The mystery of La Contessa - Page 2

A galleon destroyed by fire. A priceless missing statue. Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the San Francisco underground.
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Although she owned the Black Rock Salloon (which she spelled "like a drunk would say it" and later sold to the Burning Man organization), Grant said she was initially ostracized by many of the locals for supporting the event.

While La Contessa's creator, Simon Cheffins (who also founded Extra Action), fruitlessly looked for land that might permanently house the galleon, it sat at the ranch, battened down against the elements and interlopers. When a grease fire destroyed Grant's ranch house last year, sending her into the nearby town of Gerlach, La Contessa had nobody to watch over her.

A QUESTION OF INTENT

Stewart is one of the biggest property owners in the region. In addition to possessing land and water rights that would be lucrative in any development project, he owns Orient Farms, Empire Farms, and a four-megawatt geothermal power plant.

He leased Grant Ranch (also known as Lawson Ranch) for five years before buying it in October 2005; in that transaction he gave Grant a lifelong lease of her house, a provision she believed also applied to the art pieces she stored within sight of her home.

That was before the fire, which police say Stewart set Dec. 5, 2006, around noon.

"My understanding was it was OK to park it there. But I guess he had it burned down," Grant told the Guardian. "As far as I'm concerned, it was arson."

Washoe County sheriff's deputy Tracy Bloom also told the Guardian that he considers the fire to be third-degree arson, which is punishable by one to six years in prison under Nevada law. Yet Bloom said he believes Stewart thought he had a right to burn and remove the seemingly abandoned vehicle and therefore lacks the criminal intent needed to have charges brought against him.

"According to him, they had attempted to contact the owner to no avail, so he decided to set it on fire," Bloom told us.

He wrote in his police report, "I asked Stewart if he was the one that set the La Contessa on fire and he said, 'YES, I DID.' I asked him why he decided to burn it. Stewart said, 'Because the property was abandoned and left there' and 'I was forced to clean it up.' "

The report indicates that Bloom, who lives in Gerlach, helped organize a community cleanup at that time, in which a scrap dealer named Stan Leavers was removing old cars and other junk. "Stewart said that was the biggest reason for burning the La Contessa so that it could be removed by Leavers," Bloom wrote. Nonetheless, he told us that didn't give Stewart the right to burn the artwork.

"I told him, 'You can't just do that, and if I found any intent or malice on this, you're going to jail,' " Bloom told us. "But I don't believe there was any malicious intent. If I felt like there was any malicious intent, I would have arrested him right there. I thought that boat was really cool. It was one of the coolest things out there."

Many Burners who live in Gerlach — a town with a population of a few hundred people that happens to be the nearest civilization to Burning Man's summer festival site — have a hard time believing Stewart made an innocent mistake. "I think it was a malicious arson," Caleb Schaber, also known as Shooter, told the Guardian. "He's the guy who tried to shut down Burning Man, and he associated La Contessa with Burning Man."

Stewart refused to comment for this story, referring questions to his lawyers at the Reno firm of Robison, Belaustegi, Sharp, and Low.

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