6 People Who Stole from the National Archives (Besides Nicolas Cage)

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The National Archives and Record Administration preserves billions of government and historical documents in facilities throughout the country, including 12 presidential libraries. As you might imagine, balancing the responsibility of keeping the documents secure while also making them increasingly accessible to the public is a challenge. No one, save for Nicolas Cage's character in National Treasure, has managed to smuggle the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, or Constitution out of the Charters of Freedom Rotunda at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, but other important documents and artifacts have been stolen. Here are six thieves who were caught.

1. Sandy Berger

berger.jpgBerger, who served as National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton, removed five copies of classified documents from the National Archives in 2003. The documents, stolen before Berger was scheduled to testify before the 9/11 Commission, were related to the Clinton administration's response to a terror plot during the 2000 millennium celebration. When first confronted by investigators, who were tipped off by National Archives staff members, Berger denied taking the documents. Following a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department, he admitted to smuggling the copies by tucking them into his socks. Berger was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and fined $50,000. He also lost his law license and was stripped of his security clearance for three years. While the incident tarnished Berger's legacy, it didn't ruin his political career. He recently served as a foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign.

2. Charles Merrill Mount

Mount, an art historian and portrait painter, was arrested in 1987 for stealing documents from the National Archives and Library of Congress. The 59-year-old sold 25 rare documents, including a 1904 letter signed by novelist Henry James, to a Boston bookstore owner for $20,000. The bookstore owner became suspicious and contacted the FBI when Mount offered to sell him a collection of Civil War documents, including three letters written by Abraham Lincoln, a few months later. Federal officials were waiting to arrest Mount when he delivered the documents, which had been stolen from the National Archives. FBI officials later uncovered a safety deposit box belonging to Mount filled with other stolen documents. Mount, who published biographies of John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet, and spent extensive time researching in the Library of Congress, was charged with stealing 400 documents and sentenced to five years in prison. U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson had some choice words for Mount, who maintained his innocence throughout the trial, at his sentencing in 1989: "Never in my experience have I met a more arrogant man with your intellect," Robinson bellowed. "What a miserable waste of a life." Mount died in 1995.

3. Howard Harner

Harner, a 68-year-old history buff and collector from Staunton, Va., was sentenced to two years in prison, two years probation, and fined $10,000 in 2005 after pleading guilty to stealing more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the National Archives over a six-year period. If not for the sharp eyes of Gettysburg historian Wayne E. Motts, Harner may have stolen much more. While browsing Civil War memorabilia on eBay, Motts came across an auction for a letter dated June 4, 1861. The letter was signed by Lewis A. Armistead, a U.S. Army officer at the time, who would rise to the rank of Confederate general and die at the Battle of Gettysburg. Motts, who had examined the very same letter at the National Archives 10 years earlier, led investigators to Harner. Among the documents Harner stole by concealing them in his clothing were letters signed by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, and George A. Custer. In some instances, Harner cut the signatures off of the documents and sold them separately.

4. Denning McTague

archive-theft.jpgUnpaid internships, while generally unglamorous, sometimes lead to bigger and better things. McTague's internship with the National Archives ended with a trip to prison. The 40-year-old McTague, who has master's degrees in history and library science, pleaded guilty to stealing 164 Civil War-era documents in 2006. The documents, which included an official announcement of Abraham Lincoln's death, were worth an estimated $30,000. As part of his internship, McTague was responsible for arranging and organizing documents in preparation for the National Archives' celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He used a legal pad and backpack to sneak documents out of the archives and put most of them up for sale on eBay. A Civil War book publisher and would-be bidder tipped off the authorities when he became suspicious of some of the items on the auction site. McTague, whose lawyer said he had stolen the documents after becoming mired in debt, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined $3,000.

5. Evelyn Lincoln

lincoln.jpgDuring her 11 years as personal secretary to John F. Kennedy, Lincoln amassed an enormous collection of Kennedy-related documents and artifacts. After Kennedy's assassination, Lincoln gave away or sold many of the items to Robert L. White, a cleaning-supply salesman who forged an unlikely friendship with Lincoln after writing a letter to her requesting the president's autograph. When Lincoln died in 1995, she left the majority of her remaining collection to White, who sold some of it at auction. This angered the Kennedy family and piqued the interest of archivists. The Kennedy estate had bequeathed all historically important presidential artifacts to the National Archives in 1965, and it was now clear that Lincoln had illegally kept many such items for herself. Following White's death in 2003, the National Archives and White's wife reached a settlement that returned all historically important items to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The items included a suede glove worn by Kennedy during his inaugural speech and a map of Cuba annotated by the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

6. Matt Whitmer

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While his classmates were admiring the original copy of the Declaration of Independence during an eighth-grade field trip to the National Archives Building in 1996, Matt Whitmer stole his first kiss with his girlfriend, Leigh Lacy. Last July, Whitmer took Lacy back to the same spot and got down on one knee. "It was 12 years ago we had our first kiss. I love you and want 12 million more. "¦Will you marry me?" he asked. National Archives staffers, who knew about the proposal ahead of time and had gathered in the rotunda, cheered after Lacy said yes.

March 11, 2009 - 4:02am
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