After six months of felony probation, Helbling was switched to unsupervised probation in late 2005. And, not long thereafter, the script resumed. Paintings started to walk out of galleries once again.

There is no documentation in either police or court records indicating that anyone saw fit to search Helbling's room after his arrest and conviction for attempted grand theft. Phil Wong, the inspector attached to the case, has no recollection of doing so. The records do note, however, that when Helbling attempted to waltz off with the $65,000 painting, he did so while shod in one Nike and one New Balance.


It was fairly easy to discern that Terry Helbling didn't belong at a members-only reception at the Botanical Garden library, because he was the only one with erasers in his ears. People noticed that. They also noticed him nonchalantly slip $50 worth of for-sale photographs into his jacket before heading out the door. The library's longtime coordinator of art exhibits — who asked that her name not be used, lest Helbling somehow track her down — followed him outside. "I said, 'I think you have something that doesn't belong to you,'" she recalls. He puckered his lips, sputtered "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" and thrust the photos at his accuser. He then hightailed it into the night.

And no one thought much about that for years. Until $15,000 worth of artwork was stolen from the library last April.

In the lengthy interregnum, Helbling was a fixture at the Botanical Garden's County Fair Building, which houses the library and a truly astonishing variety of plant clubs. He attended meetings of the Orchid Society, the Native Plant Society, the California Horticultural Society, the Succulent and Cactus Society, the Bromeliad Society, and, last but not least, the Epiphyllum Society. It's a fair bet most of the folks who show up to hear lectures regarding Bromeliaceae and epiphytes know, for starters, what they are (a pineapple is a member of the bromeliad family, while epiphytes are nonparasitic plants growing on other plants). Helbling did not. Members of the Orchid Society said it was clear he didn't know what an orchid looked like, either. Yet despite his own obliviousness, Helbling didn't just want to sit in these highly specialized meetings. He wanted to star in them.

He eagerly volunteered for the "Vanna White" position of holding up the orchid a speaker would lecture on. This put Helbling — who wore gaudy jewelry and chartreuse, yellow, or traditional pink erasers in his ears — front and center with all eyes upon him. (Why he chose to stuff erasers, tissues, cotton, or earplugs in his ears also remains a mystery. As his longtime neighbor William Turner put it, "Some people, you don't ask them questions. You don't wanna know.")

There was just one problem with Helbling's cherished role as orchid presenter: He was clumsy. Obsessive orchid devotees cringed in horror as he waved their pride and joy around like maracas and knocked over other plants when he chunked the flowerpots back on the table. Eventually the "Vanna" position was eliminated. Helbling took it badly. But he kept showing up. He kept eating massive quantities of free food. And he kept bellowing childlike questions in his always too-loud voice.

That would have continued to this day if not for last year's burglary from the library of 40 plant-related paintings and prints. After that, head librarian Barbara Pitschel grew suspicious of the man with the erasers in his ears. There was the time he insisted on bringing a preserved alligator head to a Native Plant Society meeting. At a Bromeliad Society gathering, Dennis Westler noticed Helbling carrying in plants he had taken from the Botanical Garden nursery. "I had been earlier that day walking through the garden and seen those very plants on tables outside the nursery," Westler recalls. "He was obviously doing this in an attempt to fit in and be accepted by the group more than he had been. I was kind of touched by that."

Police urged garden staff to learn the mystery man's identity. Asked to sign an attendance sheet, Helbling penned the name "Mike Helmlinc." That was cagey. Boasting that his profession was "art collector" was not. Cops then told garden staff to dial 911 if Mike Helmlinc returned.

The noose was tightening, and even Helbling could tell. Staffers' ham-handed attempts to corral him in May induced him to flee the building. And yet, like clockwork, he showed up to the Orchid Society meeting on June 1. Plainclothes cops marched him out of the auditorium and cuffed him in the vestibule as orchid enthusiasts looked on.

Police records indicate Helbling told Officer Troy Carrasco he was an art collector, and confessed to stealing the 40 paintings and prints from the Botanical Garden library. He signed a document allowing Carrasco to search his room; at long last, police were storming Helbling's castle. "There was no doubt in my mind I'd be in trouble sooner or later," he glumly said during a jailhouse interview.

In a way, Helbling's downfall was a sad loss for San Francisco values. Years of beneficent tolerance by garden staffers and plant aficionados led to the coddling of a thief. Indeed, if Helbling had been caught stealing art in San Mateo County, he might be facing a steep sentence. In San Francisco, however, it soon became clear that no one would throw the book at Terry Helbling. "Nobody wanted to put a guy with a 66 IQ in state prison," says Quigley, his defense attorney. "He's lost everything. He's done. That's the real punishment." Once again, Helbling took a plea deal — though, this time, he'll have four years of felony probation, as opposed to the unsupervised variety.

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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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