Library-to-eBay Thief Caught
Brubaker, alias montanasilver, had 100% positive feedback from his unknowing eBay customers.
By Michael Stillman
One of the more egregious cases of library theft/eBay selling came to a close in late June when James Brubaker of Great Falls, Montana, pled guilty to charges of possession and interstate transportation of stolen property. The 74-year-old Brubaker is scheduled to be sentenced on September 15 and could receive as many as ten years in prison as well as a $250,000 fine. Still unclear is the fate of Brubaker's wife Caroline who was charged with assisting her husband in selling the stolen items in May.
Brubaker's scheme began to unravel in early 2006 when Julie Fitzgerald, a librarian working in the government documents area of the Western Washington University Library, noticed a suspicious man looking over some books. After he left, Ms. Fitzgerald did some searching through the shelves and found many books had been retuned out of order. More ominously, she discovered many of the books were missing sections or pages. She reported what she found to librarian Robert Lopresti, who, in a fortuitous coincidence, also happens to be a mystery writer. They set about tracking down the thief.
Now where would you look for stolen items that are of reasonable, but not enormous value? You don't have to be a great sleuth to figure eBay is the place. They began searching for items missing from the library's collection, and found such items being offered by eBay seller "montanasilver." According to documents filed by the prosecution in court, montanasilver claimed the books were part of a "personal collection that had been put together for over 50 years." True enough, it's just that he wasn't the one who put the collection together.
The librarian-sleuths next decided to bid on items they believed to have been stolen from Western Washington. Lopresti had friends from the east coast place the orders so the Montana based eBay seller would not become suspicious. What they received from montanaseller matched the missing items from the library. Meanwhile, a search of university police records disclosed that Brubaker, alias "montanasilver," had received a parking ticket at a lot near the library on the date in question. However, in an article written on his Criminal Brief website, Lopresti reported that the small value of the items made it hard to seriously interest law enforcement. Still, the librarians suspected that it was likely the thief had visited other libraries as well. Eventually, they discovered that several governmental agencies had investigated Brubaker in the past, but never had enough evidence to charge him with anything. Now they had sufficient grounds to issue a search warrant of Brubaker's home.
What the police found when they searched Brubaker's house went far beyond the walls of the Western Washington Library. This is why this is such a large case. The charges state that of the approximately 1,000 books the police found in Brubaker's house, 832 were believed to have been stolen. Of these, 750 had library markings on them. There are believed to have been as many as 109 separate victim libraries, 51 of them so far confirmed. Victimized libraries have been identified in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Twelve libraries in Montana have been identified, along with another three from Alberta, Canada.
Library-to-eBay Thief Caught
The number of libraries seems astonishing, but probably necessary to maintain Brubaker's large eBay business. The Great Falls Police determined that on December 12, 2007, montanasilver had 550 items listed for sale, including 300 original maps and lithographs. He had listed over 1,100 items in the previous 30 days. In addition to the books, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of separate maps and plates were found in Brubaker's possession, along with tools such as razors, magnets used to de-magnetize books to evade security detectors, chemicals to remove identifying codes on books, and the like. From Western Washington University's library alone, some 648 pages of maps and prints removed from 108 government reports were discovered in Brubaker's possession.
According to the government, when the search warrant was presented to Brubaker, he stated, "Whatever you think you will find ... and, I'm not saying I did anything wrong ... but, whatever you find in this search, my wife ... only helped me ship some items and with the listings and had nothing to do with obtaining the items..." He also admitted going to Western Washington University, which was backed up not only by his parking ticket, but parking permits he purchased, restaurant and hotel receipts.
Asked for an estimate of damages to the books he defaced, the Western Washington librarians gave a conservative estimate of $21,600. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The stolen books have been valued at $220,000, but that does not include volumes damaged by Brubaker's razor, which could raise the total to $500,000.
This all brings us back to the vexing issue of library security. Much has been done along these lines in recent years, but this has mainly been focused on rare book rooms and the books and maps worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Providing this type of security to standard libraries, with books that are collectible but not of extraordinary value, can be very costly, not to mention the inconvenience. Librarians, not usually trained in criminal investigative techniques, may have a hard time matching a skilled pilferer like Brubaker. Indeed, he got away with his thefts and amputations at over 100 libraries before finally being caught. Perhaps if he were not quite so greedy, nor quite so overconfident, he might still be free. Brubaker felt secure enough to leave a record of his being at the library, and put their material up for sale on the most obvious of venues - eBay. He might well have gotten away with the Western Washington theft if his overconfidence did not display itself in sheer laziness. After drawing some attention through numerous furtive glances when the librarian approached, Brubaker made the fatal error of tossing the books he sliced haphazardly back on the wrong shelves. This enabled librarian Fitzgerald to observe which books he had handled, and discover that pages had been excised from them. That set the librarians' detective work in action, and ended an enormous series of thefts that, for the most part, had gone unnoticed. Were it not for their detective work, most of the thefts might never have been noticed. That's a sobering thought.