Hilton turns out art for auction

2009-11-05T17:35:00Z Hilton turns out art for auctionJENNIFER McKEE Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
November 05, 2009 5:35 pm  • 

HELENA - Michael Hilton, the California con man whose shadowy company once aspired to run Hardin's never-opened jail, has turned over four pieces of art to be auctioned off to satisfy a $700,000 fraud judgment against him.

One piece, which Hilton described under oath Oct. 30 as a portrait by his own hand, turned out to be a framed poster of Catalina Island bearing a sticker from a popular Los Angeles furniture store.

Hilton, who just weeks ago rolled into Hardin in a Mercedes SUV touting plans of building a large private law enforcement training center with the help of a larger parent company he never identified, testified in a California court last week that the artworks are his only assets.

The Montenegro-born Hilton owes $1.1 million in fraud judgments in California, including $700,000 to contractor Rick Earnhart. Cris Armenta, Earnhart's lawyer, examined Hilton's assets under oath Oct. 30 in an effort to ascertain if he had anything of value that could be sold to pay back his debt.

Hilton testified he was broke and that his company, American Private Police Force, had an overdrawn bank account and had lost its office for failing to pay rent. His only assets, Hilton said, were four paintings, including two of his own works: One of Mother Theresa and a second portrait erroneously reported to be a self-portrait. He also said he had two silk-screened prints by California artist Rick Garcia; one was a tiger, the other a leopard.

Hilton failed to produce the works all week. On Thursday, Armenta sent a courier to his Santa Barbara home to fetch the artworks. They were as described, Armenta said, but the portrait of Hilton's own creation turned out to be a framed poster, evidently not painted by Hilton, which bore a sticker from a chain furniture store in Los Angeles called Z Gallerie.

"We don't know if he intended to give this to us, or it if was a mistake," Armenta said.

Armenta said she will now meet with Earnhart to determine if the works have any value and if they can be auctioned.

Hilton and his American Private Police Force were the latest chapter in the long story of Hardin's Two Rivers Detention Center. Built on speculation by the economic development arm of the city of Hardin, the 464-bed lock-up has never opened. The $27 million in revenue bonds sold to build the jail have since gone into default.

Two Rivers Authority leaders announced in September they had inked a deal with Hilton to open the jail. The welcome news quickly turned to suspicion after questions arose about Hilton's criminal past and he refused to answer questions about his young company's backing.

Media reports and Hilton's own testimony Friday revealed that many of the promises Hilton made to Hardin officials were shams.

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