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Drew University hopes to recover stolen items

 
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6:00 P.M. EST March 16, 2010

Dale Patterson 
describes the storage system at the United Methodist Commission on 
Archives and History in Madison, N.J.  A UMNS file photo by John C. 
Goodwin.
Dale Patterson describes the storage system at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History in Madison, N.J. A UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.
View in Photo Gallery

Officials at United Methodist-related Drew University hope to recover valuable historical documents—including original letters written by John and Charles Wesley—allegedly stolen by a student who tried to sell them.

William John Scott, a freshman from Longmeadow, Mass., was arraigned on theft charges March 15 in the U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., after the FBI found 11 of the stolen letters in his dorm room.

Among the missing items was a letter written in December 1766 by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to George Merryweather, a friend and supporter.

Also found in Scott’s room were letters from U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and letters to prominent Methodist Bishop Herbert George Welch from such notables as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek of China, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy.

“From our perspective, the fact that this was handled so swiftly and thoroughly by the FBI is one of the reasons we’re so optimistic we’ll be able to recover all the missing documents,” said David Muha, chief communications officer at Drew University.

The documents—including 20 Wesley letters valued at $5,000 to $12,000 each—were stolen from the United Methodist Archives Center on campus, where Scott had been part of a work-study program since last fall. The center includes the Methodist Library, the Wilson Reading Room and the archives of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

The Rev. Robert Williams, the commission’s top executive, said the missing items appeared to have been those owned by the university and not from the denomination’s collection. The commission does have copies of the stolen documents. “All of the Wesley letters that were taken had been scanned and are in our database,” he explained.

Contacted by dealer

The Rev. Robert 
Williams is the  top executive of the United Methodist Commission on 
Archives and History. A UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.
The Rev. Robert Williams is the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. A UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.
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Muha said university officials became aware of the theft on March 9 after being contacted by a dealer of historical documents in London. The dealer had receive a sale offer for about 10 of the Wesley letters, which arrived in Federal Express package with a return address of William Scott in Longmeadow, Mass.

The dealer’s representative became suspicious, according to the FBI complaint, “in part because these important and valuable documents were shipped in an unprofessional manner—two of the letters were damaged in transit.” The representative contacted the Archives Center because it is a “well-known repository of significant Wesley letters.”

On March 13, using a search warrant, the FBI found a folder in a dresser in a closet of Scott’s dorm room that contained six Wesley letters and about 11 other historical documents. He was arrested the following day and charged with theft of an object of cultural heritage from a museum.

Scott was paid by the university under the work-study program, but “because he was working on processing materials, he was under our supervision,” Williams said.

“I, along with our archival staff, was dismayed there would be such a betrayal of trust by someone who has worked with us through this school year.”

Scott had access to the secure storage room where the Wesley letters and other historical documents were kept because part of his job was to assist people doing research at the center.

First theft at center

Both Williams and Muha said the student work-study program at the archives center had operated successfully for more than 20 years without a theft.

Williams stressed that the theft should not diminish the good work of many other students, both past and present. “This is a partnership,” he added. “We work closely together, the two entities, to provide this wonderful research facility.”

Researchers and members of the public never have access to the areas where documents are stored, Williams pointed out. “Obviously, we are ready to review security issues for even our student employees.”

Drew University President Robert Weisbuch has asked Dean Andrew Scrimgeour to lead a review of university security procedures and report back by April 10, Muha said.

Scott, who was released on bail following his appearance before United States Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if convicted.

Drew is now trying to recover the stolen documents. The items found in Scott’s room remain on campus “locked in an evidence box,” Muha said, and the London dealer is returning the letters in his possession.

Maha said officials are tracking down other documents that were sold.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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