BALTIMORE — A presidential historian's assistant pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring to steal valuable documents signed by Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte and other historic figures from both sides of the Atlantic.
Jason Savedoff, 24, of New York City, admits he worked with historian Barry Landau since late last year to steal cultural heritage items from museums throughout the Northeast, including historical societies in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Connecticut and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, part of the National Archives.
Savedoff said little during the plea hearing other than his polite responses to U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake's questions.
The pair compiled lists of historical and famous figures, often noting the market value of documents signed by those figures, and Savedoff identified collections with valuable documents that they could target, according to the plea. They used different routines to distract librarians and would stash documents inside sport jackets and overcoats that had been altered to add large hidden pockets.
Later, Landau would fill out a checklist noting from where the document was taken, whether inventory marks had been removed and whether catalogue cards or other "finding aids" had been removed to further conceal the theft. The pair would avoid documents that had been copied onto microfilm because of the risk of detection.
Despite these efforts, their actions raised the suspicions of alert workers at the Maryland Historical Society in July and the pair was arrested and charged with stealing historical documents and conspiracy.
Both initially pleaded not guilty. Savedoff, who surrendered his Canadian and American passports, was released to his mother's custody on $250,000 bail to stay in a Baltimore-area apartment. Landau was allowed to return to his Manhattan apartment without bail.
Savedoff on Thursday pleaded guilty to theft of major artwork and conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork.
Landau and Savedoff had about 80 documents when they were arrested, according to the plea. About 60 belonged to the Maryland society, including papers signed by President Abraham Lincoln worth $300,000 and presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000.
City prosecutors said that when police officers arrived at the historical society, Savedoff was in the men's restroom and shreds of paper were in the toilet after he left. That led investigators to believe he may have flushed documents.
Searches of Landau's apartment in July turned up thousands of documents. According to Savedoff's plea, these included documents signed by historical figures from both sides of the Atlantic. They range from American presidents such as George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and John Adams to French leaders such as Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte, and German philosopher Karl Marx.
According to the plea, the conspiracy began in December, but prosecutors have alleged that Landau has schemed for years, if not decades, to steal valuable documents. Savedoff faces up to five years on the conspiracy count and up to 10 years on the theft count and a fine of up to $250,000 for each.
Investigators with the National Archives are still going through the seized documents, but Inspector General Paul Brachfeld was pleased with Thursday's plea.
"It's a sign of the solidity and the strength of the case," he said.
The case sparked a flurry of checks at archives around the country to see whether the pair had visited and documents were missing. It has served as a reminder of how vulnerable archives, many of them working with small budgets, can be to thefts.Comment on this story
Savedoff appeared in court in a pinstripe suit with his hair slicked down and declined to comment as he left the courtroom with relatives and his attorney. Sentencing is scheduled for February.
Steve Silverman, an attorney for Landau, said the evidence points to Savedoff, so he was not surprised by the plea. He said Savedoff had been staying with Landau, whose vision is impaired. Silverman said Landau didn't really know Savedoff who came into the historian's life 18 months ago and was keeping the stolen documents in his Manhattan apartment. But Landau was hurt that the plea pointed a finger at him, Silverman said.
"He's disappointed that Jason Savedoff appears to be shifting his illegal acts toward Barry," Silverman said. "He felt very close to Jason Savedoff at one time. Barry is a very sensitive person and this is very hurtful."
He expects a trial date to be set in the next few days.