Letters of the Law

Over a nearly six-year period, a Mariners’ Museum archivist named Lester Weber systematically stole thousands of historical documents from the institution, including material related to the sinking of the Titanic, and then sold them on eBay. 

On Friday, September 22, 2006, John Hightower, the then-president of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, received a troubling e-mail from a collector in Loemmenschwil, Switzerland. The man explained that for the past two years, he had been purchasing, via eBay, a great deal of high-quality historical nautical material from a woman in Newport News who identified herself as Lori Childs. Over time, the Swiss gentleman wrote, he had become curious as to how one person could acquire such a broad and valuable collection. It is not unusual for an amateur dealer to have a few noteworthy items confined to a single subject area, bought perhaps at an estate sale or inherited from a relative. But to have a seemingly constant supply of archival material—covering a range of eras and subject matter—was rare indeed. The Swiss collector said he’d tried on a number of occasions to find out who Childs was, without success.

Then, the Swiss man revealed, he’d caught a break. On her last mailing to him, Childs added one little—and ultimately crucial—piece of information to her return address. She listed the same P.O. box number she’d been using for months, but when writing her name, she inserted her middle initial for the first time—“E.” That might seem like a trivial detail, but in the hyper-specific world of Internet sleuthing, the ‘E’ would prove extraordinarily significant. When the Swiss collector used that letter in his next Internet search for Lori Childs, he discovered a three-and-a-half-year-old obituary for Childs’ mother, published in the Woodland, California Daily Democrat. The article revealed that the deceased woman was survived by “Lori E. Childs,” who lived with her husband, Lester Weber, and their two children in Newport News, Virginia. That ended the mystery: Lester Weber, as President John Hightower well knew, and the collector quickly learned, was the Mariners’ Museum Director of Archives.

In retrospect, say officials at the museum, there was always something odd about Lester Weber. A West Coast native like his wife, Weber had spent two years at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs before being hired by the Mariners’ Museum, as an archivist in December 2000. Mariners’ Museum officials and investigators would later learn that Weber had not been popular with his Iowa colleagues—not surprising, because Weber was not well liked in Newport News. According to several Mariners’ Museum employees, he was standoffish, demanding and prickly. Apparently, Weber’s did one thing in Iowa even less well than making friends: making money. Just a month before he moved to Virginia, according to federal bankruptcy records, a judge in Des Moines granted his Chapter 7 filing for discharge of his personal debts. He was broke.

At the time of Weber’s hire, the Mariners’ Museum administration had no inkling that he was a troubled man with financial problems—no hint that he would turn out to be a major thief who, over a six-year period, did serious damage to the institution. And so Weber started work managing the museum’s huge archive—more than 1 million items that included historical photographs, letters, postcards, legal documents and various bits of maritime ephemera of the sort that collectors love. Weber had almost complete access to the museum’s treasures, including most of the material from one of its most prized permanent holdings—the Aks collection of documents, photographs and other items related to the R.M.S. Titanic, compiled by Leah and Frank Aks, a mother and son who had survived the sinking of the ship. (Following a 10-year loan, the museum bought the collection from the family of Frank Aks for $80,000.)

Weber technically had a supervisor, a vice president who oversaw the museum library—but no one to whom he reported on a day-to-day basis. There was no one who consistently monitored his activities. By all accounts, he had a lot of alone time. Weber had been hired partly to update and modernize the museum’s cataloging system, which made him the gatekeeper, in effect, for everything in the archives. Later, as Director of Archives, he had even more clout and was able to restrict other people’s access to the collection and the catalog.

These circumstances made the museum vulnerable to illegal activity, and within a month of starting his job, according to court records, Weber and his wife had opened an eBay account. Within a year, Weber was supplementing his $40,000 income by selling items from the Mariners’ Museum on eBay. Most of his eBay notices emphasized the fact that they were original documents, not reproductions, and “one of a kind.” Selling on eBay is only moderately risky for archives thieves, and Weber knew that if he followed commonsense rules, he could avoid getting caught. Remaining anonymous was the first step, a task he accomplished by registering the eBay account in his wife’s maiden name. Step two was just as important: Don’t sell high-priced or well-known items. If a crooked archivist sells low-value material for less than $100, very few people will take notice.

That, by and large, is what Weber did. There were exceptions—he sold one item for $2,030, the highest amount paid for a single item, and early on he sold a 1913 court document related to a lawsuit against the White Star Line, the operator of the Titanic, for $988—but over the years his average sale price was less than $100. Unfortunately for the Mariners’ Museum, and the people of Virginia, this tack required Weber to deal in volume to make money. So he stole constantly. Over a six-year period, he sold many thousands of items pilfered from the museum—1,437 pieces in 2006 alone.

According to a February 2008 criminal indictment of the Webers, the couple started out slowly but grew steadily more greedy. In 2002, the Webers pocketed $13,812 from the sale of Mariners’ Museum archival items on eBay. The next year, their sales nearly doubled, rising to $27,517. In 2004, they made $40,355; in 2005, $50,307—by which time Weber’s illicit earnings were topping his museum salary. When his scheme came to end in September 2006, he and his wife had collected a total $163,000 (and of course had paid no taxes on the money).

According to Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, associate curator and director of collections management at the Mariners’ Museum, Weber was a particularly clever and venal crook. He sometimes stole items before anyone had a chance to catalog them, so there was no evidence of museum ownership, and he regularly defaced documents—“scrubbing” them of any identifying marks. His full access to the museum’s catalog made his crime that much easier to pull off. Many archival documents are one-of-a-kind, so if an insider can erase a catalog record, he can effectively eliminate any evidence that the document ever existed, unless it has been in the collection for a long time and other references to it can be found in books, bibliographies or other reference material. (That’s how Richmond lawyer Joseph Romito was able to discover that archivist Daniel Lorello was stealing archival material from the New York State Library. Romito saw a vaguely familiar item for sale on eBay, and, looking at a reference source, confirmed that it belonged to the State of New York.)

In February of 2006, Weber was promoted to Director of Archives. The bump in title and salary did nothing to slow, or halt, his thefts. Quite the contrary: By then, stealing from the museum had become routine for him—so much so that he started selling more well-known nautical items on eBay for attention-attracting sums. On February 21, 2006, according to court records, he sold additional Titanic-related documents associated with a lawsuit filed against the White Star Line for a total of $1,444.98. That type of brazen sale eventually piqued the curiosity of the Swiss collector, Weber’s wife got careless with her name on a return address, and the couple’s scheme was soon undone.

As it happened, Weber was not at the Mariners’ Museum on the Friday when officials there learned he’d been stealing from the institution. He was at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., a place he frequented and one that has suffered more than its share of thefts in recent years. After wrapping up his D.C. trip, Weber drove straight back to his home in Newport News. According to court records, he sold a 1905 photo of the R.M.S. Carpathia for $205 that evening, and half-a-dozen other items over the course of the weekend. Now alerted to Weber’s treachery, the museum’s senior staff spent the weekend scrambling to ascertain what Weber had stolen. As with most library or archive theft, it was nearly impossible for them to conduct anything close to a comprehensive survey in two days. Mariners’ Museum curator Marc Nucup says the staff managed only a “crash inventory.” So complete was Weber’s duplicity that they actually turned up very little solid evidence of theft. But it was clear that he’d violated the museum’s ethics policy, which prohibited museum employees from selling items of a maritime or nautical nature.

On Monday morning, museum officials confronted Weber. When Weber arrived at work, he was met at the museum’s entrance by Bruce Hagerman, the director of protection services. Hagerman escorted Weber to the office of the museum’s human resources director, Noreen Becci. Then she and the two men walked to the office of the president of the museum, where Hightower, vice president of administration Helen Myers and the museum’s outside counsel, Buddy David, were waiting. Hightower closed the door and got right to the point: He told Weber what museum officials had learned about his thefts, and asked him some questions. According to court transcripts, Weber at first feigned ignorance, denying any knowledge of the online account. After evidence was presented showing his culpability, Weber tried to talk his way out of the situation, saying at one point that he “exercised poor judgment” and “it would not happen again.”

He was right about that: Hightower fired him on the spot—not for theft but for violating the museum’s ethics policy. Weber reacted angrily to his dismissal, according to people who were there. He rose from his chair, threw his keys at Myers and stalked out of Hightower’s office. Becci and Hagerman directed Weber to the human resource director’s office. There, Becci tried to give Weber his final paycheck, but he refused to talk and refused the money. He was escorted to his car, and then he left.

That day, according to trial records, the Webers took down their eBay account. Lori Weber returned to the museum in an attempt to gain access to her husband’s office. She was turned away but given boxes containing sundry personal items belonging to him. It would be several months before federal agents executed a search warrant at the Weber home. Once they did, they confiscated computer files, sales ledgers and a few stolen items. Museum officials hoped that investigators might find a cache of stolen material inside the house, but they didn’t. By then most of the stolen items had long since been turned into PayPal entries, some originating as far away as China. It would be these entries, along with a record of Weber’s eBay listings and money deposited to his bank account, that would later comprise the bulk of evidence against him.

While investigators and prosecutors readied a criminal case against the Webers, a process that would take more than a year, the Mariners’ Museum filed a civil suit against the couple in local court, asking for a $1.35 million judgment against the former director of archives. Museums officials suggested he was still selling stolen items, even after his arrest. In response to the suit, Weber told a reporter from local TV station WVEC that he “would never have stolen … never would steal from an employer.” He added, “I really enjoyed working at the place. I don’t understand where this is coming from.”

To the court, Weber initially denied stealing material from the museum, then hedged his story. Even if he had stolen from the museum, he said, it was too late for the museum to file a suit. Weber, audaciously, tried to claim damages of his own. He said that the museum failed to return folders and floppy discs that had been in his office, not related to his museum work and with a value of $30,000. He claimed the folders and discs were used by the museum “to create operating funds, secure contributions and enhance its collections”—and for that reason, he asked the court to award him a total of $165,000—an amount, strangely, that was almost exactly what he and his wife earned from his looted material over the six-year period. Weber’s claim was rejected.

In February of 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia indicted the Webers on 26 counts, including wire fraud, mail fraud, filing false tax returns and stealing from an organization receiving federal funds. Weber could not mount much of a defense.

In June of 2008, Weber pleaded guilty to three of the counts charged by the prosecution. Six months later, in December of that year, Judge Rebecca Beach Smith sentenced Weber to 48 months in prison and ordered him to pay restitution in the amount of $172,357. He now sits in a federal minimum-security prison outside of Morgantown, West Virginia. Lori Weber was sentenced separately to 15 months in prison.

In a show of mercy, the judge released Weber so that he could spend the Christmas holiday with his family before starting his sentence. He was to self-report to the Bureau of Prisons in February 2009. However, shortly after his sentence was reported in Hampton Roads newspapers, a man came forward to say that he’d purchased an item from Weber that turned out to belong to the museum. He’d bought it after Weber had been released on bail following his initial arrest. Upon hearing this, Judge Smith revoked Weber’s pre-incarceration release and his 45 days of freedom, ordering him to appear before her on January 5, 2009. On that day, he was remanded to the custody of the United States Marshall Service.

Weber is slated to be released from prison in June of 2012, but the damage he caused to the Mariners’ Museum will be felt long after he’s set free, of course. While Weber returned a few documents after his plea deal, and while the museum has bought back 18 items from people who’d purchased museum property from him, the vast majority of the stolen items remain missing and may never be recovered. Willoz-Egnor says that at least 5,500 pieces are unaccounted for. Museum officials have tried to match eBay listings to items that were supposed to have been in the collection, but because Weber erased many catalog records, there is no definitive list of the museum’s archival holdings during Weber’s years of employment, and so no way to know precisely what was stolen.

What’s more, says Willoz-Egnor, “Every object we’ve been able to recover had alterations of some sort on them.” In some cases, Weber gouged out the museum’s collection stamps on the backs of documents. Weber also destroyed marks original to some documents—on a letter related to a lawsuit on the Titanic sinking, for example, he erased notes made in pencil by an attorney for the Aks family.

While some cultural and historical organizations victimized by thieves respond timidly, not wanting any public admission to have a negative impact on donations, the Mariners’ Museum, to its credit, took the opposite approach. It took aggressive legal action against Weber, in both criminal and civil court, and has been forthright about this case. “We could put our head in the sand and pretend it didn’t happen,” says William Cogar, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Mariners’ Museum. “Or we could act.” He says that the museum has “taken a variety of steps to tighten up [security] and keep this from happening again.” He can’t be specific, but measures are in place to keep one person from having the degree of access to archival material that Weber did.

In fact, there is no way for an institution to ensure absolutely that archival material isn’t stolen. Cultural institutions can only function if they allow people access to the material—that’s why they exist. Criminal and civil prosecution can certainly serve as a deterrent. That doesn’t help the museum get its items back, but it might help prevent other institutions from being victimized in the future.

Thanks to the Mariners’ Museum for its cooperation on this story. The museum was started in 1930 by Archer Milton Huntington, son of railroad and shipping magnate Collis P. Huntington, who had founded Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (now Northrop Grumman). Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, acquired 800 acres of land that now encompasses a 550-acre park, a shoreline hiking trail and galleries with more than 35,000 maritime artifacts.

In 2007, the museum opened a new wing containing artifacts from the wreck of the famed Civil War ironclad USS Monitor. The Mariners’ Museum hosts numerous exhibitions and annual events.

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