Spanish police probe big burglary at convent

Madrid, Spain - Plastic bags stuffed with a huge amount of cash were stolen from a Spanish convent, whose cloistered nuns include one who is a well-paid artist, and a judge will probe the possibility of tax evasion, police said Wednesday.

A lawyer for the small community of mostly elderly Cistercian nuns denied any wrongdoing.

The money was stored in a closet of the convent in the northeastern city of Zaragoza and much of it was in 500-euro notes (each note equivalent to about $700), a National Police official said. Another police official said the nuns first reported euro1.5 million ($2 million) euros were stolen Feb. 28, then lowered the figure to euro400,000 ($556,000). Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department rules.

Jesus Garcia Huici, a lawyer hired by the nuns, said the amount stolen was in fact just over euro400,000 and this is what the nuns reported from the outset.

Garcia Huici said the money came from work the nuns do and pay taxes on: bookbinding of old documents and restoration of antique books, and paintings by Isabel Guerra, the sister known in the Spanish media as the "painting nun."

The lawyer said the nuns have lots of daily expenses like taking care of sick sisters at the convent and giving out alms to poor people in Zaragoza and "that is how much money they had on hand at that time."

"It is a question of each person having the money they think they need. I have not asked for any explanation," the lawyer said.

Sister Isabel is well-known in Spanish art circles for realist-style portraits and still-life paintings. The newspapers El Pais and El Mundo both reported Tuesday that works of her have sold for as much as euro40,000 (around $55,000).

She hardly ever paints religious themes but once said she tries to "open windows through which can enter a reflection of that light which is love, truth and also beauty," El Mundo said.

No one answered the phone at the convent.

Galeria Sokoa in Madrid, where the nun used to show her work until the management of the gallery changed a few years ago, called her a major figure in Spanish art and said her shows were hugely popular.

Garcia Huici said the convent is in a lower middle class neighborhood of Zaragoza and that whoever stole the money forced open three doors and the closet where the money was hidden in order to get to the cash.

Police say they are focusing on who stole the money while an investigating magistrate will look into whether the presence of so much cash might warrant tax evasion charges.

The lawyer said the nuns have been questioned by police as crime victims, not suspected tax cheats.

"They are registered with tax authorities and file their returns regularly," Garcia Huici said.