September 24, 2008

Book thief gets jail

GREAT FALLS, Mont. - A 74-year-old man convicted of stealing thousands of rare books and documents from libraries across the West was sentenced last week to 2½ years in prison. James Brubaker of Great Falls pleaded guilty in June to possessing stolen property and transporting it across state lines.

He stole thousands of books, maps and other papers from about 100 libraries in Alberta and the United States, then sold the documents online from his Great Falls home. "We have 31 items missing from the University of Lethbridge library collection. That was a small number compared to some of the other thefts from other libraries," said Donna Mahmoud, associate librarian at the university, on Tuesday. "Those materials will in fact be returned to us when the case is over," she added.

In Great Falls, District Judge Sam Haddon also ordered Brubaker to pay $23,152 in restitution - in amounts ranging from $5 to the Bozeman Public Library to $21,600 to Western Washington University's library.

It was the staff at Western Washington that connected Brubaker to the stolen documents. WWU Librarian Robert Lopresti declined to express anger toward the thief but estimated his library staff has spent 1,000 hours dealing with the crimes. He also suggested Brubaker might not have been captured so quickly had it not been for one of his alert staff members.

"Julie Fitzgerald was the one who thought he was behaving oddly," Lopresti recalled. She walked past Brubaker several times but did not see the man actually steal anything, in February 2006. "That was on a Friday," Lopresti said. The next Monday, Fitzgerald checked books Brubaker had been handling. The books had pages missing, and she notified Lopresti.

Realizing that the thefts had likely been for re-sale, the librarian started researching eBay and discovered several of the missing pages were listed for sale under the seller name of montanasilver. Lopresti worked out an agreement with investigators to have third parties bid on and purchase two documents which were recognized as matching items stolen from the WWU library. The items were purchased and sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, where examination showed conclusively that the items purchased over eBay were taken from the books which belonged to WWU.

Among the WWU Library items recovered were at least a dozen colorful illustrations of fish sliced from two books published around the turn of the 20th century. Lopresti said his library will recover about 200 of the 648 documents stolen from inside 108 WWU library books, plus five additional books from the library. WWU's staff will need to painstakingly reattach documents to the books from which they were taken. "The value and usable life of the books has been reduced," Lopresti said.

"I think he could have found a better way to make money," Lopresti concluded.

James A. Wilson, special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Great Falls, said other stolen items included "some incredibly detailed maps." During the search, law enforcement discovered approximately one thousand books of which 832 were suspected of being stolen from libraries and universities. Hundreds of the books were marked with Dewey Decimal stickers (often used in libraries) attached to the spines, as well as bar code stickers, library stamps, and stickers indicating "not to be removed from library," as well as some books that had clearly been "cleaned" to remove evidence of library ownership.

"I hope that I can die with my family," Brubaker said at the sentencing hearing. "I hope I can try to put my life a little bit back together. But above all, I'm ready to take my punishment."

By The Associated Press With files from The Canadian Press; The Great Falls Tribune

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