Washington Librarian Helps Nab Montana Library Thief

Washington Librarian Helps Nab Montana Library Thief

A Great Falls, Montana, man was arrested March 27 and charged with interstate transportation of stolen goods in relation to the theft in February 2006 of at least 648 maps found on his property that were stolen from some 100 books in the Congressional Serial Set owned by Western Washington University’s Wilson Library in Bellingham. According to a March 27 statement from the FBI’s Salt Lake City bureau, the arrest of James L. Brubaker, 73, came some 14 weeks after federal agents and the Great Falls Police Department presented a court order to search Brubaker’s property and found some 1,000 books, most of which bore library markings from at least 100 academic and public-library collections; thousands of unmarked lithographs, maps, and other types of loose pages, some of which were in envelopes ready for sale; and such items as a magnet allegedly used to bypass library security devices, two razor knives, and adhesive remover.

Authorities have named publicly only WWU as having been robbed because it is the only institution to come forward during the investigation. In fact, it was WWU government information librarian Robert Lopresti who jump-started the case two years earlier by notifying campus police that the library had been robbed and who actively pursued leads.

Emphasizing that WWU has since tightened security, Lopresti admitted to American Libraries that he feels frustrated by the lack of response from colleagues to his calls at a panel presentation at the 2007 ALA Annual Conference as well as on map specialists’ discussion lists that libraries missing materials share information with law enforcement. His plea did catch the attention of writer Steve Twomey, whose account of the case appears in the April 2008 Smithsonian Magazine.

Lopresti told AL that the Friday before President’s Day 2006, government documents colleague Julie Fitzgerald noticed a non-WWU patron acting suspiciously in that he was “being very careful to notice who was around him”; however, Fitzgerald was unable to confront him because he did not display any objectionable behavior. After the holiday weekend, Fitzgerald inspected the area where the man had been; Lopresti said she found “about a dozen books out of order, some of them upside down on the shelves, and with pages sliced out of them.”

They reported the discovery to university security and soon Lopresti initiated an extended Ebay search for some 40 terms related to maps known to be stolen from WWU; “within a month, it became obvious that a store on Ebay called Montanasilver had more pages that looked like matches than the rest of Ebay put together,” Lopresti explained. Montanasilver listed the owner as James L. Brubaker.

By September 2006, the Washington state crime lab had confirmed that several maps Lopresti had arranged to buy from Brubaker through an intermediary were sliced from WWU holdings. However, it took almost a year before law enforcement became actively involved in the “wheelbarrow of evidence” WWU had amassed, Lopresti told AL, because investigators believed at first that “there was only one victim” that had lost “relatively low-value maps” being sold for an average of only $30 apiece.

Among the items recovered from Brubaker’s property are approximately 250 rare books, including a copy of Paradise Lost and one of the 300 numbered copies of Lewis and Clark’s journals, Lopresti said, noting that the libraries where those items belong are easy enough to ascertain. “But we’ve got 20,000 pages with no identifying marks,” he emphasized, adding that he has been urging the Great Falls police to hire a retired map librarian on a temporary basis to sort the recovered pages, “because you actually need somebody who knows the stuff.”

Eventually, investigators may also benefit from the development of a stolen map database being funded by the International Antiquarian Mapsellers Association. The group has slated mid-April to have a working prototype available, complete with “a mechanism for third party contact for those requiring anonymity.”

Posted on April 1, 2008. Discuss.