The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy

Gary Settle has helped dozens of federal prisoners get compassionate release. Will it ever be his turn to go home?

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 139

Anna Altman is a writer and social worker in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, and other publications. Her previous Atavist story, “Masterpiece Theater,” was published as Issue No. 94.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Darya Marchenkova
Illustrator: James Lee Chiahan

Published in May 2023.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

It was February 2019, and Mary Price had rarely seen her office so busy. A wiry woman in her sixties with shoulder-length straight hair, Price is general counsel at FAMM, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. FAMM is an acronym for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and in addition to opposing severe sentencing, the group broadly advocates for the fair treatment of people in prisons across the United States. FAMM had recently sent out an edition of its newsletter, which supporters knew as the “FAMM Gram.” The response from readers began as a trickle, then became overwhelming, and for good reason: The newsletter outlined historic changes to the U.S. government’s compassionate release process.

Since the mid-1980s, federal prisoners have been able to seek compassionate release for what the law deems “extraordinary and compelling reasons”—including old age, terminal illness, and severe disability—by requesting that the Bureau of Prisons file a motion on their behalf in court. The BOP, however, rejects almost every request it receives. In January 2018, the Department of Justice reported that the BOP had approved less than 10 percent of the compassionate release applications it received over the previous four years, allowing just 306 people to go home. (Within the same time frame, 81 prisoners died waiting for the BOP to respond at all.) The DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General called the process “poorly managed,” with “inconsistent and ad hoc implementation [that] has likely resulted in potentially eligible inmates not being considered for release.”

For a long time, when the BOP denied a request, a prisoner had no recourse; the bureau’s decision was the final word. That changed in December 2018, following years of advocacy by FAMM and other groups, when Congress passed the First Step Act. Among other criminal-justice reforms, the law allowed a prisoner to file a motion for compassionate release directly with a federal judge if the BOP denied their request or didn’t respond to it within 30 days of receipt. FAMM was eager to share the news and connect eligible individuals with lawyers who could help them. Price knew the organization had to move quickly. “We were very concerned that people who were nearing the end of their lives or very sick would be going before judges without any help,” she said. “We couldn’t just leave these people on their own.”

FAMM’s newsletter was delivered to 40,000 incarcerated individuals via CorrLinks, the federal prison system’s email service. Price felt a thrill of anticipation—“a sense of stepping off into something that was unknown,” as she put it. She knew that sometimes a recipient would print a copy of the newsletter and pass it around the cellblock. Over days, then weeks, Price and her colleagues were inundated with hundreds of phone calls and emails from people seeking compassionate release or inquiring about the process for loved ones behind bars.

Amid the deluge, one inquiry stood out: It was written by a prisoner on behalf of someone else. The sender did not disclose his name. “I am writing this from the ‘Cancer’ floor of FMC Butner,” he wrote, referring to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina. The five-story facility provides health care to some of America’s sickest male prisoners; it includes a psychiatric unit, a unit devoted to orthopedic surgery, and a cancer ward. “This is directed at the situation of another patient,” the sender wrote. “He is terminal and is unable to contact you directly.”

The sick man, R. Smith, had lung cancer. As Price later wrote in an article for the American Bar Association, he was in persistent pain and dependent on a feeding tube. With a prognosis of less than 12 months to live, and a sentence lasting much longer for distributing drugs, Smith applied to the BOP for compassionate release. But instead of going home, he was bound for FMC Butner’s hospice ward.

The anonymous person who contacted FAMM said that he had heard Smith crying to his family during a call on the ward pay phone. A longtime recipient of FAMM’s newsletter, the man knew that Smith might now have another way to seek compassionate release. With Smith’s permission, he was using Smith’s CorrLinks account. BOP policy forbade prisoners from using one another’s accounts, and the sender knew he risked punishment for doing so, which is why he left the message unsigned. He asked: Would FAMM consider helping Smith?

Smith’s case was exactly the kind Price had in mind when she drafted FAMM’s newsletter. FAMM connected Smith with an attorney, who began to prepare a legal motion. Meanwhile, according to Price, Smith got sicker. One of his lungs collapsed, and the man communicating with FAMM from inside Butner reported that Smith had been moved to an outside hospital better equipped to treat him. Smith’s lawyer couldn’t get updated information about his condition, but this wasn’t unusual: The BOP can be especially evasive about medical details near the end of a person’s life. “There’s no more cruel part of the BOP than this,” said a former federal defense attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Smith’s lawyer filed an emergency motion in federal court for his release. The court then ordered the BOP to provide an account of Smith’s medical condition by that afternoon. The BOP didn’t meet the deadline, so the judge contacted Smith’s doctor directly. Upon learning how poorly Smith was doing, the judge ordered his release within ten days, as soon as appropriate transport could be arranged. No one could reach Smith in the hospital to deliver the news, so Price sent a message to the person at Butner working on his behalf. She hoped that he would find a way to tell Smith that he didn’t have to die behind bars.

Smith’s case was a turning point for FAMM’s work on compassionate release because it offered a blueprint for helping qualifying individuals. FAMM worked with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to expand the capacity of the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, a newly created entity that recruited, trained, and supported lawyers representing sick or elderly prisoners requesting early release. In its first year, the Clearinghouse screened some 500 inquiries and placed more than 125 cases with lawyers.

Smith’s case also marked the start of a unique relationship. “Mr. Smith and his family are very lucky to have you in his corner,” Price wrote to the man who’d helped Smith. “We should all have friends like you.”

By then, Price knew the man’s name: Gary Settle. He was slow to tell her much about himself, but he continued to send CorrLinks messages to FAMM as he recruited more people at Butner for the Clearinghouse. In emails he sometimes used the moniker “P/H,” for “patient/helper,” in part to protect himself from BOP censure, and in part because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He felt that his personal story—including why he was serving 177 years in prison, along with his own cancer diagnosis—was beside the point.

Gary Settle as a child

Settle was born in 1966 in Hawthorne, California, a small city adjacent to South Central Los Angeles. His childhood had what he considered “storybook” elements: loving parents, a brother to horse around with, Little League games, family camping trips. In the summer his mother, Kay, took time off her waitressing job to drive the boys to the beach. Settle was bright—“so smart I could smack him,” Kay said. At age ten, he asked his mom for copies of Shakespeare’s plays, then named his cat Ophelia. “We weren’t rich in money, but we were happy, we had friends, there were always people over,” Settle wrote in a document he calls his “life story,” which he shared with me.

In time, Settle developed a rebellious streak. If Kay told him to stay within a few blocks of the house on his skateboard, he’d ride to busy areas downtown instead. When Settle was 13, his parents bought a farm in Ohio; his father thought the fresh air and country life would be good for the family. “We all had to learn on the fly all the farming tasks—feeding the cows, milking them and shoveling the other substances they produced by the wheelbarrow load,” Settle wrote. “If Green Acres hadn’t already been made, we would have had a great pilot.” It was a major transition for Settle: the unrelenting responsibility of farm work, the unfamiliarity of the local culture. His puka-shell necklace and faded Levi’s didn’t vibe with the rural Ohio style of bib overalls and John Deere hats.

Even so, he quickly made friends. He got into the habit of enlisting his buddies to help with household tasks. “Once, I told him he couldn’t go to a baseball game because he had to help with the chores,” Kay recalled, “and all of a sudden the whole team was weeding.” The town closest to his family’s farm had a single traffic light, two police officers, a barber shop, and “at least ten bars,” according to Settle. There was little to do, so he and his friends drank. Settle recalled being a happy drunk, outgoing and enthusiastic; he boasted that his charm was infectious.

Settle also liked to showboat—driving recklessly, hood surfing, doing motorcycle stunts. “I was not breaking any laws other than traffic ones,” he wrote. “Those I was shattering.” In fact, a juvenile court found him guilty of an offense when he was 17; the case records are sealed, but Settle said that the conviction stemmed from a fistfight he had with a man in his twenties. Looking back, he wondered whether spending his teenage years in a small town with few opportunities contributed to the course his life took.

In 1985, Settle got his high school sweetheart pregnant, and soon they married. At age 20, Settle had expenses and responsibilities, and he grew restless. When he heard about a gig with a construction company in Florida, he decided to move there with $400, two buddies, and no plan—he left his family behind for the time being. He and his friends arrived in time for spring break and blew all their money at Daytona. When Settle got a job, he had to sleep on a picnic table behind a church for a week, until he got his first paycheck.

Despite an inauspicious beginning in his new home, Settle worked hard, and he advanced from laborer to finisher and then to foreman. The construction company had contracts all over the Southeast, so Settle traveled, staying in motels. When the workday was over, he and his crew headed to strip clubs or hung out in bars.

Settle found a house big enough for his family; his wife gave birth to their son, Nathan, back in Ohio, then moved down to join him. In time Settle’s parents decided to relocate to Florida, too. Settle started his own construction company in Orange City, just north of Orlando. But for all that was changing, Settle still liked to spend his free time drinking with friends.

One day, after a few beers, he went to the drive-through window at a bank to deposit a check. He recognized the teller—she was a woman he knew from the local bar scene. “What do you want?” she asked with a smile. He replied, as a joke, “Give me all your money.” The woman bent out of sight and then reappeared holding a plastic container full of neatly stacked bills. “You mean this?” she asked, laughing.

A few weeks later, Settle ran into the woman at a bar, and she brought up their exchange at the bank, saying there had been $35,000 in the box. After their conversation, Settle couldn’t get the number out of his head. All that money, and so close he could have grabbed it.

At 27 years old, Settle was facing life in prison. It was all so uncanny—sitting there in a suit, knowing he would never be free again—that he almost felt compelled to laugh.

In October 1991, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that a tall white man with long brown hair and a mustache had walked into a bank during a Tuesday morning rainstorm. He was wearing the waistband of a woman’s stocking over his face and carrying a white bag. He vaulted the counter and pulled out a semiautomatic handgun, then took a stack of cash before fleeing on foot into a wooded area. Heavy rainfall prevented the sheriff’s helicopter from tracking him, and the dogs and deputies chasing him lost his trail.

It wasn’t Settle’s first robbery; he’d begun holding up banks and stealing cash the year prior. Most of the time, he didn’t run away—he stole a car from a bank clerk or customer. One time he approached a car with an elderly woman sitting behind the wheel. According to Settle, when she informed him that she needed her walker if she was going to get out, he pulled it from the trunk, got her to her feet, and then sped away. He could hear sirens in the distance.

By April 1992, the FBI was pursuing what it described to the West Volusia Sun-News as a “serial bank robber on the loose.” They believed that he was responsible for as many as seven bank robberies and one attempted robbery over an 18-month period. The criminal, the FBI said, was “armed, dangerous, and ready to strike again.”

That account didn’t square with how Settle saw himself. “It is embarrassing to admit this, and shameful to acknowledge,” he wrote later, “but in a way, I thought of the whole thing as a sort of prank or practical joke, with a big cash payoff.” According to Settle, he didn’t encounter any law enforcement, and he had no problem persuading tellers to cooperate. He was never in a bank for more than a minute or two, and he never hurt anyone physically. He saw his plunder as “free and easy money.” (A woman present during one of the robberies would later testify that her encounter with Settle scared her so much that she quit her job, and that she would “never be able to work again or be able to be alone again in the future.”)

Settle had accomplices—sometimes he had one drive a getaway car—and in September 1992, two of them decided to rob a bank on their own. They were caught before they succeeded, and during their interrogation they fingered Settle as the mastermind of the operation. Shortly after, Settle, who was on a trip to Boston at the time, was arrested for running a stop sign and driving under the influence. When police in Massachusetts ran his name through their databases, they—and Settle—learned that he was wanted in Florida on federal bank robbery charges.

Settle was indicted on March 18, 1993, on nine counts of bank robbery, one count of attempted bank robbery, one count of conspiracy, and ten counts of carrying a firearm while committing a violent crime. The government alleged that, in total, Settle had stolen around $190,000. “If I would have done something worthwhile with the money, I don’t think I would feel any better about things, but I might not feel so foolish,” he wrote. “The only people who really benefitted from the robberies would be various bartenders, waitresses, and strippers.” By the time he was indicted, Settle had separated from his wife. He later described himself as being at his “reckless, selfish worst.”

Settle pleaded not guilty, and he later claimed that he rejected a plea bargain that would have come with a relatively scant 12-year sentence had he testified against his accomplices. (The prosecutor denied making such an offer.) During pretrial detention, Settle twice attempted to escape from county jail. When his case finally went to trial in Orlando, he did what he could to appear serious, wearing a suit and taking notes. On May 11, 1993, the jury found him guilty of almost all the charges against him.

With his conviction on the books, Settle was subject to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, a result of congressional hand-wringing about rising crime rates that was later called “the most dramatic change in sentencing law and practice in our nation’s history” by the United States Sentencing Commission. The act sought to address what elected officials considered “undue leniency” in the criminal-justice system, as well as inconsistencies in sentencing around the country. Among other things, it abolished federal parole and created a system of mandatory penalties for certain crimes, giving judges less discretion over sentencing.

By the time Settle was tried, the mandatory minimum for a violent offense committed with a firearm was five years. If a person previously convicted of such a crime carried a gun during a second violent offense, the mandatory minimum was 20 years. How, though, should a court sentence someone found guilty of armed robbery for the first time, but on multiple counts in a single legal proceeding? As it happened, that exact question had been addressed just prior to Settle’s trial, in the 1993 Supreme Court case Deal v. United States. In a 6–3 decision, the court ruled that the harsher mandatory minimum should apply even in a single indictment.

When Settle was sentenced on August 30, 1993, the case law was so new that Judge Patricia Fawsett had to review it over a lunch recess. When she retook the bench, Fawsett sentenced Settle to a mandatory 2,127 months in prison, or just over 177 years: 12 for the robbery and conspiracy charges, and 165 for carrying a gun into a bank nine separate times. She ordered that he serve them consecutively.

Fawsett wasn’t inclined to be lenient, telling the defense that Settle showed “utter disregard for the law,” “a complete lack of remorse,” and “lack of concern for the terror he caused.” Still, she seemed troubled by the length of the sentence. “I do not think this is an appropriate result,” she said, “but I feel bound by the law as I understand and explained to you.”

Settle felt that Fawsett approached his sentence as if it were just a problem to solve; she even asked the attorneys present to check her math. At 27 years old, Settle was facing life in prison. It was all so uncanny—sitting there in a suit, knowing he would never be free again—that he almost felt compelled to laugh.

Adeel Bashir, a federal public defender currently working in the Middle District of Florida, where Settle was tried, told me that he has “only ever seen one other person get 2,000-plus months.” It’s the kind of sentence that would make a criminal-justice professional wonder whether the defendant had killed a child or was a serial pedophile. “To date, people ask me if Gary’s sentence is a typo,” Bashir said.

When Settle was transferred to a new facility, he almost always ran into someone he knew. Butner was no different, except that many of the people he recognized were dying.

Early during his time behind bars, at a prison in Atlanta, Settle tried to escape along with two other men—one of whom was the actor Woody Harrelson’s father—by scaling a wall using a makeshift rope. They surrendered when a guard fired a warning shot from a tower.

Settle spent the next two decades on a tour of federal prisons. He was housed for a few years at the infamous supermax facility in Florence, Colorado, where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for more than 20 hours a day. That’s where Settle was when his father died in 1996. He had already used the one 15-minute phone call he was allowed that month when he heard the news, so he had to wait until the following month to call his mom to grieve with her.

By 2016, he had landed at U.S. Penitentiary Beaumont, which sits in the southeastern corner of Texas, half an hour from the Louisiana border, in a place known as the Golden Triangle because of its rich oil reserves. It’s also sometimes called Texas’s cancer belt because of its high cancer mortality rate. At Beaumont, routine bloodwork showed that Settle had an elevated level of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, which is often used as the first indication of a prostate cancer diagnosis. According to Settle, he was not informed right away. “It takes a while in those places for the mill to grind,” he said.

At his next stop, USP Hazelton in West Virginia, Settle “started to feel weird.” He had been diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder, and needed a double knee replacement. In 2018, doctors told him that his PSA was 50.5 nanograms per milliliter. Many physicians consider 4 ng/mL to be the point at which they recommend further testing to screen for cancer. Settle’s level, in other words, was astronomical.

He had a biopsy, which showed a very high likelihood of cancer. When doctors proposed removing his prostate, Settle declined; the surgery can have unpleasant side effects, including incontinence and erectile dysfunction. He asked for hormone therapy instead, and requested a transfer to a medical facility. After an extended back and forth, which Settle described as “a lot of gnashing of teeth and wailing of banshees,” the BOP sent him to FMC Butner for treatment.

After nearly three decades in federal prison, whenever Settle was transferred to a new facility, he almost always ran into someone he knew. Butner was no different, except that many of the people he recognized were dying. “I was shocked at the appearance and bearing of the prisoners I have known and the ones I did not,” he later wrote. “I was around people who looked like concentration camp inmates.”

Butner is one of seven federal facilities that serve very sick prisoners, some of whom wind up there because they didn’t get the treatment they needed to stave off serious illness. The law guarantees prisoners a constitutional right to health care—a right, ironically, afforded to no other group in the country—but in reality health care resources are limited behind bars, and potentially life-saving procedures are not always granted, even when they’re clinically indicated. A former federal public defender who spoke anonymously said that, in reviewing clients’ medical records, it’s not unusual to find someone who was told years prior by a prison doctor that they needed an immediate kidney transplant but never got one, or who had a heart condition requiring a visit to a specialist that the BOP never facilitated.

“Because most correctional health services are designed to cut costs and reduce perceived litigation risks, transparency and quality of care are not top priorities,” Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails, writes in his book Life and Death in Rikers Island. Prejudice also erodes standards of care. According to a DOJ report, “The belief that those convicted of serious crimes have somehow earned their suffering, as if the pain of illness and old age in prison were a part of the inmate’s just deserts … [is] widespread and intense among some custody personnel and … prevalent also among health care providers.”

Holding the prison system accountable for this bias is difficult. In a landmark 1976 case, the Supreme Court ruled that substandard medical care in prisons violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment only if it rises to the level of “deliberate indifference” and not just “mere negligence.” The difference between these two concepts is the subject of an ongoing debate that prisoners have little power to influence. (In a statement, the BOP said, “We make every effort to ensure the physical, medical, and mental safety of inmates confined to our facilities through a controlled environment that is secure, humane, and in line with community standards of care.”)

At Butner, Settle learned that there was a saying for someone whose health showed a marked or rapid decline: He’s falling down. Paradoxically, this meant going up—to the fifth floor, where the hospice ward is located. A BOP PowerPoint presentation about Butner describes the hospice cells as private, with small nods at comfort such as flower-patterned quilts, pillows that match the blue cinder block walls, or a cushioned chair next to a bed. When Settle arrived, Butner held a monthly memorial service for the recently deceased. He said that a single service often honored as many as 30 people.

After beginning hormone therapy and radiation, Settle was able to maintain his strength and physical independence, so he considered himself lucky. In turn, he did what he could to help others. He noticed that one cancer patient, wheelchair-bound and too weak to push himself, would lock his chair to that of his cellmate, who would shuffle his feet to get them both around the halls. Settle offered to wheel them to meals and chemotherapy appointments, and gave the same assistance to others who couldn’t walk. “You’re not even really supposed to do that,” said Richard Hodge, who was incarcerated at Butner at the time. “Gary could have been wrote up for breaking the rules.”

Settle also assisted with hygiene, changing diapers on grown men. “I’m just putting myself in their perspective,” he said. “It’s got to be very humbling.” Settle reflected that he hadn’t cared for his son much when he was a baby; perhaps this was a way of atoning for that. (Settle was long divorced and hadn’t been in direct contact with his son in many years.)

When he read the FAMM newsletter about the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, Settle saw another way he could help people. What was more important, he reasoned, than someone living out their last days in freedom, ideally surrounded by their loved ones? He made R. Smith his first project.

Compassionate release is grounded in the idea that changes to a person’s health may weaken the justification for their incarceration. What reason is there for imprisoning someone with Alzheimer’s when he no longer understands that he is being punished? When someone with late-stage liver disease can’t get out of bed and is no longer a threat to society? When “rehabilitation” is no longer feasible because a person has advanced cancer? “We’re not doing any social good, if we were in the first place, in keeping them locked up,” Price said. “And we can do a great deal of good in terms of helping people repair relationships and comfort each other and say goodbye.”

There is also a financial calculus that works in the BOP’s favor, one noted prominently in a 2013 DOJ report on compassionate release: It’s almost always cheaper to release sick people than to keep them locked up until they die. One study found that the annual cost of caring for just 21 seriously ill prisoners in California was almost $2 million per person, while the median per capita cost of nursing home care in the state was $73,000 per year.

After a judge allowed Smith to go home, Settle noticed a shift at Butner. He later wrote an email to FAMM, trying to put into words what he was witnessing. “In this place of death and dying, among incarcerated men who are holding on to life with nothing but more cells, more keys, more misery in their future, your efforts are having real, tangible results. Your efforts are giving hope,” he wrote. “You are giving life back to people, and you are giving them the most precious gift of all, time. Time to heal old wounds, to take a last breath of freedom and to leave this world with peace and dignity.”

FAMM worked closely with Settle through the summer and fall of 2019 to help people at Butner. “We didn’t appoint him,” Price said. “He appointed himself.” Settle made copies of FAMM’s newsletter and distributed them to his neighbors. He kept an eye out for people whose health was worsening and approached those he thought might qualify for compassionate release. He told them what he knew about the First Step Act, which he had studied, and about the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse. He spent six to eight hours a day requesting medical records, addressing envelopes, and updating his contacts on the outside about various cases. Settle read medical records, cross-referencing terms with a diagnostic manual and a medical encyclopedia he’d ordered, so he could send the most pertinent information about sick prisoners to their lawyers. Before long his cell was covered with piles of paper.

Settle also relayed information from incarcerated individuals to their family members. He helped people who were too sick to make it to a computer, those who had been transferred off-site for care, and others who had never learned to read or write. Sometimes he wrote compassionate release requests himself, parroting the language he had seen in other applications. The ones that went to the BOP were all but certain to be rejected or ignored, but that was part of the process: For a prisoner to file a motion directly with a judge, they first had to “exhaust administrative remedies,” in legal parlance.  

Word got around Butner about what Settle was doing. He would leave his cell after a nap to find four or five guys gathered outside, some of them in wheelchairs with paperwork in their laps. He was willing to assist just about anyone—he said he only refused people convicted of sex crimes. “Gary is able to form relationships with all kinds of people,” said Juliana Andonian, an attorney who used to work at FAMM. “He didn’t want to make himself the center of the story. That was really notable, the lack of ego.”

It isn’t uncommon for people in prison to help one another with legal matters. Jailhouse lawyers—some with legal training, some without—review statutes in a prison’s law library, file paperwork, and perform other tasks for fellow prisoners, often for a fee or some other form of compensation. “Someone less sincere could make a lot of money or do a lot of harm,” Andonian said. Settle refused payment, even to cover the cost of emails he sent and phone calls he made. The mother of a man Settle helped go home remembered sending him a thank-you note. “That’s about all he let me send him,” she said.

One day a thought dawned on Price. “He is doing this job that the Bureau of Prisons should be doing,” she said. “They should be moving heaven and earth to be sure that people are connected to family and loved ones when they’re near the end of their lives.”

Among the people Settle helped was a man in his thirties named Victor Webster, who was originally from Montana. Webster was in treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that occurs in or around the bones. He’d had the whole left side of his rib cage removed, followed by extensive chemo, but then a tumor developed on his chest plate. “His mental state was poor,” Settle said. “He assumed he was going to die in prison.” When Webster didn’t want to continue treatment, Settle pushed him in a wheelchair to his chemo appointments. He also got to work helping Webster obtain compassionate release.

Settle sent increasingly urgent emails to FAMM on Webster’s behalf, asking the group to move quickly. He visited Webster several times a day, until finally he was able to deliver the news that a judge had granted him immediate release. “I wish I had the ability to describe how the natural stoic look on his face collapsed or the strength of the hug I received from a guy I had been helping dress and stand up for weeks,” Settle said.

Webster went home in early July 2019. According to Settle, before he left he gave Settle a chain necklace with a cross, which he’d worn every day he was at Butner. Soon after he got home, Webster spoke with Settle and said he’d spent a wonderful Fourth of July with his family, including his nieces and nephews. They bought fireworks and set them off for him. Webster died that September. “It was sad it was just so short,” his mother, Debra Claassen, said of her son’s time at home.

The names and stories piled up. Von Skyler Cox, who had stage IV lung cancer and a prognosis of less than ten months, wrote to FAMM on behalf of “myself and my family and the ‘Patient/Helper’ ” after he was granted compassionate release in August 2019. “Your efforts have reminded me and many others that there are Great People in the world who have not forgotten us,” Cox wrote. Andonian printed out the email and put it on the office fridge. 

Settle noticed certain patterns—for instance, that a lot of the men granted release had been charged with crimes in blue states, where judges were perhaps more inclined toward compassion or less concerned about the political ramifications of releasing people from prison. (Recent research indicates that federal judges appointed by Democratic presidents are more likely to grant compassionate release than those put on the bench by Republicans.) According to Settle, some of the men who went home had been convicted of violent offenses, but he ruefully noted that they often had shorter sentences than he did.

He became swept up in the momentum. “Once I got going with it, I had to do it,” Settle said. “What type of person would I be if I did not assist people and their families at this most crucial time when I could?” He went on: “There is nothing I can do about the past, but I get to decide how I live the rest of my life.”

“Simply put, we are grateful for Gary, and awed by the care and compassion he shows for those in distress,” the FAMM letter said. “We have learned from him how to do our jobs better.”

In August 2019, about five months after they began corresponding, Price decided to meet Settle in person. “I want to make sure that he is safe doing this,” Andonian recalled Price telling her. According to Settle, the Butner staff were increasingly aware of his efforts to help people secure compassionate release, and their reactions were mixed. He had never gotten in trouble for using other people’s CorrLinks accounts, but some corrections officers told him he was “making them look bad.” He found that Butner employees with medical backgrounds tended to be more receptive, even expediting his requests for medical records and quietly referring patients to him. Still, to Settle they seemed jaded, like “how you would be if you worked in a dog pound and you get to see sick animals that they put down.”

Price’s job doesn’t put her into a lot of direct, consistent contact with people in prison. Rather, her role is usually to assess a person’s needs and connect them with resources. On her way to North Carolina, Price’s overriding feeling was curiosity—who was this person who had committed himself to advocating on behalf of others? She and Settle spent an afternoon together in Butner’s visiting room. As the hours wore on, Price asked Settle if he wanted anything from the vending machine; steadfast in his policy of not accepting any gifts, he politely refused. Water was free, “so we drank a lot of water,” Price said.

After the visit, Settle gradually began corresponding with Price as a friend. She told him about what she was growing in her garden and described a recent whale-watching vacation. He talked about his mother, Kay, whom he worried about all the time, and what he was reading. Price sent him books she thought he might like, including a trilogy by Ivan Doig and two books of poetry; one, by Ada Limón, Settle saved until Christmas to read as a treat. When Price was sick, Settle asked his mother to send her flowers.

That December, Andonian, Price, and another FAMM employee, Debi Campbell, asked Settle if they could write a letter to Kay. “I knew him well enough to know his mom was his treasure,” Andonian said. The FAMM team wanted to tell Kay how much Settle had come to mean to them. Settle consented.

“Gary, who calls himself the ‘patient/helper,’ impressed us immediately,” the letter to Kay read. “He follows up conscientiously on each and every person he works with. Beyond winning or losing, he cares about their spirits.” The FAMM staff said that, by their count, Settle had helped 19 people obtain release, allowing them to spend their last days with their families. “Simply put, we are grateful for Gary, and awed by the care and compassion he shows for those in distress,” the letter continued. “We have learned from him how to do our jobs better.”

Soon Settle’s assistance would become more urgent than ever.

Overcrowding, unsanitary facilities, poor medical care—those were just some of the reasons COVID was able to tear through U.S. prisons at astonishing speed. Within weeks of the virus being declared a national emergency, rates of infection in prisons far outpaced those in the population at large. By the end of April 2020, eight of the country’s ten largest COVID outbreaks were in prisons or jails. Still, the BOP was slow to implement masking, social-distancing, and testing policies. Some incarcerated individuals were scared to report symptoms because it meant being sent to solitary confinement.

Butner was hit particularly hard. With its medically vulnerable population, including many cancer patients, the facility was practically a showcase for the comorbidities that can make people who contract COVID especially susceptible to severe illness or death. By late July 2020, a remote inspection by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General found that 1,020 people imprisoned at Butner had COVID, and that 25 of them, along with at least one staff member, had died. Later, in the fall 2021, the ACLU would report that Butner had more than twice the number of COVID fatalities as any other federal prison. (The ACLU and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed a lawsuit against the BOP over its handling of COVID at Butner, but a judge dismissed the case over procedural questions.)

The BOP has policies about notifying family members if a prisoner becomes seriously ill, but these are not always strictly followed. At the height of the pandemic, loved ones often struggled to obtain updated information. One former federal defender who spoke on condition of anonymity described receiving calls from people who were desperate to know about their loved ones. I haven’t heard from my son in a month, they said; or I don’t know if my brother is in a hospital unconscious or just in quarantine. “It created so much panic for family members,” the former federal defender told me.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed in March 2020, expanded the BOP’s authority to place prisoners in home confinement for a portion of their sentence. Prisoners don’t have to apply for this sort of transfer, so Attorney General William Barr directed the BOP to identify “suitable candidates”—those with COVID comorbidities, convictions for nonviolent crimes, and low risk of recidivism. According to data from the Marshall Project, the BOP placed nearly 5 percent of its incarcerated population in home confinement by October 2020. But at Butner, among other places, the bureau dragged its feet. The DOJ would later estimate that although 1,070 people at Butner may have been eligible for home confinement as early as April 2020, the BOP had released only 68 by July.

Meanwhile, according to the Marshall Project, the BOP didn’t budge from its usual stance on compassionate release, approving less than 1 percent of the more than 31,000 requests it received in the first year of the pandemic. A 2022 NPR analysis later found that at least one in four federal prisoners who died of COVID had sought compassionate release. (In a statement, the BOP said that it “carefully followed updates from the CDC, and guidance was provided to our facilities” about protective measures. With regard to compassionate release, the bureau gave a brief summary of the request process and noted that “the decision on whether to grant such a motion … lies with the sentencing court.”)

Hoping that it could help people get home before it was too late, FAMM ramped up the work of the Clearinghouse, recruiting an army of attorneys and paralegals to get release requests before the courts. It decided to support appeals from prisoners with vulnerabilities to severe COVID infection, which under the unprecedented circumstances might legally qualify as “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for early release. Prior to the pandemic, the Clearinghouse had screened about 500 requests for assistance and helped some 60 people go home. From the start of the pandemic to the end of 2021, nearly 5,500 requests came in. People wrote about having asthma, compromised immune systems, cancer. They were terrified of contracting COVID and dying. From the flood of communication, Clearinghouse attorneys were able to file 1,069 motions for compassionate release in the first year of COVID, 205 of which were granted.

At Butner, Settle threw himself into helping people, including Richard Hodge, who was serving 98 months for conspiracy to distribute drugs. Hodge had received two organ transplants before he arrived at Butner, and when he contracted COVID, the virus hit him hard. As his body struggled to clear the infection, he could barely stand up to use the bathroom. He didn’t eat for ten days, and he lost about 30 pounds. He later claimed that, despite having a compromised immune system, he was given “no treatment whatsoever.” Hodge said that the Butner staff was indifferent, at most checking his temperature and blood pressure. “You either survive or you don’t, that was their mentality,” he told me. (In a statement, the BOP said, “We do not comment on anecdotal allegations or, for privacy and security reasons, discuss the conditions of confinement for any inmate or group of inmates.”)

Settle implored Hodge to seek compassionate release, lest there be a worse outcome if he got COVID a second time. “He kept after me,” Hodge said. “I didn’t think I had anything coming, but Gary kept insisting.” Settle helped Hodge file his compassionate release application with the BOP to exhaust his administrative remedies and connected him with FAMM and an attorney. “Gary had all the information,” Hodge said.

In March 2021, a judge granted Hodge’s request; he was a free man. He went home to Laurel County, Kentucky, where he could receive specialized care at a transplant clinic and spend time with his kids and grandkids. “It was all because of you my friend,” Hodge later wrote to Settle in an email. “I owe you so much, and I wish there was some way I could bring you out of there bub.”

“I have a very small family, but I dream of an opportunity to be part of their lives,” Settle wrote. “I am humbly asking that you please consider giving me that opportunity and you have my word, you will never have cause to regret it.”

In July 2020, Andonian encouraged Settle to seek compassionate release. Thanks to hormone therapy, Settle’s prostate cancer was in remission, but he had other medical conditions that could increase his risk of severe COVID. Initially, Settle was not in favor. “I felt I did not qualify,” he said. “I thought that the finite amount of resources FAMM had at their disposal would be better used to assist some of the very sick prisoners I knew.” Andonian urged him to reconsider. She told him how deserving he was.

After they spoke, Settle went back to his cell and broke down in tears. “I’m not sure if my familiarity with the process made it more powerful,” he said, “but it was an overwhelming sense of gratitude, happiness, and other emotions.”

With Andonian’s help, two attorneys filed a motion on Settle’s behalf on January 27, 2021. It highlighted the threat COVID posed to him, his work helping people seek compassionate release, and his unusually onerous sentence. The First Step Act, which had made compassionate release more accessible, also gave judges expanded discretion to reduce sentences, especially mandatory minimums. “During his almost three decades of incarceration, Mr. Settle has grown from a reckless young man into a thoughtful middle-aged man known for the meaningful relationships he builds with others,” the motion read. “Mr. Settle’s extraordinary acts of service while in prison demonstrate his sincere rehabilitation and underscore that the period of incarceration imposed by the Court has served its intended purpose and should be amended to time served.”

The motion contained letters from people Settle had helped and from Victor Webster’s mother. They praised Settle for being “above prison politics” and for helping people exercise their rights. “In a place full of hate this guy oozed with love,” one stated. “[I] would love to see him in regular clothes, see how fast or how slow he drives.” A cancer survivor reflected on Settle’s compassion: “When I was mentally down Mr. Settle would come into my cell and sit for hours at a time listening to me.” Webster’s mother said she would be “forever grateful” that Settle helped ensure that her son could die at home in Montana.

Settle also made a direct appeal to the judge reviewing his request. He wrote that while he couldn’t explain the decisions he made as a young man, he had tried to be a better person since. What weighed on him most was being away from his family, especially his mother. “My own medical situation over the last few years has exposed me to the fragile nature of life and the importance and lasting value of family connections,” he wrote. He hoped to reconnect with his son, meet his grandchildren, and care for his mother as she aged. “I have a very small family, but I dream of an opportunity to be part of their lives,” he wrote. “I am humbly asking that you please consider giving me that opportunity and you have my word, you will never have cause to regret it.”

On March 5, 2021, Judge Carlos Mendoza of the Middle District of Florida denied Settle’s motion. He ruled that Settle’s health issues didn’t meet the criteria for compassionate release—he wasn’t terminal, and he could care for himself. “Covid-19 alone is not an extraordinary and compelling reason to grant release,” Mendoza said. In his view, reducing Settle’s sentence would minimize the seriousness of his offense, and “protecting the public remains a paramount consideration.” In other words, Mendoza considered Settle to be a threat to society.

The ruling was a gut punch to Settle and his supporters. “I was disappointed—I still am—by the shortsightedness of the judicial inquiry,” Andonian later said.

Eleven days after Settle’s request was denied, his physician contacted him with more bad news: The cancer was back. Mendoza had ruled on outdated information.

Settle knew of people who were granted compassionate release but, because they had no family to help them, died in prison as free men.

I began communicating with Settle in July 2021. I had read Price’s American Bar Association article about the work FAMM was doing on compassionate release, which referred to Settle’s crucial role without mentioning him by name. I asked the FAMM staff if the anonymous helper was amenable to having his story told. Andonian said that he was.

Settle and I had just one exchange on CorrLinks and a single phone call before his communication privileges were taken away. According to an incident report he later shared with me, he was written up for speaking to a member of the media without following “special mail procedures”—he had not obtained the prison’s permission before speaking with a journalist. Settle said that he was also placed in solitary confinement for two weeks. He eventually had his privileges restored, and for the next few months he called me several times a week. In chunks of no more than 15 minutes, due to the prison’s time limit on outgoing calls, he told me about his life and the people he’d helped send home.

That November, Settle wrote to say that his cancer had spread. A PET scan showed that it was in his lymph nodes, making it stage IV. He was starting treatment: hormone therapy again, along with eight rounds of chemo and perhaps radiation. He wrote that he saw cancer “as a challenge, as a fight I will be in till it’s over.”

He reported, too, that a social worker had told him he met the criteria for compassionate release—a coded way, Settle knew from his work with FAMM, of saying that he had less than 18 months to live. There was no guarantee he would get out, but given his new prognosis, he could ask the courts to consider his case a second time. Doing that would mean breaking his mother’s heart in a new way: Settle had avoided telling Kay about his cancer diagnosis—she thought that he’d filed his first compassionate release motion because his Graves’ disease heightened his COVID risk. He lied because Kay was a cancer survivor and because his father had died of the disease. He didn’t want to cause his mother anguish. Now, though, he had to tell her: If he requested compassionate release, the BOP would contact Kay to vet her as a suitable end-of-life caregiver. (Settle knew of people who were granted compassionate release but, because they had no family to help them, died in prison as free men.)

Settle said that telling his mom about his cancer was “the hardest thing I have ever done.” Kay told me she didn’t “scrape, rant, or rave” when she heard the news. She just asked “what number” the cancer was. “We’re going to beat this,” she told her son. Settle wept.

Settle found himself comparing his own situation with those of the people he was helping. He observed what happened to his neighbors as their bodies broke down and to the compassionate release motions of people with advanced metastatic cancer. He saw people with long histories of incarceration and multiple convictions, including for violent offenses, be sent home.

There were signs that his case might go the same way. Prison wardens are apt to deny compassionate release requests, stymieing them before they can even get to the BOP’s Central Office for final review, but Butner’s warden agreed that Settle met the criteria and recommended him for release. The response came as a surprise; for Settle it also confirmed just how poor his prognosis was.

While Settle waited to hear from the BOP, his legal team prepared to take his request to court if it was denied. Juliann Welch and Adeel Bashir, federal defense attorneys in the Florida district where Settle was originally tried, agreed to helm the effort, while Price and others at FAMM would offer guidance and support. Settle referred to them as Team Gary. The existence of a support squad strategizing about his case astonished him. “Up until a few years ago, I was Team Gary,” he said.

The omicron variant was racing through Butner when the BOP’s Central Office overrode the warden and denied Settle’s request, noting that his release “would minimize the severity of his offense and pose a danger to the community.” Settle and his lawyers now had to prepare to once again go before Judge Mendoza, who was still on the bench with jurisdiction over the case. Given Mendoza’s previous ruling, Team Gary hoped to get the U.S. attorney assigned to the case to support Settle’s release. It would be harder, they reasoned, for Mendoza to say no to both the defense and the state.

Welch and Bashir sent a package of materials to the U.S. attorney’s office, including character references and notes from medical experts who had evaluated Settle’s health records. A doctor concluded that although Settle would recover from the side effects of cancer treatment, he would require increasing amounts of assistance and ultimately need around-the-clock care, “either in a palliative or hospice setting.” A nurse at Butner who had cared for Settle wrote that she thought there was essentially zero chance he would reoffend. Research supported her intuition: The DOJ found in 2013 that only 3.5 percent of people granted compassionate release reoffended, compared with 41 percent of all individuals discharged from federal prison.

Still, Welch and Bashir offered concessions—a period of home confinement, for example, or an ankle monitor—that they hoped would guard against the judge’s concerns that Settle might still be dangerous. “The hurdle we have to get over is convincing the court that he’s also deserving,” Welch said, “because all of this is very firmly discretionary.”

Settle waited to learn about his fate. As weeks and then months ticked by, our email exchanges and phone conversations became less focused, more desultory. I had fewer pointed questions for Settle to answer before the phone line cut off. He told me about what he was reading: The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Neal Stephenson books. He bemoaned that his 82-year-old mother still insisted on climbing a ladder to clean her gutters. He told stories, including one about visiting his grandparents when he was a child. Settle recalled clambering up a cherry tree even though he’d been told it was too weak to hold him. When he fell, he was stunned more than hurt, but still he began to cry. His grandfather gruffly told him to get up, adding, “If you’re going to be stupid, you’re going to have to be tough.”

Settle told me he still tried to live by that way of thinking. “I brought this on myself,” he said, not for the first time, about his incarceration. There was no point in complaining. “Except about the sentence,” he added dryly. “I’ll complain about that.”

Sometimes Settle slipped into dark moods. He was serving a life sentence with a life-limiting illness, and he was surrounded by people in a similar position. It was a lot to bear. “Anxious and impatient could be my middle names,” he said.

He tried to stay busy, even while undergoing cancer treatment. He worked on compassionate release motions for his neighbors and spent time on his own case, hoping to help Team Gary. He sent Welch a copy of his medical records—even though she already had them—highlighting what he considered the most important parts. He kept track of side effects from his treatment, including mouth sores, debilitating fatigue, and a numb left leg, so that no one could claim he was tolerating it well. He counted how many pills he took: 39 on most days, 51 when he had chemo. He had never slept comfortably in prison, and the steroids he was now taking didn’t help. He made sure to exercise and drink plenty of water, but eating healthy could be challenging: According to Price, the prison gave Settle only one piece of fruit—a banana—per week, and the “salad” on offer was just lettuce.

Settle allowed himself to consider what life outside prison would be like. He wanted to speak to at-risk youth, to cook the food he liked to eat, to submerge himself in water for the first time in almost 30 years—“preferably swimming but I will settle for a good soak in a tub,” he said. Kay, too, fantasized about the contented time she might have with her son. She had a room ready for him in her home, and she looked forward to going to the beach and sitting on her patio together, enjoying the view. “It’s going to be a whole new world,” she said.

Settle also hoped that if he was released he might get better treatment, buy more time. Kay felt the same way—in our conversations, she kept mentioning the urgency of getting her son to a “good doctor.” Sometimes it felt as though Settle and his mother had allowed themselves to believe that the terminal diagnosis only applied within prison walls. I wondered, if Settle were released, how it would feel to face the knowledge that he would still die of a painful disease.

When Settle saw his oncologist, he peppered the doctor with questions: Why was he having pain in his back? Could it be an indication that the cancer had spread to his bones? Bone metastases were notoriously painful and hard to treat; developing them was one of his biggest fears. According to Settle, the oncologist told him, “You look too good to be that sick!”

Settle said that he didn’t keep in touch with many people when he was feeling low, but he spoke to me because it made him feel “muse-like.” He mentioned the author John Irving, who has said that he liked to start a new novel by writing the last line first. “With that idea in mind,” Gary wrote to me, “how does some variation of this ending sound: ‘And Gary walked out the prison door….’?”

After he heard the news, Settle called me and barked a mock headline for my story: “Not Terminal Enough!”

Early in the spring of 2022, the assistant U.S. attorney who had reviewed the materials sent by Welch and Bashir announced that she would not support Settle’s motion for compassionate release. She believed that, even in his diminished state, he posed too great a risk to society. A social worker who advocates for people to be released from prison due to serious illness told me that she often sees prosecutors take this approach: “They want them to be on death’s door.”

After he heard the news, Settle called me and barked a mock headline for my story: “Not Terminal Enough!”

Once again it felt as if a decision was being made based on out-of-date information. In April, a scan indicated that Settle’s cancer may have spread to his spinal column. His wrists had become so weak, likely from arthritis, that he was wearing splints that reached to his elbows. By May, he couldn’t hold a toothbrush and barely managed to secure the large buttons on his prison uniform. Due to weakness in one of his legs, likely caused by metastases pressing on his sciatic nerve, he was issued a walker. It went without saying that even if he wanted to rob a bank, he couldn’t easily enter one, much less hold a gun or get away quickly.

His deteriorating condition led to accidents: Settle burned his arm when he spilled hot liquid on it, and he had a couple of falls. He could no longer push his wheelchair-bound friends to meals. “This is a really hard time for him, a really hard transformation from being the person who gives and supports to being the person who has to be supported,” Price said after visiting Settle that spring.

There is no limit to the number of times a person can apply for compassionate release, but Settle’s attorneys believed that he probably had one more shot. For Team Gary, the question became whether to file the motion with Mendoza, despite the assistant U.S. attorney’s lack of support, or wait until Settle was even sicker. Settle was resolute: He wanted to file and be done with the uncertainty.

On May 27, 2022, he tested positive for COVID. The symptoms started with nausea and vomiting; eventually, he developed fever, chills, and trouble breathing. He was placed in isolation. He later told me that he survived for three days on cough drops and water.

Settle’s lawyers filed his motion for compassionate release on May 31, with a request that it be expedited because of his COVID infection. They laid out Settle’s “changed medical circumstances” and the Butner warden’s determination that Gary met the criteria for a reduced sentence, even though his superiors disagreed. They emphasized that with his “imminent, continued, and significant physical decline consequent to his incurable condition,” along with his utter lack of inclination to reoffend and his demonstrated remorse and rehabilitation, he didn’t pose a danger to the public. Releasing Gary “does not undermine respect for the law,” the motion read. In an interview, Welch put it more bluntly: “His case is what the government had in mind when they wrote the compassionate release statute.”

In response to the motion, Mendoza called an in-person hearing—an unusual move. Settle and his lawyers hoped that meant the judge was seriously considering granting his release. The hearing took place on a hot summer day in Orlando, and it lasted about 45 minutes. Mendoza asked questions about Settle’s health and disciplinary record, and he raised several concerns: Why had Settle never sent apology letters to the people he had terrorized during his robberies? Why had he waited so long to express remorse? Welch read a statement Settle had written, and Mendoza seemed receptive. “It appears as if he’s accepting responsibility for what he did,” the judge said. Welch then requested that, should Mendoza not yet deem Settle ready for release, he consider abeyance—hitting the pause button on the motion—so that when Settle’s condition worsened, as it inevitably would, the motion could be considered again.

Mendoza said that he needed time to think. “This is a very difficult decision I’m being asked to make,” he said before adjourning the hearing.

A month later, Mendoza scheduled another hearing, this one by telephone. Within moments of starting the call, he dashed Team Gary’s hopes. The judge told Bashir, who attended the hearing on Settle’s behalf, that he saw no examples of Settle’s rehabilitation and remained concerned about his disciplinary record. Moreover, Mendoza said he found Settle’s statement of remorse disingenuous, given that he’d waited until he was seeking release to express it, and had never directly asked his victims for forgiveness. For those reasons, Mendoza concluded, the motion for compassionate release was denied. He did not allow for comment before ending the hearing.

Afterward, Price at FAMM got a call from Settle. He hadn’t been able to reach Bashir and figured Price might know how Mendoza had ruled. Price had heard the news. “I was deeply saddened by the denial and outraged by the form it took,” she wrote to me in an email. When she saw that Settle was calling, she didn’t answer—she thought it was better that he speak to his attorneys. But when he called a second time, she answered.

“So what happened?” Settle asked. Price, who had begun to weep, didn’t know what to say, so she hesitated. “OK,” Settle said in response to her silence. “I know.”

Settle then called Kay to tell her that he wouldn’t be coming home. “I am not going to say any more, as we are both going to cry,” he told his mom, though in truth he was already crying. Then he hung up the phone.

“It’s a process I trust and believe in that failed me,” Settle said. “I’m so glad the law exists even if it doesn’t help me. It’s my bad luck.”

I first requested a visit with Settle in April 2022, when Butner was still operating under tight restrictions because of COVID. In late summer, as case numbers went down and social distancing eased, I filed another request. Despite persistent prodding, months went by without a response. Price wrote to the BOP, reiterating that Settle had a right to speak to the press. “Mr. Settle is dying. Delay may be a denial,” she noted. Finally, in December, I was informed that I could have a one-hour visit with Settle. I would not be allowed to bring recording equipment.

On a bright, unseasonably warm January morning, I arrived in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. The sky was a limpid blue as I made my way to Butner, along pine-forest-lined roads with entrances to the corporate facilities of Novo Nordisk and Merck. When I turned onto Federal Center for Correctional Research Road, I was trailing an ambulance. The complex was eerily quiet. No one was in the yard, and no guards were visible.

Passing through security, I noticed wood cutouts of motivational phrases—Respect, Correctional Excellence, Integrity, Courage—hanging on the white cinder block walls. A TV screen in one corner flashed the phrase “Kindness is giving hope to those who think they are all alone in the world.” I was escorted to the visiting area by an officer wearing a bulletproof vest. Gray chairs were tipped against tables and stacked against the wall. There was no one else there. I asked the officer if I could shake Settle’s hand or hug him when he arrived and was granted permission.

Settle rolled into the room in his wheelchair wearing Timberland-style work boots and a jumpsuit with his name and prisoner ID number on the left breast. He stood up to embrace me, then moved to a regular chair. We had spoken on the phone scores of times, totaling a dozen hours or more, and I felt like I knew him well. But being in someone’s presence always brings new knowledge of them. Settle’s eyes were a bright golden brown, and his silver hair had been cut the day before, making it bristly.

The officer left us alone for the hour, and I decided to treat our meeting not as an interview but as a chance to be together. We talked about how angry Settle was when he first got to prison (“I just wanted to punch someone—I had no patience for anything”) and about forgiveness, namely his difficulty granting it to himself. He showed me photographs of his grandchildren and teared up when he talked about his mom, as he often did. He reflected on Mendoza’s denial and on the fact that he had allowed himself to hope for a better outcome.

Since the visit we have remained in touch, and almost every time we speak, Settle talks about a new compassionate release case he’s working on or another Butner prisoner who finally made it home. He told me that his story is “fairly well known” around Butner, and that people give him “pitying looks.” His friends, both inside and out, are frustrated on his behalf. “It really saddens me to know that with all he’s done for other people, and his medical condition now, that he isn’t at home with his family,” Richard Hodge wrote in an email. For her part, Price said, “He deserves better.”

Settle described compassionate release as “a process I trust and believe in that failed me.” With his own path foreclosed, Settle will likely die in prison. His only chance for a different end to his story is clemency, about which he is understandably pessimistic: Clemency petitions move through the Department of Justice at a glacial pace—it can be years before an answer comes—and a vanishingly small number are approved. The Trump administration approved only about 2 percent of the clemency requests it received, and the Biden administration is on track for roughly the same number. Still, Settle has decided to submit a request, with the support of Price and others.

Lately, Settle has been wrestling with whether he should continue cancer treatment. He has outlived his 18-month prognosis, and while his pain is constant and his mobility compromised, a recent CT scan showed that his tumors have stopped growing. His PSA has doubled, however, and doctors have recommended further hormone therapy. He isn’t sure he should bother. “I haven’t come to a full decision yet on whether to fight,” he said.

Before our visit at Butner, Settle sent me an essay he wrote—the title, a nod to Viktor Frankl, was “A man’s search for a reason to live.” In it, Settle reflected on his road to Butner and the toll of his cancer treatment, writing that it had “devastated” him physically and spiritually. “Maybe the latter was because I could not rationalize why I was undergoing such debilitating treatment when the effects of it were intended to extend my ‘life,’ ” he surmised. “This is not to say that I felt like dying during that time, or now. But my thoughts were simply, why? What do I have to look forward to?”

In trying to answer this question, he found himself reflecting on the work he’d done with FAMM. By his count, he had helped 42 people secure compassionate release. He wrote that he was glad to be part of an effort that brought hope to people in a hopeless place, and was honored to have met Price, Andonian, and others. “With my life experience it is not surprising that I was unused to communicating and interacting with people of this caliber,” Settle wrote. “That many of them have become dear and true friends is even more than surprising, it is humbling.”

“If I hang around for a little while, who knows what impact I can have?” he concluded. “In testament to the love and respect I have for my friends and to honor their work is reason enough for anyone to continue to live, even in here.”

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Masterpiece Theater


Masterpiece Theater

A Dutch gallerist made thousands of forgeries and passed them off as the work of real artists. When he was caught, a new con began.

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 94

Anna Altman has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other publications. She has also worked as a German fiction scout and a German-to-English translator.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Harry Haysom

Special thanks to researchers Maria Hohmann and Stefan Kuiper.

Published in August 2019. Design updated in 2021.


At first the letter read to Mira Feticu like a suicide note. “I am tired of being the guard,” it said. “The story is over. It only brings trouble.”

Consisting of a few short sentences typed on cream-colored paper, the letter wasn’t signed. “It was so dark,” Feticu said later. “I thought, What story? Somebody needs something.” The letter described a remote forest in Romania, Feticu’s native country, and included instructions. “Follow the path. After 450 meters you will find an old tree,” it directed. Nearby was another tree, marked with red paint. “Harlequin lies buried under the rock.”

The letter wasn’t a suicide note—it was a treasure map. The harlequin was Pablo Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin (Harlequin Head). Completed in 1971, two years before the artist’s death, it’s a drawing in ink, colored pencil, and pastel on thick brown paper. The work was part of a private collection that hung in Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum, a pavilion designed by Rem Koolhaas, until the early morning hours of October 16, 2012, when thieves broke in through a back door and made off with the Picasso and six other works, by Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Lucian Freud, and Jacob Meyer de Haan. Experts estimated that the missing items were worth as much as $115 million. Four Romanian men were apprehended, tried, and convicted, but the art was never recovered. The mother of one of the men claimed to have burned it in her kitchen to protect her son; she later retracted her statement, but a forensic analysis of the ash in her stove found traces of what appeared to be nails from art frames used before the end of the 19th century. Some experts believe that at least three paintings went up in flames.

The mysterious letter sent to Feticu in November 2018 suggested that the harlequin drawing had survived. “Can you imagine?” she asked me a few months after she received it in the mail. “The chance to find a Picasso.”

Feticu is an author and poet who lives in the Netherlands. She has a round, youthful face and straight dark hair that she sometimes dyes blond. In 2015, she published a novel called Tascha, based on the story of a girlfriend of one of the Rotterdam thieves, who brought his lover to the Dutch city to become a sex worker. Presumably because of the book, Feticu was the recipient of the letter indicating that whoever had the Picasso drawing wanted to give it up. The note was an invitation: Come get it.

Feticu told me that she contacted the Dutch police, speaking briefly with a detective who had investigated the heist in 2012; he said that he would call her back. When he didn’t, Feticu confided in Frank Westerman, a fellow writer and friend. They decided to go to Romania together.

Five days later, Feticu and Westerman were tromping through a snowy forest in eastern Romania, near the village of Carcaliu, where the thieves were originally from. Following the letter’s instructions, the writers walked until they located a stripe of red paint on a tree. After clearing away snow, leaves, and a thin layer of dirt at the foot of the trunk, Feticu and Westerman found a rock. Underneath, wrapped in plastic, was the treasure they’d hoped would be there. The black ink, the pastel shading, the elongated, contorted face with a bulbous nose, close-set eyes, and deep wrinkles that hardly look like laugh lines—it was the missing harlequin.

Feticu burst into tears. “I was more than excited,” she told me. Holding the Picasso in her hands, she considered how the tragedy of the Rotterdam heist, and the humiliation she felt it cast on Romanians, might be transformed into a story of redemption.

Feticu and Westerman returned to their car, photographed the drawing, and sent the images to news programs in the Netherlands. They then drove to the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, where the Picasso was whisked to Romania’s national art museum. Rather than greeting them as redeemers, the police interrogated Feticu and Westerman for several hours, to make sure the writers weren’t complicit in the heist. “I was a little bit scared, because the Romanian police are not so kind,” Feticu said.

The pair were cleared, and news of their discovery headlined the evening news in Romania. The story quickly spread around the world, picked up by outlets like The Guardian, the Associated Press, and Le Figaro. A sensational crime, an anonymous tip, and a prized work of art buried in the earth made for a remarkable tale. Reporters and art lovers alike were hopeful that authentication efforts would prove that a masterpiece had indeed been found.

Within 24 hours, however, the optimism had evaporated.

Peter Van Beveren, a onetime curator of the collection from which the work was stolen, saw a digital image of the drawing and recognized it as a fake. He noted at least six differences between the work that Feticu had found and the original Picasso: the trajectory of lines, the color tones—“deviations,” as Van Beveren called them. Confirming the curator’s suspicion, Westerman and Feticu soon received email messages from men who had seen the news out of Romania. Picasso hadn’t made the drawing, they said. But they knew who had.

“For as long as mankind has coveted objects for their history, their beauty, their proximity to genius, the forger has been there with a mocking smirk ready to satisfy the demand,” writes Frank Wynne in his book I Was Vermeer, a study of Han Van Meegeren, a notorious art forger who swindled, among others, Hermann Göring. A successful forger has the ability to produce art of high quality, certainly, and also an inside knowledge of the workings of the art world, from its business dealings to its social mores. A forger is a storyteller, even a performer—someone who can charm customers, appear trustworthy, and spin a convincing tale about where an artwork came from and how they came to possess it. To forge art takes showmanship and a healthy dose of chutzpah. Frauds must be willing to brazenly claim that a work is genuine; some go so far as to approach experts or artists themselves and request authentication.

This collection of talents, such as they are, isn’t as rare as it might seem. Fakes are everywhere in the art world. Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, estimated in his 1996 book, False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, that 40 percent of the 50,000-odd works he examined during his tenure at the museum were “either phonies or hypocritically restored,” an idiosyncratic way of saying that someone had added signatures or flourishes to a real piece. Other estimates of how much of the art market is fake range from 20 percent to more than 50. As Wynne points out in his book, this is not a recent phenomenon: In 1940, Newsweek quipped that “of the 2,500 authentic works painted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 7,800 are in American collections alone.” Some experts believe that museums have the greatest number of forged works, in comparison with galleries and auction houses. Once it’s been acquired, art in museums isn’t likely to be subjected to further scrutiny.

Maybe the least common type of forgery is the presentation of a substitute work for an existing one, as was the case with Tête d’Arlequin. Most fakes fall elsewhere on the scale of falsification, from works of unknown origin upgraded in value by a forged signature, to copies of lithographs or other printed works added to a limited series, to canvases painted in the carefully emulated style of a major artist.

There are plenty of ways for forgers to exploit opportunities in the way art is produced and authenticated. Although the public celebrates solitary genius—one individual being singularly responsible for an oeuvre—renowned artists over hundreds of years have signed pieces produced by the people they employ in workshops. Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory for that reason. Determining what is genuine, made by a particular hand, is a tricky business, and the unregulated ecosystem of trained experts, historical documentation, and scientific techniques used (or not used) for authentication lets through plenty of fakes.

It takes a certain psychology to exploit art’s loopholes: a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, a loose relationship with the truth, and a sense of superiority, particularly vis-à-vis art royalty. Many forgers take a perverse pleasure in thumbing their noses at gatekeeping elites. And forgers can be something of a Rorschach test for the public. The art world, with its exclusivity, money, and pretension, elicits strong, sometimes negative reactions. The idea of someone skilled enough with a paintbrush or pen to fool the rich and powerful can be tantalizing. “To art critics, the forger is a mediocre artist seeking revenge; to the media, a conman interested only in money; to the apologist, he is the equal of the masters he forged; to the public he is often a folk hero,” Wynne writes.

The forger whose work appeared on the Romanian news in 2018 is among the most prolific in modern history. He spent some 20 years duping auction houses, art dealers, collectors, and perhaps even the artists he mimicked. He then spent another 20 capitalizing on his notoriety as a criminal. He painted the Picasso that wasn’t (not his best work, admittedly) and conspired to bury it in Romania.

Since the fake Tête d’Harlequin was uncovered, he has continued to tell his story on his terms—in an attempt to reclaim lost glory, perhaps, or because he believes in the self-mythology he perpetuates. He says that in playing with the line between authenticity and perception, what people know to be true and what they want to believe, he’s pointing out our collective hypocrisy when it comes to art, beauty, and talent. In piecing together his past and tracking him down in the present, I navigated boasting, trickery, contradictions, and unlikely invitations—on the part of the master forger and from people fascinated by his life and work.


One day in late September 1993, Sue Cubitt, an art historian, was sitting at her desk at Karl and Faber in downtown Munich. The 70-year-old auction house held art sales twice a year, and the catalog for the fall auction was nearly due at the printer. Cubitt was going over details of the works that would be on offer when a Dutch dealer came in without an appointment. “He was more like a kind of bureaucrat. He was a sort of unobtrusive character who spoke quite softly,” Cubitt recalled. “He raised no suspicion.”

The man introduced himself as Jan Van den Bergen, and he offered a drawing by Karel Appel for sale. Appel, also Dutch, painted expressive, figurative abstractions, often in bright colors, and he drew inspiration from folk and children’s artwork. Associated with the COBRA group—an acronym for a loose association of artists in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—Appel was prolific and well-known in the European art scene. That day in 1993, Van den Bergen handed over an Appel drawing created with a brush and pen, in India ink and crayon. Dated 1950, it depicted several crudely drawn figures and was titled Deux Enfants et un Poney (Two Children and a Pony).

While many consigners haggle over a minimum price at which to sell their pieces at auction, Van den Bergen said that he wasn’t picky. Cubitt took the drawing and jotted down some notes so that she could draw up a contract. Van den Bergen gave her an Orléans, France, address for his gallery. Back then, throughout the art world, it wasn’t customary to ask for personal identification—this was a gentleman’s business, and no one wanted to be rude. Unbeknownst to Cubitt, Van den Bergen made other stops around the same time to consign works at auction houses in Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, and Dusseldorf.

Van den Bergen promised to follow up promptly with the Appel drawing’s certificate of authenticity, which he had neglected to bring with him. Some weeks later, the certificate arrived by mail. It had what Cubitt described as “a very flamboyant Appel signature”—quite large, but with the telltale slanting letters that the artist used. With its authenticity attested to, Karl and Faber decided to put the drawing in its upcoming auction.

Two months later, Cubitt received a fax from Jan Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, the proprietor of Nova Spectra, a gallery in The Hague that represented Appel. Karl and Faber’s auction catalog had come to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar’s attention, and he knew immediately that Deux Enfants et un Poney was not an original work. Concerned, Cubitt informed her boss. In her telling, he wasn’t convinced that he should pull the work from the auction—it already had bids, and Cubitt said he “was keen on every single deal that he could make.” She remembered telling him that they had no choice, not with “negative information”  in hand. “I won, and it did not come under the hammer” of the auctioneer, Cubitt told me.

The fact that Van den Bergen had consigned an inauthentic work didn’t immediately raise eyebrows. Mistakes happen; people don’t always know when they’re handling a forgery. A dealer might be asked by a client to sell an inherited work that turns out to be a fake, or one dealer might mistakenly sell a forgery to another. When a work is considered suspect, an auction house calls an expert—the artist, their primary dealer, a conservator—for verification. In most cases, if the work can’t be authenticated, the house simply declines the sale, explains why, and returns the work to the consigner. “You don’t just run to the police and say, ‘I think something’s wrong, can you deal with it?’” Cubitt explained.

The episode with Van den Bergen might have been forgotten, but six months later, on March 30, 1994, he returned to Karl and Faber. Again it was just days before the house’s auction catalog was due at the printer. Van den Bergen had three items he wished to consign: an ink drawing by Marc Chagall, a gouache by Asger Jorn, and a painting by Appel. Cubitt was on holiday, so her secretary received the items and drew up the necessary paperwork. The contract stipulated a total value of 80,000 deutsch marks (about $50,000 at the time). The auction that would include the works was scheduled for early June.

When Cubitt returned to the office, she found the items waiting for her. “I remember looking at the name of the consigner and thinking, Aha, we have to be very careful here,” Cubitt recalled. She leaned the three works against a wall, facing outward so that she could see them each time she walked past. “I’d come back to them and look at them again and again,” she said.

None of the works was anything special or unusual—the Appel was a bit garish, while the Chagall, in Cubitt’s words, was “decorative, a lot of blue, one of these typical floral bouquets.” But the certificate for the Chagall made her suspicious. It didn’t have several of the usual pieces of information. It lacked a number—akin to that included on an invoice—that would indicate its assigned place in the authentication records of the Comité Chagall, a foundation in Paris that verifies the artist’s work. It bore the foundation’s official stamp but neither an address nor a date of review. Instead, there was a typewritten paragraph attesting to the work’s authenticity.

Then Cubitt noticed a typo. The certificate said that the Chagall had been made “environs 1952.” In French, environs means “in the area of”—whereas environ means “circa.” It isn’t a mistake a fluent French speaker is likely to make. “That’s what really set the alarm bells going off,” Cubitt said.

She consulted experts about all three of Van den Bergen’s latest consignments, reaching out to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar at Nova Spectra to review the Appel, an art historian named Otto Van de Loo to look at the Jorn, and the Comité Chagall in Paris. All of them rejected the works as inauthentic. The Comité said that the certificate for the ink bouquet was a fake, but a good one. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar told The Art Newspaper that the certificate on the Appel was also suspect. “Appel rarely issued certificates,” he said. “When he did, he didn’t sign them like this, nor did he go into details about the technique used.”

Cubitt decided to call the police.

She contacted Ernst Schoeller, the superintendent of the art and antiquities division of the State Office of Criminal Investigations in Stuttgart. A trim man with arched black eyebrows, Schoeller specialized in art crimes, including forgery cases. In response to Cubitt’s tip, Schoeller called several auction houses across Germany. He learned that Van den Bergen had recently offered 35 works to five institutions. The items were of comparatively modest value. The highest reserve price—a minimum amount below which an auction house agrees not to sell—of any of the works was around 37,500 deutsch marks ($22,500) for a Chagall. Still, a fraudulent operation on the scale of dozens of consigned works was notable.

Schoeller’s interest was piqued. By chance, due to other investigations, he’d gone to Paris a few months prior, where he’d procured one of the Comité Chagall’s authentication stamps. Schoeller was quickly able to confirm that the stamp used on the Chagalls that Van den Bergen had consigned was fake—it was the wrong size. Suspecting that he had a seasoned fraud on his hands, Schoeller advised German auction houses not to give Van den Bergen notice that he was being investigated, lest he go dark.

Schoeller traveled to France, where along with local police he arrived at the address that Van den Bergen had given to Cubitt as the location of his gallery. It was on the Rue Maltotiers in Orléans. Except there was no gallery: It was just an apartment building. A visit to an address that Van den Bergen had used in Paris led investigators to a plumbing and bathroom-fixture shop. A woman who worked there said she would occasionally forward Van den Bergen’s mail to yet another address in Orléans, so the police returned there. To Schoeller’s consternation, that address was a front, too—it was the site of an abandoned house. But the tip wasn’t for naught: The post box was the same one listed as a return address on some of Van den Bergen’s fakes when they were delivered to auction houses. It was also where Schoeller found a check from a German auction house for 10,000 deutsch marks (around $6,100).

In a matter of days, their pursuit took Schoeller and the French authorities farther south. In the early morning of May 6, 1994, Schoeller and a phalanx of police arrived in Linazay, a town of only about 200 residents situated between the cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux. At the end of a long driveway of flowering chestnut trees was a twin-turreted, 20-room mansion called Château de la Chaux. (Chaux means “lime,” as in whitewash.) Van den Bergen rented the property for about 5,000 francs ($900) per month.

No one was home. A gaggle of geese cackled in the expansive interior courtyard, threatening to give away the plainclothes police officers who planned to hide among the trees and bushes, waiting for Van den Bergen’s return. The person who eventually arrived was a woman named Ellen Van Baren; she was Van den Bergen’s girlfriend. She drove onto the property in a battered Renault and quickly found herself surrounded. Later, in a TV interview, she recounted seeing between eight and ten police cars, and “one German guy [who] was very excited and asked me all kinds of questions. He walked around the house, and the more rooms we entered, the more paintings we saw, the more excited he got.”

Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods.

Inside the château, Schoeller found hundreds of artworks that he and the French police suspected were fraudulent. They were attributed to masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Joan Miró. They were arranged in neat stacks, apparently ready for sale. Fake Chagall paintings hung above the stove, drying. Several rooms were designated for a particular artist whose style was being faked. Authorities also found half-finished works, sketches for new ones, contracts with auction houses in Belgium, Switzerland, and New York, and false authentication certificates. Moreover, Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods. In a dustbin were strips of paper cut from forged certificates to eliminate watermarks, which might have given away the documentation’s true age.

“You know you’ve reached the end of your hunt,” Schoeller said years later in a TV interview. “You’re at the source of the whole evil.” He called the feeling of discovering what was inside the château “sublime.” (Schoeller, now retired, initially seemed willing to discuss the case but ultimately declined to be interviewed for this story; he said that he didn’t want to spend his retirement talking about his work.)

The Telegraaf, a Dutch newspaper, called the cache the largest quantity of fakes ever found in a single location. Schoeller’s investigation estimated that the total value, had the works been sold under false pretenses, was likely more than five million deutsch marks ($3.1 million). Given the scale of production on display, it was difficult to estimate just how many fakes had already entered the market, purchased by unsuspecting buyers before the police caught on. Newspapers reported that forgeries produced at the château had turned up in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, and the United States.

Scale wasn’t the only issue that made tracking sales difficult. “The works are so damn good,” Schoeller told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, “that the forgeries are hard to recognize.”

Creating a damn good fake isn’t easy. Beyond a superlative ability to paint, a forger needs materials appropriate to the era in which the real artist worked—canvases, frames, and paint pigments. These can be difficult to source or re-create, and many forgers are found out because of mistakes they made in their choice of supplies. For example, the presence of acrylic paints, which became available in the first half of the 20th century, would readily give away a fake rendition of an old master’s work. Then there’s the process of re-creating the natural aging that artworks undergo, especially oil paintings and works on paper. Temperature, humidity, dust, and dirt all take their toll. Forgers must “damage” a counterfeit to the extent commensurate with its purported age. Experts armed with UV lights, X-rays, and other technology might see right through the lie.

That is, if such intense scrutiny is applied at all. The technology and expertise required for authentication are expensive. While major museums and high-end dealers have the funds to put acquisitions under a magnifying glass, more modest outfits often do not. They rely instead on the trained eyes of employees, the reputations of consigners, and historical documentation of ownership and certification, known in the art world as provenance. Some of the biggest art cons in recent decades relied on compelling backstories. Wolfgang Beltracchi, who along with his wife, Helene, was convicted of selling some $45 million in forged artwork in 2011, concocted an elaborate tale in which Helene inherited a significant collection from her grandfather. The works didn’t have certification, she claimed, because many of them had been looted by the Nazis, and the paperwork was lost in the process. The Beltracchis went so far as to concoct vintage photographs of Helene posing as her grandmother in front of some of the forgeries, which they presented to auction houses and dealers as proof.

Strategy, or deciding what kind of art to fake, is also key. Potentially blockbuster works—oil paintings by Michelangelo, say, that might be worth tens of millions of dollars—are likely to be put through the authentication wringer. Less prized items are not. Prints, works on paper, and gouaches (opaque watercolors) usually sell for less than $10,000 and pass through small auction houses and dealers. It’s much easier to elude detection when the stakes, relatively speaking, are low.

That may have been one reason Van den Bergen forged the types of works he did—smaller-scale compositions on paper rather than oil paintings. But he may have had other, more personal motives. Among the paintings recovered from the château were large-format abstract canvases, filled with geometric shapes in shades of lime green and orange. They were originals of the artist, and Schoeller wasn’t impressed. “He’s a perfect craftsman but not an artist,” the investigator told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. “He has no style of his own.” Perhaps that’s why he’d become a forger in the first place—an abundance of artistic ambition without the vision to realize it. 

One way or another, authorities hoped to get answers from him: Van den Bergen was apprehended at a train station, slightly tipsy, a few hours after the raid at the château. He joined Van Baren in the Orléans jail. As Schoeller and other investigators would learn, it wasn’t the first time that the forger had been detained. And his name wasn’t Jan Van den Bergen—it was Geert Jan Jansen.


Jansen was born in 1943 in Waalre, a town in the southern Netherlands. Today it’s a wealthy enclave, but when Jansen was growing up—just after World War II—life was modest, even austere. His father was a lighting designer and engineer, and Jansen later described his parents in his memoir, published in 1998, as “idealists who liked to hike in their free time. Vegetarians and pacifists who required few creature comforts. Not too much time should be spent on eating and drinking. Anything that looked luxurious was regarded with suspicion.” The family was unpretentious but loved the arts. Jansen recalled going to his first exhibition at the age of three, at the Van Abbe Museum in the city of Eindhoven, where his parents lifted him up so he could see the paintings better. In 1956, the Jansens took their son to the Venice Biennale.

Jansen moved to Amsterdam in the 1960s to study art history. He’d enjoyed painting and drawing from a young age, and he later said that he regretted not attending an art academy. As a student, he visited galleries and auction houses and attended his second Venice Biennale in 1964, describing it as “the Olympic Games of fine arts.” He became interested in the Bergen School, a Dutch expressionist style from the early 20th century. It wasn’t popular among art buyers, so Jansen could purchase original pieces on a modest budget. “As a student, you don’t have money to buy everything you like, so I had to sell one painting in order to pay for another I enjoyed still more,” he later said. “That way I started to get into the art business.”

Jansen’s amateur collecting segued into a vocation. After finishing school, he worked in an Amsterdam gallery called Mokum; founded in the early 1960s, it specialized in realist painters. Later, Jansen set up his own spaces—first Gallery Jakob, and then Gallery Raam. He sold contemporary art collected by a prominent Dutch family. Sometimes he wrote art criticism for a weekly newspaper. He got married and had two sons.

Jansen’s galleries weren’t terribly successful, and he struggled to support his family. His first forgery, a gouache he produced in the mid-1970s, was completed during a particularly slow period at work. He joked—alluding to the unflattering depiction—that the painting could have been a self-portrait. He would later describe the act of creating it as happenstance, but signing it as a Karel Appel original certainly was not. Nor was the decision to consign it to a local auction house or to sit in the back row of the sale watching as bids rolled in. It reportedly went for 2,600 guilders ($1,400), and Jansen later claimed to have recognized the buyer: Aldo Van Eyck, an influential architect who knew Appel personally. Jansen also claimed to overhear Van Eyck boasting to an Amsterdam art dealer that he’d seen the gouache in Appel’s studio and it was easily worth three times what he’d paid for it.

It’s all but impossible to prove whether or not these circumstances are true; both Van Eyck and Appel are now deceased, and betrayals and lies seem to come easily to Jansen. “Honestly, I regretted it. I felt guilty,” he wrote of selling his first fake. “But I couldn’t change anything.” Which, of course, wasn’t true—he could have confessed and righted the wrong. Instead, he forged again.

His second fake was another gouache attributed to Appel, depicting a child with a toy. After that he kept mimicking the Dutch artist, whose work was in demand among buyers. In his licit business dealings, Jansen had handled a number of real Appels, so consigning a few extra ones, albeit fakes, wasn’t likely to raise eyebrows. Appel’s work had a crude quality that was easy to copy—so easy, in fact, that he was the target of many forgers. Moreover, the artist wasn’t always scrupulous about authentication. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar confirmed that, on more than one occasion, Appel mistakenly authenticated fake works attributed to him.

Renée Smithuis, a Dutch dealer active at the same time as Jansen, told me, “Everyone knew that Jansen was forging.” Some people worked with him anyway—Smithuis said she did not—because he sold works at relatively low prices. That was “attractive for many shady art dealers,” Smithuis explained. In some instances, Jansen used fake names for consignments: Van Tongeren, Van Drissel, Van Geren. He later bragged that he had “so many names, I can hardly count them.”

Over the years his schemes grew. He began working with a screen printer to replicate hundreds of Appel lithographs. He branched out, forging the styles of more prominent artists. “For me the excitement was in mastering an artist’s style, and I’ve mastered the entire alphabet of 20th-century artists: Appel, Chagall, De Kooning, Matisse, Picasso,” Jansen later told Wynne, the author of the book about forgery. Jansen also claimed that the quality of a fake was less important than a convincing signature. “I discovered there was a real thrill in the ‘magic-wand effect,’” he said. “You scribble the right artist’s signature in the right place and suddenly doors open.”

In 1981, according to A Small History of Dutch Crime, by Pieter Felter, the Dutch police were tipped off to the existence of a forged Bart Van der Leck painting. The trail, Felter wrote, led to Jansen, who claimed that two disgruntled gallerists in his business circle were the informants. The subsequent investigation led police to search Jansen’s home in the town of Edam, where they confiscated business documents and several paintings. They also found stamps used to produce authenticity certificates, including one from the Asger Jorn Foundation in London. According to press reports, a search of one of the city’s famous cheese factories near Jansen’s home turned up 76 fake Appels that he’d somehow stashed there, though how or why he’d chosen the location eluded investigators.

Jansen and his wife, an art restorer, were taken into police custody. He denied wrongdoing, and the couple spent four days behind bars. Ultimately, no charges were filed. Creating and possessing forged work isn’t punishable under the law. Newspapers reported that the police hadn’t amassed enough evidence of actual crimes—namely, the sale of fakes passed off as originals—and that people negatively affected by Jansen’s con hadn’t come forward to file legal complaints.

According to Jansen, business continued as usual after his release. In 1988, Appel lithographs that seemed to originate with Jansen attracted police suspicion again, in part because a gallery in Amsterdam was selling them at such low prices. Although the history of the legal case is murky, with many details lost in the predigital era of Dutch law enforcement, traces suggest that Henk Ernste, an art dealer, knowingly sold Jansen’s forgeries. Ernste was expelled from Switzerland and deported to the Netherlands, where he was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. He was able to avoid criminal proceedings by agreeing to a financial settlement.  

When police looked for Jansen, however, they couldn’t find him. Jansen separated from his wife and took up with another artist named Ellen Van Baren. He was doing a lot of his dealing in Paris; hoping to avoid detection by Interpol, he and Van Baren moved regularly. They settled in the French countryside in January 1989, five years before Schoeller caught up to them. By then, the statute of limitations had expired for any charges that might have been brought against Jansen in the Netherlands.

After the arrests in 1994, Schoeller issued a triumphant press release laying out the international scope of Jansen’s fraud and lauding the French police for helping bring him in. Schoeller also praised the “vigilant auction house” in Munich that tipped him off—a nod, specifically, to Sue Cubitt. “It now has to be determined how many art lovers were impacted,” the investigator concluded, calling on anyone with a complaint against Jansen to come forward. In France, where Jansen faced prosecution, the maximum penalty for art forgery was five years.

The bar for proving that an art crime has been committed is difficult to clear. Once complainants come forward seeking reparations—usually from the buyers of fraudulent work rather than the artists who’ve been copied—authorities must prove that misrepresentation contributed to the decision to purchase, that a financial loss was suffered, and that the seller had been intentionally deceptive. (Dealers who sell fakes almost always play dumb.) Because the burden of proof is heavy, many forgery cases don’t end up in court unless they concern additional crimes, such as mail fraud or breach of contract.

Jansen acknowledged to police that he had made the 1,600 fakes they found in his château, but he denied selling any forgeries. According to the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, authorities turned up receipts for sales made under false names for a total of 60,000 Dutch guilders (nearly $33,000) over four years. It was something—proof that Jansen was lying about not selling fakes—but not enough, perhaps, to mount a prosecution that would end Jansen’s gambit for good. “It is not much at all for so many works,” Jansen’s lawyer said in an interview.

Schoeller’s call to art lovers who’d been defrauded was followed by a similar entreaty in France, disseminated through radio, television, and other media. According to the Sunday Telegraph, the police in Orléans even displayed some of Jansen’s fakes at its headquarters, purportedly to jog the memories of people who might have done business with Jansen in the past. This created a spectacle more than it produced useful information. Indeed, the authorities’ efforts led to very little in the way of complaints against Jansen.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help. At that point, according to press reports, two complainants came forward. Allegedly, other defrauded purchasers whom authorities had contacted directly responded with a shrug. Journalists covering the case described one individual saying that he loved the painting he’d purchased from Jansen and didn’t care whether it was genuine or not. Another man, an art dealer, allegedly insisted that what he’d bought was authentic.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help.

While the case languished, Jansen and Van Baren sat in jail for six months. Jansen spent his time writing a memoir and painting. He claimed that fellow prisoners called him Van Gogh and that the director of the prison joked about wanting to commission two Picasso drawings. Eventually, the pair were released—the state couldn’t legally keep them in custody any longer—but they remained in Orléans on probation for 30 months. The French government confiscated Jansen’s passport so he couldn’t travel. “Without an identity card, you can’t rent a house, you can’t open a bank account. Friends, my family wanted to send me money—it was not possible,” Jansen later complained. He also had to check in with the police regularly. In a profile from this period, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant described him showing off his best fake signatures, including those of Picasso and Matisse, on a napkin at a restaurant. An hour later, he signed his own name at a required police visit. “I had almost forgotten how,” Jansen quipped to an officer.

When his probation ended, Jansen moved to Antwerp, Belgium. “Not because he fears problems in the Netherlands,” a sympathetic, perhaps credulous news report said of his decision not to go home, “but because of a scarcity of houses.” Jansen continued to paint, but he had a new scheme: He sold his derivative works—“lookalikes,” he called them—under his own name, hoping to profit from his scandalous public persona. He finished the memoir he’d begun writing in jail. He called it Magenta: Adventures of a Master Forger.

By 2000, the French had pieced together enough evidence to put Jansen on trial, but it was a limp across the finish line. Only one accuser appeared in court—a second failed to show. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Jansen promised to reimburse the claimant. He was convicted and given a year in prison, with four years of probation. His sentence was suspended because of the time he’d already served. Van Baren, for her part, denied collaborating with Jansen. “I transported a few things, but I thought they were real,” she said at the time. She was charged and convicted as an accessory, and her sentence was also suspended for time served. The Algemeen Dagblad headlined its coverage of the trial, “French justice department has to let go of ‘the swindle of the century.’” The paper also referred to the result of the case against Jansen as a “black day for justice in France.” Jansen’s lawyer mocked the court’s inability to pin charges on the couple. “Speaking in artistic terms,” he said, “it wasn’t a masterpiece.”

Causing further embarrassment to the French, Jansen responded with a complaint of his own: He wanted some of his artwork back. The lot was being stored at the Palais de Justice in Paris. Authorities didn’t want forgeries flooding the art market, so a court had ordered them destroyed; the plan was to burn the lot in an incinerator at the Louvre. Other works, including Jansen originals, could be sold off, the court said, “if it could be established that they were indeed genuine.” Jansen, worried that the authorities would make mistakes and that real works would meet a fiery end, demanded that approximately 200 works of true value be returned to him. He described them as small pieces by major artists that he’d bought either because he liked them or as research for his fakes. On a list Jansen submitted to the court of works to be salvaged were paintings, watercolors, and etchings by Rembrandt, Miró, Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Leo Gestel, and Sal Meijer.

A French judge ruled against Jansen’s request to recover the items. As an article in the Telegraaf explained, determining which works were real would incur sizable costs to the state. Jansen was livid, telling the press, “If the judge doesn’t want to investigate what is real and what is fake, then you shouldn’t burn them. I already accepted the loss of the value of the works a long time ago. But it is just a principle, it is not right.”

Jansen refused to take no for an answer, and he had an unlikely ally in Rudi Fuchs, the director general of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In a written statement, Fuchs argued that the collection shouldn’t be destroyed: It included several works he considered to be genuine. (He stressed that his plea was not a defense of Jansen.) The Dutch secretary of culture, Cees Van Leeuwen, also weighed in, emphasizing that the real works needed to be identified and saved.

In 2005, more than a decade after Jansen’s arrest, a French court agreed to let him recover some of the works from the château. According to Jansen, the returned items were a hodgepodge of genuine and fake art, because the experts whom the French justice system had summoned weren’t up to the task of making correct determinations. “These people were mostly the same ones who authenticated my work as real for the previous ten years,” Jansen later said derisively in a TV interview. He continued to tell the press that the French were going to destroy genuine works. “Among the lots to be burned is a Miró I bought at auction at Drouot in Paris,” he said in one instance. “Nothing is wrong with that one, and I even have the purchase receipt, but it won’t be released.” Jansen added, “That the experts are incapable of authenticating those works doesn’t give them the right to simply destroy them.”

Ultimately, it isn’t clear how many works, if any, were burned. Jansen didn’t go back to France to get what the court allowed him to retrieve; he still feared arrest. Instead, Van Baren drove a truck across the border to pick up the trove. Many of the returned paintings were damaged, Jansen claimed, with canvases coming off their stretchers. Some looked like they’d been stored in standing water.

Jansen described their condition as yet another sign of elite hypocrisy. His own criminality, he insisted, wasn’t so egregious. “I know I did something that is not allowed,” Jansen told De Volkskrant. “But I don’t think anyone is worse off for it.”


That line became something of a professional philosophy for Jansen, and it permeates Magenta, his memoir. The book is an uncontested account of his life, told exactly as he wishes. It is nonetheless revealing about the psychology of a man obsessed with both deceit and attention. Throughout the text, Jansen jumps around chronologically, revisiting his childhood and art-history studies alongside what he considers to be the greatest, and most audacious, hits of his criminal career. He admits to not being great with dates or figures—a convenient hedge against accusations that he may have gotten details in the book wrong—and he is forthcoming about his flexible approach to truth. “I have the habit, in all circumstances, of being silent or lying,” he writes. But just three pages later, he claims that he doesn’t “enjoy lying.”

Jansen boasts of petty crimes, like sneaking out the back door of a hotel so he wouldn’t have to pay, and other, more serious ones, like stealing money from the Swiss bank vault of a colleague. His version of the events surrounding his 1994 arrest boldly contradicts other people’s accounts, as well as known facts. He writes that Sue Cubitt was freshly hired at Karl and Faber when he consigned an Appel to her; in fact, she’d been working there for more than a decade.

Similarly, he devotes considerable space to his disciplined silence in the face of interrogations about the works recovered at his chateau, though a London Times article from May 1994 told a different story. Describing an “Ali Baba’s cave of art fakes,” the article reported that Jansen “accepted responsibility for the works discovered in the raid.” The report continued, “After his arrest, Mr. Jansen displayed his talent to the investigating judge, reproducing several famous artists’ signatures.”

In Magenta, Jansen gloats about seeing his fakes in galleries from London to New York, in museums, and in the catalogs of reputable auction houses, but he demurs on the details of the works and where he sold them. (People who’ve had dealings with Jansen, including Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, Appel’s gallerist, and Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, refute the claim that Jansen sold to reputable museums outright.) Jansen also describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. Afterward, Jansen says, Warhol asked him to drop his pants so that he could take a Polaroid. Jansen uses the anecdote to brag that he’s well-endowed.

Jansen describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. 

The arrogance on display in Magenta is evident in interviews that Jansen has given since the events in France. “Even I find it crazy to think I’ve created genuine Picassos. But every time I look in the catalogue raisonné of his work, there they are,” he told Wynne. The implication is that once the art world accepts a work as genuine, for all intents and purposes it is. But there’s also delusion in his thinking, namely the idea that someone mimicking an artist can meaningfully add to an authentic oeuvre. Jansen goes even further: If fakes are as good as the real thing, aren’t they worth celebrating? “When a musician reproduces a sonata of Bach, one applauds him. Me, I reproduce a sonata of Picasso and I am placed under arrest,” he lamented to the CBC in 2008.

Jansen loves to cast himself as a victim, suggesting that early in his career he was naive to play by the rules of the art world and trust that it wasn’t corrupt. He complains that people would sell work for him and never give him the money he was owed. Eventually, desperation led him to change tack. “I simply couldn’t afford the rent anymore. Gas and electricity were turned off, the bailiffs were at the door. That kind of misery,” he once said. He turned to forgery, which only showed him how venal and greedy the art world was, how full of mercenaries and, at times, how willfully ignorant. “Most art dealers and gallery owners are interested in earning money,” Jansen writes in Magenta. “An art dealer who has invested in a work doesn’t want to look for mistakes in the painting anymore, that doesn’t interest him. A dealer wants to earn and tries to find a customer as soon as possible.”

He spins anecdote after anecdote, all with the same purpose: to illustrate that what he did was well within the bounds of the sketchy behavior the art market routinely tolerates or even encourages. One of his favorite stories—impossible to confirm—is about a fake Picasso that he sold to a London collector. During the sale, the collector wasn’t satisfied with the provenance documentation, so he insisted that he and Jansen approach Picasso together to verify the work. Picasso’s response, according to Jansen, was elliptical: “How much did you pay for that? That much? Well, in that case it’s a real Picasso.”

Jansen has gone so far as to brag about his devil-may-care attitude, which he says reveals the art world’s flaws. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Morgan, he said that he once finished some fake certificates of authentication in the early morning, mere hours before consigning the works. In Magenta, he describes slapdash methods of aging his fakes, from emptying a vacuum bag full of dust onto canvases to leaving works under a doormat for weeks. “The footsteps do wonders,” he says. He writes of one fake getting wet from either cat urine or spilled beer; it didn’t matter which. He sold it anyway. To achieve craquelure, the network of fine cracks that appear over time and indicate a painting’s vintage, Jansen describes leaving works on top of a hot oven or putting watercolors out in the sun. He also claims that once, when a thunderstorm scattered gouaches he was drying on a balcony, he inadvertently stepped on a few in his haste to recover them, leaving footprints. He decided to consign the gouaches anyway, and he recalls the dealer who bought them insisting that the marks were proof of authenticity—only an artist would walk on his own work.

Jansen wants people to see his adversaries as ridiculous, unworthy of sympathy or any claim on the truth. It’s a pompous take, certainly, and his musings on the nature of quality conveniently gloss over the value that comes from knowing whose mind conceived a work and whose labor created it. Jansen has expressed pride that his forgeries were never found out for stylistic reasons—it was documentation, like errors on certificates, that exposed him—but Nieuwenhuizen Segaar disagreed. “Jansen doesn’t want to be betrayed by his work, by gouache or ink, but by text,” the gallerist told me. “He’s always trying to put himself in a better light than he is.”

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar pointed out that, arguably, the beginning of the end of Jansen’s criminal career was his recognition of the fake Appel drawing in the Karl and Faber catalog. If not for that, would Cubitt’s suspicions have been aroused when Jansen returned with another consignment? Would she have scrutinized the Chagall certificate, noticed the typo, and set off a police investigation? “He’s not a big forger. They don’t exist!” Nieuwenhuizen Segaar exclaimed, taking issue with the very idea of expert counterfeiters. “If they are big forgers, they make their own paintings.”

After the trial in France, Jansen did create his own work, in the style that Schoeller once dismissed as pedestrian. Jansen boasted that he had “developed a method” of painting abstract canvases by using a teapot to pour acrylic paint in graphic patterns. Occasionally, he found venues to show his work. Cubitt told me about going to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht about a decade after Jansen’s conviction. She took a wrong turn and ended up on a deserted industrial street. At the end of it was a huge sign bearing Jansen’s name, advertising an exhibition. “I thought, Am I going in? Will he recognize me? Will he shoot me?” Cubitt recalled.

She did go in, and Jansen didn’t recognize her. “His paintings were, as you’d imagine, a kind of very ugly version of Karel Appel,” Cubitt said. “Really hideous color. There were a lot of them, and they were big.” She added, “It was quite interesting to see that he was back doing something he’d never been successful with.”

Jansen profited more by emphasizing his talents and history as a forger. With his so-called lookalikes, instead of expertly copying signatures and forging authenticity certificates, he presented the paintings as the work of “Geert Jan Jansen in the style of.…” He even copied famous paintings. Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard and Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, Klimt’s The Kiss, Monet’s water lilies—Jansen forged them all. He began advertising his versions of famous works in the Telegraaf and other Dutch newspapers; in at least one case, he offered a free silkscreen print in the style of Picasso, Matisse, or Klimt to anyone who purchased a DVD detailing his career as a forger. “Nowadays, Jansen lives as a well-respected artist,” the ad read. “But how did he once end up on the wrong track? What role did the art market play? What is the secret behind his fabulous technique?”

Jansen was offering supply to meet demand: The public was fascinated by him. In 1999, he appeared on an episode of The Black Sheep, a Dutch TV show that brings controversial figures on stage to confront a panel of their critics. During his appearance, Jansen came face-to-face with several dealers and collectors he’d defrauded and experts he’d tricked. Other people were brought in not for any past interactions they’d had with Jansen but for their representative opinions. Then there was a couple that had purchased one of Jansen’s forgeries; rather than press charges when they learned the truth, they’d opted to open a museum devoted to fake art in a small Dutch town.

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar was there—he was irate—and so was Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, who rose in partial defense of Jansen. “I like the man, and I also think he is a criminal,” she said. “I don’t justify what he did, but it’s not Mr. Jansen alone who is hypocritical.” Jansen came across as more celebrity than crook. Asked by the host why he agreed to go on the air with his critics, Jansen replied wryly, “Because I am the black sheep, and they are the herd.”

When I contacted her for this story, Smithuis elaborated on the hypocrisy she’d mentioned on the show. She explained, namely, why she thinks people were loath to press charges against Jansen. “Of course they did not complain to him (or the police),” she wrote in an email. “That would affect their ‘good’ name.” We talked, too, about a mystery: Did Jansen’s forging make him rich? It’s hard to say without access to his financial records. According to the Sunday Telegraph, at the time of his arrest in 1994, Jansen had about £100,000 (approximately $150,000) in seven bank accounts. The French police commissioner who worked the case, a man named Jean-Claude Colin, speculated at the time that Jansen had “fat bank accounts” in Europe’s tax havens.

Smithuis is skeptical that Jansen ever had money socked away. If he’d really been wealthy, she pointed out, more people would have tried to sue him. “He was a small painter with a big mouth, an amiable appearance,” she told me, “a man who presented himself much bigger than he was.”


Jansen’s career didn’t repel everyone. His hubris, his outspoken personal philosophy, and his hunger for publicity brought him to the attention of two theater directors several years after the case in France. The resulting creative relationship was the reason Jansen forged a Picasso that wound up under a tree in Romania, duping Mira Feticu. That con, in turn, was the reason I began reporting this story—and why I eventually found myself fuming in a dark auditorium in Germany.

Yves Degryse and Bart Baele run an experimental theater company in Belgium called, improbably, Berlin. They first collaborated with Jansen in a 2014 production called Perhaps All the Dragons, a roundtable of 30 individual monologues detailing real but unusual lives. Jansen’s was one. Sensing there might be more to say, the directors concocted a new production focused wholly on Jansen. Considering the artists whom Jansen liked to emulate, and given the works lost in the high-profile Rotterdam heist, Degryse and Baele came up with a concept that linked the life of the master forger with the fallout of the crime. “The idea was very quickly there,” Degryse told me, “and then the preparation took many months.” Berlin decided to call the piece True Copy. (Jansen also takes credit for the title.)

The convoluted plan went like this: Jansen forged the Picasso drawing stolen from Rotterdam and gave it to the directors, who took it to Romania. They buried the drawing and set up a surveillance camera in a nearby tree. Then they sent out six anonymous letters—three to people in Romania and three to individuals in the Netherlands. Among the recipients were journalists, an art detective, and Feticu. The directors waited to see if anyone showed up in the woods. If someone did, Degryse and Baele hoped that the Picasso would be authenticated and perhaps even restored to its collection.

In the meantime, True Copy debuted in Antwerp in early November 2018, just days before Feticu and Westerman went searching for the forged Picasso. Jansen was billed as the star, taking to the stage to talk candidly about his career as a fraud. In early performances, audiences learned of what was happening in Romania via video screens that showed footage of the harlequin drawing being buried and of the empty forest. If someone came looking for the work, audiences were told, that denouement would be incorporated into the show. Indeed, once Feticu and Westerman arrived, film of them digging up the Picasso became part of the play.

According to Berlin’s directors, what they did in Romania wasn’t a publicity stunt or a joke—it was a test to see how far a forgery could go before the art world realized it was being conned or was willing to admit it. The aim, the directors said in a press release after Feticu’s discovery became international news, was “to find out at which point in the process things would falter, with whom and why.” Would an expert point out discrepancies? Or would the desire for a work to be returned to its rightful place win out? As Baele put it in an interview with a British newspaper, “Isn’t it much more refreshing to go along with a beautifully packaged lie?”

Degryse told me that the project had even higher-minded intentions. What if a forger could use their talents for good? So much art has been lost, stolen, or destroyed in the world—what if Jansen could offer the “gift,” as Degryse put it, of restoration? Berlin imagined a scenario in which a beloved work of art was found, the world rejoiced, and that was the end of it. “Nobody knows it’s a fake,” Degryse said. “That was the ultimate goal.”

It didn’t come to pass. Jansen’s fake was found out, and quickly. The ruse was revealed when the Berlin directors contacted Westerman and Feticu to explain what they’d done.  True Copy continued its run, touring cities in Europe. Berlin publicized the show as putting Jansen “center stage,” so in May 2019 I booked a ticket to see it in Germany. Degryse mentioned that there was a twist in the performance—did I want to know what it was? Assuming it was something best experienced in a theater, I said that I would wait.

Up to that point, I’d had trouble getting ahold of Jansen. Degryse said that it wouldn’t be a problem to interview the star. I boarded a plane wondering which version of Jansen I would finally meet.

When Jansen took the stage, he looked younger and healthier than I’d expected—the directors had told me that the 75-year-old was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia. He appeared as he did in photos, with large blue eyes, thick lips, and a balding pate trimmed with tufts of gray hair. He wore brown trousers, a blue button-down shirt, and a wide-lapel blazer. He kept a pair of plastic-frame glasses on a lanyard around his neck; sometimes he perched them on his forehead.

The set included a gallery wall, dense with video screens in gilded frames displaying images of some of the most famous paintings in the world, as rendered by Jansen’s hand. A modest wooden table was positioned at the front of the stage, where at times Degryse and Jansen sat talking. The script borrowed heavily from Magenta, and it was almost entirely a monologue. Jansen expounded on his theories of authenticity, quality, and storytelling. He rehashed his favorite anecdotes, like the one about emptying vacuum bags on his work. He went on at length about art dealers who “weren’t exactly guilt-free themselves,” because they often didn’t really care whether works were real or not. “They all skirted the issue. Mentioning it meant incriminating each other,” Jansen said. So what if he exploited people and took a tiny piece of a lucrative pie? He bragged that he’d never had an unsatisfied customer.

Though he explained how he made fakes, Jansen didn’t show the audience his process—at least, not immediately. Creating art was meant for the studio, he said, so Berlin built one for him behind the set, in an unseen space that he sometimes retreated to down a narrow passage, with a camera operator on his heels. What Jansen did in the studio appeared before the audience via video feed on the set’s gallery wall. That way the forger retained the privacy he required to make his art while viewers got the voyeurism they’d been promised.

Everything Jansen said went unopposed; the play wasn’t interested in juxtaposing his distorted positions with arguments against what he’d done. Degryse told me that Berlin had considered bringing other perspectives into True Copy but decided against it, so that audiences would get an unadulterated take on the ideas that sustained Jansen. “It was better to make the extreme choice to let him talk,” Degryse said.

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. 

At one point in the show, Degryse, clad in black jeans and leather boots, took on the role of an auctioneer. One of Jansen’s paintings—a large portrait similar to those Picasso painted of his lover Dora—was on the block. “It’s perfectly legal,” Degryse reassured the audience. “We just have to agree on one thing: The work we are auctioning was made by Geert Jan Jansen but bears the signature of the original artist. In here it’s a Geert Jan Jansen, but the moment you leave the room, that changes.… If you buy it and hang it up in your house, to the outside world it becomes genuine.” Degryse assured the audience that the auction was real, that bids were binding. They would start at 2,000 euros ($2,200).

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. In spite of myself, I found myself yearning to bid. Uncertain what to make of Degryse’s insistence that the auction was real, however, and without 2,000 euros at my disposal, I kept my hands in my lap. (Degryse later told me that many winners never claimed their lots. Berlin had sold only six of Jansen’s paintings by the time I saw the show, despite dozens of performances.)

The audience’s mood had been loose since the opening curtain. People laughed loudly, including at Jansen’s quip that “an Appel a day keeps the doctor away.” Were they taking at face value the claim that Jansen did no harm? I asked the man sitting next to me why he found it all so funny. “I guess not knowing what’s true and what’s not,” he replied with a shrug. But the audience’s laughter didn’t sound uneasy. It sounded like they felt they were in on a joke.

The final scenes of the play included footage from Romania: Degryse and Baele mounting their camera and leaving the forest. Feticu and Westerman digging in the ground. A gasp, a shriek, Feticu crying. Romanian police setting up a perimeter of yellow tape. Word ricocheting around the world that the Picasso had been found.

As the video vignette concluded, the play’s background music grew moodier. Then there were two voices: Jansen speaking on stage and another man, unseen, speaking from the art studio. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to keep quiet,” Jansen said, as if irritated. “Why are you interrupting me, Geert Jan?” Suddenly, he was referring to the voice backstage by his own name. “Why can’t the work of a real—a good—master forger be a masterpiece?”

As he spoke, the man on stage fumbled at his neck, loosening his collar. He let his glasses hang on their lanyard and removed his microphone. And then he reached with both hands into the neck of his undershirt and peeled off a full-head mask. Underneath was a balding man, his bare head glistening with sweat from more than an hour under stage lights and latex. Without looking out at the audience, the man walked into the hidden studio, where the audience could see him on video drawing up next to—yes—Jansen. The real one, it seemed. Jansen introduced the man in the mask as Luk Sponselee, an actor. “Tonight, and the coming nights, you are Geert Jan Jansen,” the real Jansen said. “Not really, but it’s not a monstrous lie either. Very authentic.”

The music became a steady drone. In the play’s final moments, the gallery wall rotated, slowly revealing the hidden studio. But inside, where we expected to see Jansen and his double, there was nothing. Just darkness—an abyss—with one narrow, piercing light shining out at the audience.

Degryse and Baele had a talking point they used in interviews: What if you’re looking at a work of art and it moves you, and then someone whispers in your ear that it’s fake? Your emotional experience of the artwork changes, but why? Is the change valid? The directors seemed to be arguing that devaluing art based on its origins is an acquired prejudice, something that benefits the market but not the viewer. Art can be beautiful—and stay beautiful—no matter its origin, and we should question why we value the aesthetic quality of an image less than the aura of the person who made it.

True Copy mimicked the experience that Degryse and Baele described. The audience believed that it was seeing Jansen, and there was a strange frisson, a mise en abyme, in observing someone who’d built a career on lies tell what he claimed was the truth. It was part of the reason I traveled so far to see the show. Would I find him believable? Impressive? Charming? What would I have made of Jansen if he had walked into an auction house where I worked and tried to sell me a drawing?

Instead, viewers of the play were confronted with the familiar distance of theater. We weren’t watching Jansen at all, but an actor, someone taking on a life that he’d never lived. We didn’t learn anything about Jansen’s believability or self-presentation. Instead, the theater directors played with the distance between what we expected—and were told to expect—and reality. I found the conceit cheap, but it played well. The rest of the audience seemed enchanted. During a Q&A after the performance, one person told Degryse that the decision to use an actor instead of Jansen himself was a gift.


I knew before I went to Germany that Feticu was angry about what had happened in Romania. “It has not been a joke for me. My whole life was turned upside down,” she wrote in an email. Westerman had a different reaction. “I ended up in a work by Eugen Ionescu,” he told one news outlet. Feticu and Westerman had invited the men behind True Copy to speak to them about the whole episode on a Dutch TV program, but they declined. “She accuses us of having misled her on this journey. I do not understand that,” Degryse told a newspaper reporter. “The profession involves certain risks.” (He seemed to mean journalism, though that isn’t Feticu’s primary vocation.)

Feticu, who is publishing a short book about the debacle, called Picasso’s Downside, said that she didn’t think it made much sense for a convicted criminal—a counterfeiter, at that—to be given a platform for spouting lessons about authenticity. Art should be a playground for experimentation and expression, she said, but there should be limits imposed by human decency.

After the play, I was less interested in heady concepts and skillful sleights of hand than in the fact that Jansen was nowhere to be seen. I had come ready for an interview. Was he in the theater somewhere? Was he even involved with the show? Had he painted the Picasso, or were there endless layers—and lies—to the clever deceits True Copy unspooled?

I returned to my hotel room and looked back through my correspondence with Degryse. Yes, he had said that arranging an interview wouldn’t be a problem. I looked at the press release for True Copy, and yes, it was there: “Berlin puts Geert Jan himself on stage.” There was a suggestive quote from Jansen, though. “The only one who never gets any recognition is the forger,” he said. “Unless he is unmasked.” And then I reread reviews of the play. One, on the Arts Desk website, said that Jansen is “present” before musing that “even writing this I’ve become an accessory to Berlin’s fibbing, for not everything written above is fully true.” No one revealed the secret. (For his part, Degryse would have preferred I not reveal it, either.)

When I confronted Degryse, sitting in the grass in a park near the theater the day after the performance, he wasn’t overly apologetic about misleading me—even though I had crossed an ocean and was, as it happened, visibly pregnant. “There are more people who don’t trust me anymore after True Copy,” Degryse said. “Maybe I should have said beforehand, it’s really an important question, this question of how much do you want to know.” I asked again if he could arrange the interview he’d promised, and Degryse called Jansen on his cell phone. It seemed clear that he’d never mentioned me to Jansen before. Degryse set a date for an interview, but I would have to go to the Netherlands, to Jansen’s estate.

That’s how I found myself about an hour outside Utrecht, in a car with Berlin’s communications officer, going up a long driveway toward a 15th-century château on the banks of the meandering Kromme Rijn river. The home’s monumental facade was fronted by symmetrical, curving staircases. This is only one of Jansen’s homes—he also spends part of the year in Italy. He still lives with Ellen Van Baren, who rode her bike past our car on her way to her own painting studio.

Jansen greeted us at the top of the stairs in slate-green slacks, a purple linen shirt, and a cardigan. His glasses were on a lanyard around his neck. The château was impressive and generous, with high ceilings and elaborate stucco. It was shabby, too, with peeling paint and cracked plaster in every room. Modest belongings were scattered around. Jansen’s bed, surrounded by stacks of paintings, had a thin coverlet on it.

Like the La Chaux estate where Schoeller had found Jansen’s stash of fakes, the mansion hosted several studios, each peppered with the detritus of a painter: rolled up tubes of paint, dirty brushes, tilted easels, half-finished canvases. Jansen told me, in occasionally halting English, that he paints every day, sometimes on several canvases, in the styles of various artists. Nearly every room had several canvases hung on the walls. Jansen has boasted that he doesn’t copy works, that he “adds his own” to an existing series (say, for example, Monet’s haystacks), but the paintings at his château told a different story. Here were Vincent Van Gogh’s irises, Edward Hopper’s lonely diner patrons, Vermeer’s streetscapes. (Now that he’s no longer constrained by the need for convincing historical materials, Jansen makes more premodern fakes.) There were white, gessoed canvases covered in nothing but Jansen’s rendition of Picasso’s signature. There was even a Banksy—the only contemporary artist, Jansen said, that he’s interested in copying.

The Vermeers and Rembrandts didn’t appear believable at all—more like gestures, the kind of knockoff a certain type of collector who loved a particular artist might purchase knowing full well that it wouldn’t fool anybody. The Klimts offered slightly better approximations of the real thing. More striking than the quality of any particular painting, however, was the overwhelming preponderance of work and the sheer variety of output. Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court. There were originals and fakes, some in elaborate gilded frames, others naked. They were all left open to the elements. Dead flies littered one corner of the floor.

After touring the house, Jansen and I sat to talk in the kitchen, which was lined with open cabinets that revealed mismatched dishes. Stroopwafels sat in a box on the counter beside an IKEA lamp; a fake version of Monet’s water lilies hung on the wall.

Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court.

Jansen told me that working on True Copy allowed him to speak—really speak—for himself. “I’ve had a lot of publicity and interviews, but when I see it in the newspaper, it’s a little bit different. They use words I would never use. Even things I detest,” he complained. (Magenta, it seemed, wasn’t enough of a platform for him.) He called the French justice system his biggest promoter. “They told everybody they couldn’t see the difference. They called me the most important art forger of the century,” Jansen said. I recalled, too, the ad hoc exhibition of his work at the Orléans police station. Jansen smiled slyly as he recapitulated some of his elaborate theories, including that his fakes had been a boon to the artists he copied. He’d helped ones with smaller oeuvres, for instance, gain recognition. “I took a lot of work out of their hands,” he said. There was no sense that he had done the artists any wrong.

Jansen was friendly, even solicitous—he was proud to show off his château and the multitudinous works showcased within it. But he also seemed tired, his performance perfunctory, like his heart wasn’t in the rehearsed show he was putting on. I heard once more about Aldo Van Eyck claiming to have seen Jansen’s forgery in Appel’s studio, about Picasso’s response to an expensive fake, about a prison director in France who’d asked Jansen to make him his own faux masterpiece. Jansen had his sound bites, and he intended to stick to them.

Was it all worth it, I asked, the course he’d taken? Did he ever lose sleep over his crimes? Jansen’s response was quick and blasé. “Oh no,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

Where he seemed less practiced was when we discussed his original works. He wanted to do more of them, he said, but forgery, even when forthright, brought in more money. He didn’t have gallery representation and wanted it. For the time being, he invited people to his castle once a month for what he called an exhibition. On a table by the front door was a sign-up sheet for his mailing list with half a dozen names scrawled on it—real ones, presumably, written by the people authorized to sign them.