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Judge rules that indicted document collector can go home pending trial

A federal judge rejected Friday a last-ditch effort by prosecutors to keep Barry H. Landau behind bars while the New York collector awaits trial on charges he pulled off one of the country's biggest theft of national memorabilia over a span of years.

The 63-year-old will be put on a train in Baltimore on Monday and sent back to his $2,700-a-month, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment in Midtown under the strict conditions of electronic GPS monitoring.

He will be barred from accessing the Internet, cannot keep his passport, can have no contact with museums, can't sell assets without approval and can't have any communication with his co-defendant, Jason Savedoff. Also, travel outside his home will be limited.

"It's basically a lockdown situation," a pretrial services official told the court.

Government lawyers argued at court appearances spread over three days this week that Landau was a flight risk, probably hiding money and likely to obstruct justice by destroying evidence against him — namely stolen U.S. treasures, including documents signed by President Abraham Lincoln and founding father Benjamin Franklin.

But U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said Friday that the proof to back up those concerns "is slim at this point" and denied the government's appeal of an earlier order releasing Landau. She called the charges serious, however, and noted that there "appears to be a lot of money, as well as unique, irreplaceable documents involved."

Savedoff, 24, was released on a $250,000 bond last week. He is cooperating with investigators, a prosecutor said Friday.

Both he and Landau are charged in a federal indictment with taking 60 documents worth nearly $1 million from a library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, including a land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln.

The charging document also says they swiped seven copies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's annotated inaugural addresses — selling four of them for $35,000 — and a letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones from two New York-based archives.

Prosecutors said this week that the haul of stolen goods is likely much larger, however, with potential victims across the Atlantic Ocean, and that the theft scheme could be decades old. They said they are contemplating additional charges as the investigation continues.

Thousands of documents have already been removed from Landau's apartment, which he shared with Savedoff, since his arrest in Baltimore on July 9, and investigators have traced roughly 200 of them back to institutions in five states, Washington, and possibly Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

They include texts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from poets, artists, inventors, political leaders and scientists, said Assistant United States Attorney P. Michael Cunningham. Among the authors are French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Marie Antoinette, English physicist Sir Isaac Newton, and German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, Cunningham said.

These "are not the kind of things that are accessible — legally accessible — on the open market," Cunningham told the court.

A 2007 Associated Press story, about a coffee table book Landau wrote detailing White House cuisine, described Landau's Manhattan apartment, on West 57th Street near Central Park, as artifact-filled. Vintage inauguration etchings line the walls and cabinets are filled with presidential plateware.

He made it his business to know everybody, CBS newsman Mike Wallace said in the article, and he was called a "master broker" by a Smithsonian curator.

But the carefully crafted persona and prestige Landau had built up in the media and among historians has been shattered by the criminal charges. Federal investigators put out a nationwide call for archives to check their inventories after the alleged theft operation was uncovered. It's been slow going, Cunningham said.

"Many of these repositories have substantial collections of indeterminate value, and figuring out what is missing is an ongoing process," Cunningham said.

"At this juncture, we simply don't know the scope and extent of what Mr. Landau has stolen."

Prosecutors are using conversations with Savedoff, who was interviewed by investigators last weekend, as a road map for the investigation. The younger man told them that he and Landau stole wallets from patrons at a Manhattan gym in search of fake identities to use when visiting museums, and that Landau kept the better part of his collection in a storage facility and safe deposit box.

Savedoff's attorneys, Larry Nathans and Robert Biddle, declined to comment Friday.

Landau denied that he had outside storehouses, according to his lawyer, Andrew C. White, of the Baltimore firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White.

"He doesn't want people to know he's got everything in his apartment," White said, describing his client as cash poor.

Landau has roughly $1,544 to his name and no real estate or other significant interests other than the legitimately obtained portions of his collection, White said. A half-dozen items have been put aside to sell so Landau can pay his attorneys fees.

The defendant also claimed he made $11,000 on his 2010 tax return, according to prosecutors, who question whether Landau's assertions are correct. His apartment lease alone costs $32,400 per year, and Savedoff told law enforcement officials that Landau sometimes wore a Rolex watch.

That "raises a big red flag as to the accuracy of the financial picture that we know," Cunningham said, suggesting Landau might have money stashed somewhere "that would provide an opportunity [for him] to abscond."

There was not enough evidence to support those concerns, however, Judge Blake found, ordering Landau released back to the home he's had for the past 30 years.

"I just don't see that the government has met that burden," she said.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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