A former employee at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library who pleaded guilty to looting over $2.5 million in historic artifacts and documents from the library’s collection began serving his prison term this summer.
Benjamin Johnson, 22, of Hamden, pleaded guilty in April to three counts each of first-degree larceny and criminal mischief to cover the damage inflicted upon the world renowned historical collection. He was recently sentenced to eight years in prison, suspended after 15 months, and a five-year probation term.
The former University of Wisconsin-Madison student has been in prison since June 18, and the suspension clause in the sentence means he could be out on probation as early as next September.
While working part-time in Beinecke’s Public Services Department during the summer of 2001, Johnson stole a treasure trove of documents, including three letters from George Washington and early copies of famous American novels such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Moby-Dick,” according to a Yale Police Department affidavit. Police said he then snipped the famous signatures from the documents and sold the autographs out of his Madison dormitory room.
Shortly after Johnson began selling the documents, an autograph dealer doing business with Johnson suspected foul play. She said she thought some of the signatures she obtained through Johnson were too well-preserved to have come from someone’s personal collection. They were museum quality, not hobby shop.
The dealer alerted authorities in Madison who then teamed with Yale police detectives to search his dorm room and his parents’ Hamden home. Police uncovered the vast store of rare documents as well as a bank account in Johnson’s name containing $52,000 — money detectives said they believed may have been the fruits of Johnson’s autograph peddling.
As part of Johnson’s plea agreement, he must repay Yale and the individuals who purchased his stolen signatures as fully as possible. His attorney, Penn Rhodeen, said this part of the deal meshed very well with Johnson’s eagerness to own up to his actions.
“Ben made it clear to me that he wants to work very hard to make things as right as they can be,” Rhodeen said. “He has expressed to me and to the court his desire to take responsibility for what he has done.”
Rhodeen added that this case served as a wake up call for Johnson, who was neglecting a treatment regimen for a “longstanding mental disorder” while he committed his crimes. Interestingly, Rhodeen said this ordeal is also a reality check for the University.
“It shows that everybody can do better. Ben, of course, with his actions, and Yale with its security,” he said.
Despite the irreparable damage done to Yale’s historical holdings, prosecutors and University officials said they thought Johnson’s punishment was fair.
“I was satisfied,” Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney John Waddock said. “This result accomplishes everything the state was looking for.”
Yale spokesman Tom Conroy agreed.
“It was a very unfortunate incident, but we feel the outcome was reasonable and just,” he said. “We’re not the law; we’re not the prosecutor; we’re a crime victim.”