Pay Dirt in Montana

A librarian’s sleuthing turns up a crime with at least 100 victims

After a thief ripped 648 pages of historic maps, lithographs and other items from books at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham in February 2006, librarian Rob Lopresti kept an eye on eBay, hoping to spot the stolen items as they were fenced. And spot some he did. His sleuthing, investigators say, helped expose a lucrative history-for-sale scheme that might have more victims than any in recent years.

On December 12, 2007, law enforcement officers used a warrant to search a house in Great Falls, Montana, where they discovered roughly 1,000 books from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries that had been taken from at least 100 university and local libraries across the country, according to Great Falls detective Bruce McDermott. Besides the books, he says, they found some 20,000 individual pages of maps and other documents, each apparently ripped from a book.

In contrast, the thief in the most publicized recent rare-documents case, map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III, stole from only half a dozen libraries before he was caught in 2005. And Gilbert Bland, a map dealer whose crimes in the 1990s became the subject of a book titled The Island of Lost Maps, struck only 19 libraries.

In the Montana case, McDermott says, records at the house suggest that the enterprise completed more than 9,000 eBay deals in 2007 alone, grossing almost $500,000. On March 27, federal agents arrested James Lyman Brubaker, 73, of Great Falls, and charged him with transporting stolen property across state lines. According to an affidavit in the case, among the items found at Brubaker's house were magnets apparently used to deactivate security strips, which libraries place in books to trigger an alarm if a volume has not been properly checked out. The affidavit also said that officers found "paints, adhesive remover, and other items believed to be used to remove library identification markings from books."

The breakthrough in Great Falls came after Lopresti used a feature on eBay that alerted him whenever an item that contained certain key words was offered for sale. He and his staff had chosen about 40 such terms because various stolen pages contained them. Within a month, Lopresti says, it was apparent that an eBay seller in Montana had many pages similar to those taken from WWU.

Eventually, Lopresti says, he turned to two friends on the East Coast to act as buyers, because the seller might be leery about bids coming from Washington State. The friends won the bidding for two suspicious pages, and in September 2006, the state crime lab matched their paper and tear marks with torn pages in WWU books.

More than a year passed, however, before authorities obtained the search warrant. Sgt. Bianca L. Smith of the WWU police attributes the delay in part to the complexity of a case involving two states, Washington and Montana, and the federal government. She notes, too, that no one was in physical danger. During the long wait, Lopresti says, he kept seeing items sold on eBay that might have belonged to WWU. "I was going crazy," he says.

Identifying the legitimate owners of the books found at the Great Falls house should not be difficult, because most contain library stamps or catalog numbers. But matching the thousands of individual pages with libraries might prove impossible, because a single map or photo ripped from a volume rarely has marks identifying where it came from.

A page could be from any existing copy of a book, and there might be many copies around the world.

Meanwhile, Lopresti and WWU have dramatically stepped up security, so that history cannot walk out the door again.

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