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NYC apt. super gets prison for looting residents

In this undated photo provided Robert Wittman Inc., a poster showing the stolen paintings of artist Shirley West is shown. Mihaly "Mike" Kovacsezics, a New York City building superintendent who exploited residents' trust to steal thousands of dollars' wor
In this undated photo provided Robert Wittman Inc., a poster showing the stolen paintings of artist Shirley West is shown. Mihaly "Mike" Kovacsezics, a New York City building superintendent who exploited residents' trust to steal thousands of dollars' worth of art and jewelry, stole the paintings from that late artist’s niece, Roxanne West.
Robert Wittman Inc, Kevin Wittman, Associated Press

NEW YORK — The superintendent became an indispensable and trusted fixture in a loft apartment building, so much a part of residents' lives that he was asked to be there when a priest administered last rites to one of them.

But Mihaly "Mike" Kovacsezics ultimately exploited residents' regard for him to steal thousands of dollars' worth of art and jewelry from them. Kovacsezics was sentenced Tuesday to three to nine years in prison as one victim pleaded tearfully for him to reveal what had become of a trove of work by her artist aunt.

"For Mike to steal from my aunt and me is a complete betrayal. It's something I will never get over," said the niece, Roxane West.

"He was almost like family," she said.

Kovacsezics, who pleaded guilty in February to grand larceny, declined to speak at his sentencing. He sat impassively as West reflected on being ripped off by a man she used to call the "super 'super.'"

Kovacsezics "is a con man who befriended people in order to steal from them," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement. "His scheming should remind us how susceptible we all are, even in our inner circles, to those intent on committing crimes for their own profit."

A Hungarian immigrant, Kovacsezics, 62 (whose name is pronounced mih-HAY'-lee kuh-VOSH'-oh-vitch), worked for several years at the loft building, in Manhattan's sleek Tribeca neighborhood, where artist Shirley Almeda West had an apartment and a separate studio. The Texas-born Abstract Expressionist's work included large outdoor sculptures and energetic canvases, which often feature robust, rolling brushstrokes, according to a short biography on the website of the Chelsea Art Museum, which showed a retrospective of her work in 2009.

Kovacsezics was the person Roxane West would call to check on her ailing aunt when she couldn't get there immediately. He was the person who was with her when her aunt was given the final sacrament, the person with whom she spent her aunt's birthday after the older woman died in June 2010, said the niece, who lives in New York and Dallas.

But he was also a thief with a record that dates back to 1984 and includes convictions or guilty pleas in New York and Florida, according to Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon.

In the latest case, Kovacsezics ultimately admitted stealing West's artwork, plus more than $23,000 in jewelry from another resident while overseeing a delivery to the person's apartment.

He also pleaded guilty to taking about $60,000 in gems from a friend. He'd agreed to sell them, but the friend never ended up getting any money or getting the baubles back, prosecutors said.

Kovacsezics was arrested in August at John F. Kennedy International Airport, trying to board a plane bound for Germany. He had disappeared in October 2010, around the time Roxane West discovered her aunt's works were missing. She had inherited them and her aunt's apartment.

Kovacsezics had said he'd moved about 450 of her aunt's paintings and many more drawings to a locked room in the building's basement, but she found it empty, she said.

While the artist rarely sold her work and wasn't concerned with its potential price, her niece said, it was a devastating personal loss. Her aunt was her best friend.

"I beg that you tell me where my paintings are so I can continue to do what I promised Shirley I would do, to promote her work," West told Kovacsezics. "Please, please, give Shirley's work back."

West said she had hired private detectives and spent about $100,000 trying to find her aunt's artworks. The efforts continue, said Robert K. Wittman, an art-security consultant who is working with her.

Follow Jennifer Peltz at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz