Local woman exonerated in ivory theft case

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Three years and a month ago, life changed for Patricia DiCoste.

"It was around nine in the morning on April 5, and I saw police cars in front of my house. I answered the door and they told me to come out."

Moments later, the Spanish tutor and translation business owner was in handcuffs, in custody of Houston police and Homeland Security agents.

"I've never even had a traffic ticket," she said, still in tears, three years later.

DiCoste inherited hundreds of pieces of ivory from her late mother, enough to once fill two rooms in her mother's home.

DiCoste had no sentimental ties to the carvings, but she wanted to pay for her daughter's graduate school tuition. She decided to put them up for auction at a Houston gallery. They didn't sell.

Later, she went to the auction house, where she says she was given three boxes of her ivory carvings. She then took the boxes, unopened, to a consignment store.

"That's where a bargain hunter saw the ivory," said her attorney, Paul Nugent. "The tags from the auction house were still on the carvings. That person called the auction house, which called Homeland Security, to report the ivory had been stolen."

Two months later, the theft charge against Patricia DiCoste was dropped. In recent weeks, she reached a settlement with the auction house, the terms of which were sealed.

Even so, Nugent said, "her reputation has suffered. People remember her as the ivory thief. She's 100% innocent and the person who called Homeland Security has acknowledged she's innocent."

She has the ivory in boxes to remind her of how quickly life can change. "At this point, I'm scared to try to sell them again," she said. She also has folders of paperwork to document that her mother purchased the items, before there was a ban on the import of ivory products to the US.

The worst reminder, she says, is the internet. A simple search of her name produces news stories about the case.

Only one calls the arrest the result of a "mixup."

Some of the clients she had before the incident have yet to return. Now she's trying to restore her name and reputation.

"I would like to turn the clock back and get my life back," she said.

For Nugent, it is also a reminder. "People are innocent until they're proven guilty. You need to remember that when you read a headline about an arrest."
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