ToquiNotes: More than 15 Years after Jesus Portrait Theft from Halls of BHS, I Offer My Conspiracy Theory

By Jeff Toquinto on January 22, 2022 from ToquiNotes via Connect-Bridgeport.com

I’m not much of a conspiracy guy. I don’t believe Elvis is alive nor was a member of the CIA. I don’t believe that Bruce Lee is still with us. As for Tupac and Biggie, they’re both gone as well. I certainly don’t believe 9/11 was an inside job.
 
Outside of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, well, there’s very little room in my mind for conspiracy theories. I do, however, have a relatively new one. And it’s one you may be surprised to think yours truly has bought into and has bought into without any help from outsiders.
 
Nearly 16 years after the portrait of Jesus - Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ" - was stolen off the wall in front of the administrative offices of Bridgeport High School, I’m fairly certain it was a conspiracy. Okay, maybe not a conspiracy in the sense the CIA was involved, but rather a conspiracy in the sense that the perpetrator or perps, whatever the case may be, was not who most of us initially thought it was and who some people still may believe it was today.
 
With apologies to law enforcement officials nationwide, I’ve put my detective hat on and what I can tell you with almost 100 percent certainty is this: A high school or college student did not steal this as the result of a prank or hijinks, and if they did it was at the behest of another or others.
 
Why do I say that? I’m 53 years old and I relish the chance to not only tell folks about my exploits from back in my high school and college years, I’ve embellished them to the point of absurdity. I couldn’t put a For Sale sign in someone’s yard back in those days and not tell every single person I knew an hour after doing it. Granted, messing with the local real estate folks won’t become an issue on CNN Headline News, but my point is that if you’ve ever known a teenager or someone in their early 20s to be able to completely keep a secret of this magnitude this long please send the person forward. They’ll either be knighted or prepped for sainthood.
 
We’re getting close to the 16-year anniversary of the portrait’s disappearance. Most students have no idea about it, and the mirror that is positioned where the portrait used to be is no different that the state title photos in the cafeteria.
 
It took place in August of 2006 in the midst of huge legal debate that had caught the attention of the national media. The portrait in question had hung in the hallway for more than 30 years when more than 15 year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the Harrison County Board of Education to have the picture removed. The ACLU and its partner alleged the portrait was a violation of the Establishment Clause.
 
Instead of backing away from the lawsuit, the BOE’s elected board decided to fight the suit. Incredibly more than $100,000 in pledged or committed money was provided for legal fees to keep the portrait. For those in Harrison County, it was indeed a hot topic. Add to the fact that it was getting significant play in the mainstream media on a national scale and you have a situation that probably left a lot of folks uncomfortable. And I can tell you who was not uncomfortable about the situation – the students.
 
That, of course, leads me to my thought process about the individual or individuals involved in the theft of the portrait shortly before 3 a.m. on August 17, 2006. We know the time, as just listed, and we know that a folding chair was climbed on, a window to a school lab was smashed into and then the thief grabbed the portrait and headed off into the night and into history.
 
We know this because there is video. We also know for a fact that the person that took the portrait knew exactly where the security cameras shooting said video were located. At the time, former Bridgeport Detective Mike Lemley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the thief avoided pointing his face toward the security camera.
 
What else do we know from the footage and the crime scene? After removing the portrait from the wall, the portrait itself was cut from the wooden frame and left with the thief through the window. The description eventually given of the thief was a white male, likely in his late teens or early 20s, weighing between 220 and 250 pounds.
 
As for whom the person, or people, was, I have no idea. I am convinced it was not a student prank gone awry. There’s no chance – zero – a student wouldn’t have told at least their closest friend of their dirty deed. And for anyone who’s ever gotten ahold of a piece of juicy gossip, there’s also no chance that after 15-plus years the friend told of the tale wouldn’t have told someone else resulting in the usual ripple involving stories of misdeeds and adventures.
 
While then Principal Lindy Bennett and former Assistant Principal (at the time) Mark DeFazio readily admit most students know where the cameras are, would they be that conscientious to know the location of every one of  them in the dark of the night? It would take someone with intimate knowledge of the camera setup and someone with a very personal agenda to produce the results created that evening.
 
The disappearance of the portrait did one very clear thing: It ended the legal controversy. There would be no lawsuit, no headlines and no national media coming to Bridgeport and Harrison County to iron out a Constitutional issue. The moment the portrait vanished, so too did all of the issues surrounding it.
 
Think a student did it? Think someone has the portrait on their college dorm wall somewhere? If so, think again.
 
This was a very detailed mission, and one whose purpose wasn’t shenanigans. In the end, I could live with that. Not knowing who will always be a problem for me, but not knowing why will be an even larger conundrum I’ll have to deal with for what looks to be forever.
 
At the same time, I could have this all wrong. It could very well have been some mischievous high school student with tight lips and a thing for school layouts. Or even worse, it could have been Elvis looking for some art for his home in Peru.  
 
Editor's Note: Top photo is a copy of the Head of Christ portrait by Warner Sallman that was at the entrance of the school's administrative offices for decades. Bottom photo shows the mirror that is in place now. 


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