In Montana, Serial Thief who Struck Museums Is Apprehended

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - For 35 years, Jeffry Stevens helped feed his fascination for artifacts and antiques by taking them from small museums.

Glasgow Police Capt. Bruce Barstad said Stevens would walk into regional museums during regular business hours, sign the guest register with an alias, chat with employees, then help himself to items on display - stuffing them in his pants or coat. He kept some items and sold others through an antiques store in Salt Lake City.

But a stop at the Daniels County Museum and Pioneer Town in Scobey, Mont., in the summer of 2003 brought an end to the crime spree. Virginia Heaton caught a man trying to pry decorations from one of the museum's antique cars. She ordered him to drop the parts and leave.

Heaton wrote down his license plate number and called the cops.

Investigators identified the thief as Stevens, 59, of Fallbrook, Calif. State and federal investigators say he was working with them to help return numerous stolen items to museums across the country when he died of a heart attack on Nov. 9.

Officials from the Glasgow Police Department, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other agencies discussed the case for the first time Tuesday at BLM's state office in Billings.

On display were more than 30 museum items Stevens had stolen, including antique rifles and handguns, beaded moccasins and pipe bags and a Civil War-era amputation kit. There also was an 1855 revolving rifle from Ohio worth at least $10,000.

Montana BLM Special Agent in Charge Bart Fitzgerald called Stevens a "serial thief" who targeted small museums because security was not as sophisticated as at larger museums.

Stevens' attorney, Chuck Watson of Bozeman, described Stevens as a leading authority on weaponry who also had a legitimate business trading artifacts that included antique weapons and American Indian art and beadwork. "He was a true scholar and had a real obsessive appreciation of the past," Watson said.

Stevens was lonely, reclusive and afflicted with a disorder known as Asperger syndrome, Watson said. The illness manifested itself in Stevens as an obsession with certain collectible items, Watson said, and "his criminality was driven by mental illness."

The Montana investigation began after Stevens stole items in June and July 2003 from museums in Big Timber, Lewistown, Glasgow, Malta and Circle. Officers said Stevens also made a swing through Montana in 2000.

BLM got involved because the agency is charged with protecting American Indian artifacts.

Stevens cooperated, but he had trouble remembering all of the thefts, investigators said. Many of the items have not been matched to a museum, and some artifacts were returned to Stevens' estate.

The only time Stevens was caught on a surveillance videotape was at the Valley County Pioneer Museum in Glasgow. Barstad said Stevens used a screwdriver to remove screws and glass from a rifle display case and walked out of the museum with a 5-foot rifle in his pant leg.

Investigators used the videotape and license plate number to track Stevens to Salt Lake City, where he had placed items on consignment with a store called Sell Antiques.

Salt Lake City Police Detective Suzanne Williams got a search warrant for the business, where she found 1,890 items that Stevens had on consignment with an estimated value of $1 million. Stevens had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of items through the store since 1996, she said.

Law enforcement was able to return only about a dozen of the artifacts to museums, Williams said.

About the same time, Stevens decided to turn himself in and hired Watson to contact the BLM. Stevens still had some of the stolen items and was willing to return them and cooperate, Watson said.

Stevens admitted stealing artifacts and guns from museums in Hardin, Virginia City and Dillon. Investigators also conducted interviews and searches in California.

Watson said as part of a plea agreement, Stevens' estate will pay the nine Montana museums $5,000 each. Watson said the thefts escalated after a 2002 fire destroyed his home along with a priceless collection of museum-quality items.

"His behavior became so aberrent, he finally had to come to terms that he was out of control," Watson said Wednesday.