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Attorney: Man Took Books To Protect the Past

January 24, 1991

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Stephen Blumberg took thousands of rare books from libraries across the country under a delusion he was the ″protector of some bygone era,″ an attorney at his trial said.

Blumberg, 42, pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. At his federal court trial Thursday, the man who turned him in to the FBI for a reward last year said Blumberg bragged about his ability to steal rare books and said he would pretend to be insane if he was caught.

″He said, ’If the FBI ever catches me, I can pretend I’m crazy and play on my mental problems,‴ said Kenneth Rhodes, currently living in the Detroit area. He and Blumberg crisscrossed the country for years, dealing in stolen antiques by day, with Blumberg stealing books from college libraries at night, Rhodes said.

Blumberg is charged with possession of stolen property, two counts of interstate transportation of stolen property and conspiracy in connection with the theft of more than 20,000 rare books from more than 300 libraries and museums across the country. The books have been valued at up to $20 million.

Defense attorney Don Nickerson said in his opening statement that Blumberg suffered from delusions that he had to steal the books to protect them.

″Every habit, every waking moment was in the pursuit of this delusion,″ he said. ″He believes he is the guardian of the past, a protector of some bygone era which he is locked into.″

Nickerson told jurors Wednesday that the insanity defense ″is not contrived″ and that Blumberg has battled diagnosed mental illnesses for 25 years. Nickerson said Blumberg admits to a career of stealing - ″which he would call rescuing″ - books and antiques.

Prosecutor Linda Reade said libraries with simple security systems were easy marks and Blumberg simply ″stuffed books into his pockets.″ In others, he used razor blades or sandpaper to cut away identifying marks of rare books, then disguised them to appear to be his own books.

She introduced as evidence keys she said were stolen from libraries and seized from Blumberg’s home in Ottumwa. Des Moines FBI agent David Oxler testified the keys still fit locks to collections at UCLA, Harvard, Washington State and other universities.

The FBI found 28,000 books stashed at the house in Ottumwa, warehouses in Ottumwa and Amarillo, Texas, and Blumberg’s apartment in Minneapolis.

″I was shocked,″ said Oxler, who coordinated the raid last March at Blumberg’s turn-of-the-century home in downtown Ottumwa. ″Lining every available wall space - and this is an old house with tall ceilings - were book shelves completely filled with books.″

Oxler said agents recovered evidence that Blumberg had visited 327 libraries, museums or other institutions in 45 states plus the District of Columbia and Canada.

Blumberg went to Rice University in Houston every night for a week ″because there wasn’t any security″ and he carried out armloads of books, Rhodes said.

Blumberg picked locks or crawled in heating ducts and other small places to break into rare book rooms, Rhodes said.

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