Until recently, accused art thief Brandon Powers had never expressed any interest in George Rodrigue or his famed “Blue Dog” paintings — nor even art in general, his relatives said.
Yet, suddenly, the 25-year-old from Metairie couldn’t get enough of the Cajun painter.
Eventually, his appreciation for the deceased artist and his work became criminal, according to arrest reports in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
But a pair of court-appointed mental health experts say it wasn’t so much aesthetic concerns that fed Powers’ obsession with Rodrigue as it was a toxic daily dose of the attention-deficit drug Adderall.
Powers and his attorney, Tanya Picou Faia, aim to press the case that he was no Vincenzo Peruggia — the Louvre employee who stole the “Mona Lisa” in 1911 — but was on an overmedicated rescue mission to protect Rodrigue’s work. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Powers appeared Thursday in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court for a bench trial on the burglary charge, but ad hoc Judge Calvin Johnson agreed to delay the proceedings until Jan. 8 after District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office asked for time to secure its own mental health expert.
When police arrived at Powers’ Metairie home one Sunday in May, they found six books about Rodrigue in the guest room, along with two small “Blue Dog” prints, a Krewe of Argus coin depicting the Blue Dog and what they had come looking for: a $1,200 limited-edition print of Rodrigue’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” a “Blue Dog” iteration stolen from a Lakeview art shop two weeks earlier.
The trail to Powers, who recently had been dismissed from his family’s glass business, wasn’t hard to follow. Police found an unbroken pane of glass that had been removed from a window at Avenue Art & Framing on Harrison Avenue, the victim of the Mother’s Day print heist.
On the ground outside lay a “power grip” suction cup used to remove glass, with “Brandon Powers” scrolled on it in black marker.
Powers was in East Jefferson General Hospital for a seizure when police showed up at his home. Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies put two and two together and also booked Powers in a different incident that had been caught on tape at the same hospital in March.
That video shows a man walking into the hospital early on March 7, reaching underneath a plastic case and removing a $25,000 Rodrigue print from the wall.
Wearing gloves, the white man “walks away and returns to the print several times and then leaves the print on the floor as he exits the hospital,” a police report says.
Five months earlier, someone had called from inside the hospital “and advised the ‘Blue Dog’ print needs cleaning,” a hospital staffer told detectives. “The caller wanted housekeeping to remove it so he could clean the print.” The man had left before hospital security arrived.
The appearance of the man in both hospital videos matched, according to authorities.
Powers was booked on attempted theft in that case. He “claimed to be brushing dust off the ‘Blue Dog’ print,” a police report says.
At an October hearing in Orleans Parish, a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist testified that a local psychiatric nurse practitioner, Robert Varnado, had prescribed numerous drugs to Powers — anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills — at least as far back as November 2014.
But it was the Adderall that jumped out at Dr. Richard Richoux, who said Powers likely suffered toxicity from a drug that Varnado had prescribed him at 60 mg a day.
“Rarely have I seen anything in excess of 60. That’s about the ceiling in terms of what gets prescribed by responsible practitioners,” Richoux testified.
He said it appeared that Powers developed manic symptoms from an adverse reaction to the drug, becoming hyperactive and paranoid with delusional thoughts. Powers’ mother said he had seemed to get worse, not better, on the drug.
Richoux called it “a phenomenon that we have seen a number of times now.”
Powers’ mother and his wife “confirmed that never in his life had he shown any particular interest in art at all. He certainly wasn’t an art collector or anything like that. He didn’t go to art exhibits,” Richoux testified. “But he suddenly had this intense desire to engage in conversations about art.”
Richoux and forensic psychologist Rafael Salcedo together concluded that a “drug-induced psychosis” left Powers “unable to distinguish right from wrong with regard to his actions at the time of the alleged offense,” Richoux testified.
According to police, “Blue Dogs” weren’t all that Powers pilfered, however.
He has another pending charge in Jefferson Parish, where he is accused of sneaking into the back of a Kenner car wash he frequented, prying open an office door and stealing $250 in tips from a drawer, according to a police report.
That crime took place on May 11, a day after the Harrison Avenue art heist. A car wash cashier readily identified Powers in a video of the break-in. She said Powers previously had offered her rides, and she even provided deputies with a telephone number for him.
Powers faces a maximum of 12 years in prison if he’s convicted on the simple burglary charge from the Lakeview theft.
Police do not appear to suspect Powers in the April theft of a quickly recovered $250,000 “Blue Dog” painting from the Rodrigue Gallery on Royal Street.
Rodrigue, whose work is ubiquitous in the city, died in December 2013 at the age of 69.
Faia, Powers’ attorney, declined to comment on the case but said Powers’ interest in Rodrigue ended when he halted use of the drug. “Never before, never since,” she said.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.