The man who famously ripped a multimillion-dollar painting from a gallery wall tells of suing prison authorities, a lost daughter and his plan to become the first pensioner to win a Superbike race. Phil Taylor reports.

Ricardo Romanov has burned through several names in his 68 years. He was Ricardo Sannd in 1998 when he rode up to the Auckland Art Gallery on a powerful motorcycle wearing a black wig and toting a sawn-off shotgun, and made off with a painting by 19th century French artist James Tissot.

Ricardo Genovese (the name of a New York mafia family) is another name he has used. Romanov is the surname of his late wife, Elena, a Russian he married in Singapore but who was never allowed to emigrate to New Zealand.

He was born Anthony Ricardo Urry, to Ruth and Colin Urry, the son of a World War II motorcycle dispatch rider.

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All up he has spent more than half of his adult life in jail. When he was last locked up, the judge said: "You are 65 … and you continue and persist in offending."

So why should anyone give him the time of day?

Because, says Romanov, who likes his coffee loaded with sugar, taxpayers need to know why their money is going to be dished out to him.

Romanov is suing Corrections, the Parole Board and the Attorney General. He talks at length and in detail about his causes of action. In brief, he is seeking a court declaration that he was unlawfully kept in prison long beyond his release date. All up, 10 years more, he claims.

He wants compensation and expects his case to be heard in the middle of this year.

Susan Gray of Blackstone Chambers has confirmed she is acting for Romanov but says she has not had time to come to grips with his case as she has only this week received confirmation that she has been assigned as his legal provider.

She says the case is expected to be heard in April.

The Tissot painting
The Tissot painting "Still on top" after it was restored at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2001.

Romanov has also applied for an ex-gratia payment specifically relating to several years served for the theft of a valuable Ducati motorcycle. His conviction for that crime was quashed on appeal last year.

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And he has filed private prosecutions against certain officials.

"Yes," says Romanov, who was released from jail without conditions last September, "I've had a busy year."

When he met the Weekend Herald he had a Site Safe ticket enabling him to work in construction and has since started at an inner city site.

Why not draw a line under his jail time and move on?

He can't. "This was a deliberate, orchestrated campaign to incarcerate me as long as possible. I'm a criminal, I understand that. But I've done my time. All I wanted was a proper management of my sentence."

When there is injustice by the people who administer the rules, the public should take note, he says.

A spokeswoman told the Weekend Herald that Corrections is defending the matter but will not comment further as it is before the courts.

Statutes, dates and details trip off Romanov's tongue. He's tense, his eyes seem to burn with a fury. He claims there was an agenda to keep him in jail as long as possible. "You see why I might be a little bit pissed?" he says.

And then he talks about his daughter, who was adopted out.

"My daughter is 44 now and won't talk to me because of lots of stuff. It's all mixed up. When there is no closure, it's like a tumbleweed. Nothing can be harnessed."

He conflates his grievance with Corrections with the lost relationship. He hopes winning his court case may, somehow, help him connect with his daughter.

Career criminal Ricardo Romanov in January 2019. Photo / Phil Taylor
Career criminal Ricardo Romanov in January 2019. Photo / Phil Taylor

Uncomfortable questions gain blunt unvarnished answers.

He never admitted any of his crimes. In some cases it would incriminate others but it's a mindset, he says. "You just don't do it. Let them work for their money … I don't know how to dress it up. I'm simply stating how it is. I don't want to lie about it."

It costs taxpayers more than $100,000 per year to keep a prisoner. Of the burden he's been, he says, "All I can say, is yes that's right, I haven't contributed, but I'll tell you something I am doing …"

And he goes on to talk about his unfulfilled ambition as a motorcycle racer and his plan to become the oldest person - possibly in the world - to win a Superbike race.

He names successful contemporaries he raced and occasionally beat decades ago, including Graeme Crosby, whose international wins include Imola 200, Daytona 200 and the Isle of Man TT.

Romanov claims he didn't get the breaks.

His most famous ride was a high-speed getaway through Auckland city streets with a stolen painting and a sawn-off shotgun.

Detective Sergeant David French with the wig and sawn-off shotgun used in the robbery of Tissot's Over the Top.
Detective Sergeant David French with the wig and sawn-off shotgun used in the robbery of Tissot's Over the Top.

Romanov plans to race the domestic Superbike (powerful, modified production machines) circuit on a new Ducati he plans to buy with money he is a little vague about the origin of.

"That's maybe not contributing to society but it is making a positive determination … and I know I've got the ability. It's a phenomenon with me because I haven't proved the point."

"All I want to do is win a couple of New Zealand Superbike races, prove I can do it."

It would be something notable to point to that took commitment and skill and didn't involve crime, he says.

He stands at 172cm and is lean as a whippet. He reckons his reactions remain sharp. "I can still do 100 press ups at a time and 25 one-arm press ups, ok, and do them easily. I'm not supposed to do that at 68 years old."

He talks about his father, a motorcycle dispatch rider for Bernard Freyberg, and says, "It's in the blood".

But each piece of his story somehow comes back to his isolation.

His father, a Sicilian, was an orphan. It is thought he was born in 1918 but there is no document to prove it.

Police mugshot of Ricardo Romanov aka Ricardo Sannd aka Ricardo Genovese in February 2006.
Police mugshot of Ricardo Romanov aka Ricardo Sannd aka Ricardo Genovese in February 2006.

"For me, there is another generation that is completely vacated, and largely on the decisions I have made. That is where the guilt is."

His daughter doesn't wish to know him, his wife and mother died while he was in prison. He hasn't spoken to his three brothers in decades.

He describes motorcycle racing as the "most selfish, individualist thing in the world".

At least it was for him. Hell bent on getting to elite class, he neglected his relationship with the mother of his daughter. Crime paid the bills.

"Money was too easy over in Aussie [where he lived for a time]. We did stick-ups and that."

Three decades behind bars. His loneliness. Not so easy money?

"Hindsight, yeah, there's a degree of that."

He would have kept his daughter, he says. "Everything from there would have been ok, because when you have got a dependent … you can't go around doing irresponsible things."

It's not on the cards but he says a meeting with his daughter would be "Shangri-La".

"In the end, no point having a bag full of money at the end of the bed - honest money I mean - and dying alone."

"No man's an island. They say that don't they?"

Romanov's rap sheet

• 1984 Committed armed robbery, stealing $300,000 from a North Shore supermarket.

• 1993: Another armed robbery

• 1998: Stole a James Tissot 1874 painting, Over the Top, in armed raid. Was arrested after painting found under his bed.

• 2012: Released from jail and recalled for breach of bail conditions.

• 2013: Charged with the theft of a Ducati. Conviction overturned on appeal.

• 2018: Released from jail without conditions.