guest
guest

Im interested in seeing a closer look of the blue auto pic he stole.I knew his brother Ingemar ~ ~Very Well~~ who actually had a 1956 Chevy.Because I know of the family I find it interesting some of the art had common simularities with his life & family members.Im wondering if his choices in the art he stole were chosen subcontiously to surround himself with familuraritie.He would make a great casestudy! I know Ingemar made a great casestudy for me.I could spend hours watching his bazzar behavior patterns.Never quiet figured him out but would suspect Borderline Personality Disorder.Ingemar was a collector of other peoples items also.~Prior to discovering he was stalking me when we weren't together, I found leaving the top down on my corvet was an open invitation for him to claim my personal items as his own and then display them in his locked china hutch in his room.~ quite strange ~ I really know how to pick um ! lol

Eurosnbaht
Eurosnbaht

So our tax dollars paid for his 8 months in jail- now he'll be back out on the streets to bother society. THis guy needs to be in a locked, mental facility.

Jj
Jj

Cut his hands off.

Flemingrandolph
Flemingrandolph

His tastes in art lean toward Thomas Kinkade's style of traditionalism and away from a Jaon Miro.. As loopy as he is ; he'd probably right at home at a Tea Party rally.

Homer
Homer

That cat painting is super awesome! I would totally steal it.

Offkey
Offkey

So interesting, how someone who displayed conspicuous errant behavior, could fly under the radar for so long. Although now he appears unassuming, he was clever to use a fictious name to throw-off suspicion, plus he has a misdemeanor for deviant behavior and thief.San Francisco prosecutors should not underestimate him or consider him harmless.

Thank you to Joe Eskenazi for bringing attention to Mr.Heibling with recent photo, frankly he gives me the chills.

MJM
MJM

In the art world, of which I have been a part for twenty-five years, our 'industry' magazines sometimes refer to art-crazed collectors as having been born with the "extra chromosome." This charming story of an art-inclined fanatic bears little difference from the tales of obsession with which richer patrons will rake the earth for the right piece! I especially like this thief's attention to lighting detail, jerry-rigged from green banker's lamps -- more evidence he has been touched since birth to be a collector. I have personally known the author of "The Thomas Crown Affair" at Harvard, where he taught us screen-play writing. I bet Mr. Trustman regrets he did not hatch this tale too. It's so annoying when truth is more unlikely than fiction. Alas, we can regret the institutions harmed by theft losses. Sadly, Helbling will not be able from this point forward to legally "crash" their galas, as many of us will dishonestly continuing doing! Just look at the desperate sneaks in line at private parties at Basel Miami and Basel Basel.

 
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