National Treasure at the National Archives?
Published: July 12, 2019 by Kenna Wulker
We’ve all seen it: Nicholas Cage slyly stealing the Declaration of Independence to find hidden treasure map clues while in a twisted Robin Hood-type act, protecting the Declaration from falling into the hands of the rebel treasure hunters. While National Treasure presents a dramatic and over-exaggerated representation of a theft of great proportions, thefts similar can and have occurred, even with some of America’s most precious and prized documents.
A Historical Timeline of Notable Thefts
In August of 1962, Robert Murphy visited the National Archives and Records Service (NARS), where he used the research room to steal documents from the Department of Justice, the War and Navy Departments, and Bureau of Indian Affairs, and several other federal records. He and his wife, Elizabeth Murphy, transported the stolen archives from Cincinnati to Detroit and were given a ten year prison sentence for their crimes.
In 1987, Charles Mount was indicted for stealing documents from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and Library of Congress. He had tried to sell his stolen items, including Civil War documents and several letters written by Abraham Lincoln to an owner of a Boston bookstore; they were skeptical and contacted the FBI. Mount was charged with stealing 400 documents and ultimately sentenced to five years in prison.
Another notable theft was committed by Shawn Aubitz, a curator with NARA-Archival Operations Branch-Philadelphia between the late 1990s and early 2000s. He stole numerous documents and photos, including signed presidential pardons. The crimes were discovered in March 2000 by a National Park Service employee who was browsing eBay. Aubitz was in prison for 21 months and owed more than $73,000 in restitution.
In 2003, the former National Security Adviser under the Clinton Administration, Sandy Berger, stole documents from the National Archives on multiple occasions. He did so by folding the documents and concealing them in his clothes. Berger was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, probation, and a fine of $50,000, among other fines.
Indicted in 2005, Howard Harner had been stealing Civil War-era documents from NARA over a six year stint. It was discovered after NARA had been given a tip by a previous researcher who noticed one of the letters he examined was for sale on eBay. Harner stole documents signed by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and more. He was sentenced to two years in prison, two years probation, and a $10,000 fine.
An unpaid intern at the National Archives, Denning McTague, stole over 150 documents from the Civil War era in 2006. He had been arranging the collection in anticipation of NARA’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. McTague was sentenced to 15 months in prison and given a fine of $3,000.
In 2011, a donor recognized some items he had donated to NARA were for sale on eBay. It was then discovered that Les Waffen, an employee of NARA for 40 years, had stolen nearly 1000 items over his career. He was charged with embezzling U.S. property and sentenced in 2012 to 18 months in prison and two years of supervised release.
In 2011, Barry Landau and accomplice Jason Savedoff were arrested under suspicion of theft. It was discovered via search warrant of Landau’s apartment, nearly 10,000 historical documents which were sent to NARA for analysis. Included in these items were reading copies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s that contained his edits, notes, and original signature. Savedoff served 366 days in prison, while Landau was sentenced to seven years.
Antonin DeHays pleaded guilty to theft of historical items from NARA in 2018. Among the items he stole were dog tags, over 100 other WWII records, identification cards, personal letters, photographs, pieces of downed U.S. aircraft, and more. DeHays was sentenced to 364 days in prison and three years of probation. He was also ordered to do 100 hours of community service and pay nearly $44,000 in restitution to the buyers of the stolen goods.
While thefts are an unfortunate aspect of archival history, NARA and other repositories are able to learn from these experiences. They are able to tighten security procedures, implement additional checks and balances and further vet employees’ backgrounds. Some of the material stolen is able to be recovered, while others are not. If you’d like to help NARA search for missing documents, please click here.