Less than four months after a Maryland Historical Society employee uncovered a cultural property heist called "truly breathtaking" by national archivists, one of the men charged in the scheme has pleaded guilty.
Jason James Savedoff, 24, admitted Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that he and co-defendant Barry H. Landau, 63, conspired to steal and sell valuable historic documents from museums in several states, including Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
He could receive a maximum of 15 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 at his sentencing, scheduled for Feb. 10. Landau, a well-known Manhattan collector, is awaiting trial and is now confined to his New York apartment, which he once shared with Savedoff. He is granted limited leave under electronic monitoring.
Steven D. Silverman, an attorney for the older man, declined to describe the nature of the relationship between Landau and Savedoff, calling it "a personal matter" that he's "not at liberty to disclose."
They were indicted in July on conspiracy and "theft of major art" charges after Savedoff, who holds dual American and Canadian citizenships, was spotted stealing a text from the Baltimore-based archive. They were charged with taking dozens of documents — including a land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln and a letter to 18th-century naval hero John Paul Jones — worth more than $1 million.
Investigators have said that the scheme was far broader, however, describing it as the biggest theft ever of national memorabilia. More than 10,000 items have been seized from Landau's Manhattan apartment. National Archives and Records Administration investigators are cataloging the documents and trying to track down their owners.
Among their finds so far are texts attributed to Napoleon, Beethoven, George Washington and John Hancock.
Savedoff, who spoke quietly and politely during the proceeding, declined to comment after the hearing through his attorney, Larry Nathans.
He has been cooperating with investigators since at least August, prosecutors said in a court hearing that month. And he has been free on $250,000 bond since late July, when he was released to his mother's custody.
His plea agreement says he participated in the theft "solely at the direction" of Landau. But Silverman pointed out after the hearing that the duo shared the apartment where the items were found and said that there has been no evidence to connect Landau to "a misappropriation of documents before Mr. Savedoff came into his life a year and a half ago." He characterized Savedoff's plea deal as an attempt to "save his own hide."
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick said the investigation is continuing, along with the document recovery.
"That's the primary goal of this," Warwick said, "to punish the guilty and to retrieve as many historic" treasures as possible.
Savedoff signed his plea agreement a month ago, acknowledging in a lengthy statement of facts that he and Landau conspired "to steal and obtain by fraud objects of cultural heritage from numerous museums" between December 2010 and July 2011, when they were arrested in Maryland.
Savedoff identified high-value historic collections and posed as a researcher alongside Landau when they visited the various libraries that housed them, sometimes bearing cookies or cupcakes for employees. They slipped stolen documents inside coats that had been modified with extra-deep pockets, according to Savedoff's plea agreement, and they "collected the card catalog entries" and other museum identifiers to hide the thefts.
Unlike his co-defendant, a self-promoter who calls himself "America's Presidential Historian" on his website, little is publicly known about Savedoff. His Facebook page, which features a black-and-white head shot, is largely private, and few details of his life have been reported.
The available information suggests he is well-educated, bilingual (he's reportedly fluent in French) and that he grew up in privileged circumstances.
His parents, divorced since the 1990s, own separate million-dollar homes in the upscale Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver, according to a Canadian news service, which also reports that Savedoff graduated fromSt. George's, a private boys prep school in Vancouver, in 2004.
He went on to study arts at McGill University in Montreal. In 2006, after four semesters, he ran for student government on a tongue-in-cheek platform, according to the college newspaper.
He described himself "as one of the most opinionated people I know," skipped the debates and never showed up for the election results, though he won 15 percent of the vote. By then, an editorial in The McGill Tribune student newspaper had already concluded that "it's pretty clear that Jason Savedoff (or J-Swing, as he appears on the ballot) isn't really running for anything. Our only wish is that he had been at the debates on Wednesday to spice up an otherwise boring evening."
He and his younger brother, Luke, collaborated on a YouTube video in 2007 titled "Fluke and J," in which "Fluke" dances and juggles, while "J" twice rips off his own tank top by splitting it down the middle, baring his chest.
A year later, Savedoff posted a "Birthday Violin" video, produced in what appears to be a dorm room. He's standing in front of an American flag hung on the wall, wearing a black tank top and a cross around his neck, playing Happy Birthday on a violin.
It's unclear when he came to New York and how he met Landau.
Among the stolen items recovered from the Manhattan apartment Barry Landau shared with Jason Savedoff are:
•A 1794 document signed by George Washington, from the New York Historical Society.
•A 1784 letter written by Marie Antoinette, from the Connecticut Historical Society.
•An 1874 letter from Karl Marx, from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania;
•An annotated copy ofFranklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural address, from the FDR presidential library, which is part of the National Archives.
SOURCE: Maryland U.S. Attorney's OfficeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun