Iowa State Historical Library Steps up Security after Theft of Priceless Items

Installation of security cameras and procedural changes are designed to protect irreplaceable materials


Although the State Historical Society has recovered a slew of rare materials a patron took from the state's library, officials say they're moving ahead with plans to step up security at the Des Moines library location.

"Basically, these are materials that are irreplaceable. These are one-of-a-kind letters or diaries or photographs, maps things that don't exist anywhere else,'' said Shaner Magalhaes, library administrator for the State Historical Society. "They literally are priceless. Recovering them is the only way that you can still have them because you can't go out and buy them again somewhere.''

Corey Phelps, 58, of Des Moines, pleaded guilty to theft earlier this week in Polk County District Court after admitting he took valuable items from the state library.

Nineteenth-century photographs and historical documents bearing signatures of former U.S. presidents and other dignitaries were among the items he took.

State troopers said about 8,000 items were recovered during one warranted search and two consent searches of Phelps' home. Magalhaes said he expected all of the stolen items to be recovered.

He said historical library employees first noticed historical materials missing from state archives last May, and officials became suspicious of Phelps and discovered items were missing the next time he requested materials for viewing in the library reading room.

Magalhaes said they alerted state police, who obtained a warrant to search Phelps' Des Moines home and found the library's missing documents as well as materials from other organizations.

"We're very vigilant about the security of these materials,'' he said. "So it really did come as a shock that this had happened, especially since this gentleman had every appearance of being an upstanding, professional researcher.''

Phelps' attorney, William Kutmus, of Des Moines, said his client has a clean record, has admitted his guilt and has cooperated fully with authorities in getting materials returned.

He said his client was obsessed with historical data, especially railroad documents, noting that Phelps' grandfather worked as a turn-of-the-century streetcar conductor in Des Moines.

"He would store them in his house and from time to time he would bring them all out and look at them and observe them. He never, ever sold any of them for profit,'' Kutmus said.

Phelps faces up to 10 years in prison on the felony theft charge. Kutmus said he will seek probation and a deferred judgment at the Nov. 16 sentencing.

Assistant Polk County Attorney Steve Foritano said the outcome of a pre-sentence investigation, which will include an evaluation of Phelps' mental state, will determine the punishment he will request at sentencing.

Foritano said it would be difficult to assign a dollar value to the stolen items, noting ``it was clearly over $10,000,'' the minimum threshold for a first-degree theft charge.

The state library items are being guarded by state police pending their release after the criminal case is over, he said.

Meanwhile, Magalhaes said the state library has installed security cameras along with making procedural and physical changes to the reading room and setting aside a special roped-off viewing area for special collections with new restrictions.