When Kathryn French ’03 first heard of last summer’s multimillion-dollar thefts from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, she did not need a police report to identify the only suspect in the case.
“I thought it was Ben Johnson,” French said of her initial reaction when told about the incidents. French worked alongside Johnson in Beinecke Library’s Public Services department last summer.
Johnson, 21, of Hamden, is alleged to have stolen over $1.5 million in historical artifacts from Beinecke Library when he was an employee there over the summer, according to a Yale Police affidavit.
The former University of Wisconsin at Madison student pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of first-degree larceny and 11 counts of first-degree criminal mischief and could face more than 250 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
French said that during one of their few conversations, she asked Johnson why he chose to work at Beinecke Library instead of at the Yale Bookstore, where he had worked previously.
“Because it offers a bigger payoff,” French said he replied.
Colleagues at Beinecke Library and his roommates from Wisconsin all described Johnson, an art history major, as a very quiet person, someone who had trouble socializing and who kept to himself most of the time.
“He was always very hard to talk to,” said Aaron Lawrence, Johnson’s roommate during his first semester at Wisconsin.
But Johnson was very active in extracurriculars at Wisconsin. Gina Casalegno, the residential life counselor for Bradley Hall, Johnson’s dormitory building, said he wrote articles for the Bradley Times, the dorm’s newspaper.
Blake Klinkner, who roomed with Johnson last spring, said Johnson worked at a telemarketing firm soliciting donations from Wisconsin alumni. Klinkner also said Johnson was very reserved and rarely discussed more than exams or schoolwork.
“His social skills were severely stunted,” Lawrence said. “He didn’t seem to make friends easily.”
In fact, Johnson may not have made any friends at all. Lawrence said he could not recall anyone visiting Johnson in their dormitory room. Instead, Johnson spent a significant amount of time studying and reading quietly, Lawrence said.
Johnson’s reading material caught Lawrence’s eye one of the first days they were rooming together. Lawrence said he went into Johnson’s room to talk about the courses they were taking and spotted books on Johnson’s shelf which were apparently about money laundering and safecracking.
Klinkner said he noticed similar books and asked Johnson about them. While Klinkner did not give a second thought to Johnson’s reply at the time, he said Johnson’s response could be relevant to the Beinecke thefts.
“He told me that he thought about one day working security for an art museum,” Klinkner said. “I asked him about the books on safecracking, and he said ‘Maybe I could couple it with my major.'”
Lawrence said he thinks that if Johnson committed the crimes, he did so for attention. But Penn Rhodeen, Johnson’s attorney, said that Johnson has grappled with “long-standing mental health issues” for several years, and that understanding these issues will help put the case in its proper context.
Neither Johnson nor his parents returned repeated phone messages left over the past week.
Rhodeen said a pretrial hearing is scheduled for Jan. 3, though he said he is not sure how much progress will be made at this stage in the case.
Rhodeen said Johnson’s parents are very close to their son and are offering Johnson nothing but support.
“They love him very much,” Rhodeen said. “They’re now concerned that he will handle the situation appropriately.”