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Buried art treasure

A bronze statue, stolen last fall, is retrieved from a backyard hole after the thief dies suddenly.

The delicate dolphin statue that graced a downtown fountain for 15 years apparently was something Kenneth Gonsior thought he just couldn't live without.

So, under the cover of night Sept. 18, the amateur artist with a criminal history loosened its bolts and made off with the 300-pound statue, police said Friday.

His pleasure was short-lived. Fearing arrest, Gonsior almost immediately buried the statue beneath a flourishing tomato and lettuce garden in his back yard at 6314 Selbourne Drive, just off Interbay Boulevard, police said.

It might have stayed there indefinitely had Gonsior, 41, not suddenly died. While standing in his driveway three weeks ago, he suffered a massive heart attack.

And with that, a confidante of Gonsior came forward and told police where to dig for the dolphin.

"Being somewhat of an artist himself, it was something he always wanted," said Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin. "But with all the media attention, he got a little panicked."

The statue, appraised at $50,000, is in good condition except for a few scrapes on the boy's arms and legs that left a nickel-colored shine in places beneath the dull bronze. It had been buried 18 inches down, without protective covering, said Detective Doug Burkett, who heard a ding on the first strike with his trowel Thursday afternoon.

"I was speechless," said a cheerful Emily Kass, director of the Tampa Museum of Art, which owns the statue, after learning Friday it had been found. But Kass said Gonsior's passion for art doesn't validate the crime.

"This was a selfish act," she said. "It wasn't as though he couldn't look at this any time."

The scratches on the statue will have to be painstakingly restored, Kass said. Museum officials are not sure they'll put the artwork on display outside again, she said. It had been loaned to the city and put on display in a fountain at the leafy One City Center plaza next to the Hyatt Regency Tampa.

The night it disappeared, a guard who normally patrols the courtyard was off. A guard preparing to begin his shift watched from a distance as a man lugged the artwork into a black truck and drove off. The guard told police it was such a brazen act he figured the man was authorized to remove the statue.

Friday wasn't the first time police accused Gonsior, an unemployed iron worker, of stealing. Just five days after the statue was taken, Gonsior was charged with breaking into a neighbor's garage with a knife in his pocket and gloves on his hands. He was set to enter a pre-trial intervention program, records show.

Gonsior previously had been arrested seven times, mostly for driving with an invalid driver's license, and once for a drunken driving charge. Burkett said Gonsior struggled with drug and alcohol addictions.

The statue was the work of late New York artist C. Paul Jennewein, who bequeathed it to the Tampa Museum years ago to kick-start its permanent collection. His son, Jim Jennewein, a Tampa resident, called the statue's discovery "wonderful" and said Gonsior must have been very taken with the object.

"Well, in a perverse way, that's a compliment to good art, isn't it?" Jennewein said.

Kass said she was relieved the statue hadn't been hustled to some distant city, as she feared. Stolen artwork can take generations to turn up on the black market.

Media coverage of the delicately rendered sculpture's theft was intense and helped to scare Gonsior into hiding the statue, the informant told police.

Detective Burkett said he had a hunch the theft was a prank, possibly by college students, and had contacted local universities, art experts and other law enforcement agencies to track it down.

After the tip this week, Burkett said he learned "fewer than five" people knew Gonsior had the statue. The caller's identity was kept secret by police, who said no one would be charged for not alerting officials sooner.

"We're just glad to get it back, and it would not be serving justice in any way" to make arrests, Burkett said.

In the past year, neighbors said, Gonsior erected an 8-foot fence around his back yard. A massive ocean-liner anchor adorned his neat front yard Friday, along with a seashell walkway and some large rock sculptures. Neighbors said he was solitary, even unfriendly. He lived alone, they said.

Burkett was unmoved about Gonsior's passion for the statue.

"A thief is a thief," he said.

And Kass rolled her eyes Friday at the suggestion Gonsior was a bona fide artist. "I don't know if he was an artist by training or serious about exhibiting his work," she said.

"I didn't know his name."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.