Alleged document thief pleads not guilty

Barry H. Landau, whom authorities call the mastermind behind a scheme to swipe American treasures from museums throughout the Mid-Atlantic, pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal theft and conspiracy charges that prosecutors now characterize as the country's "single largest" theft of its kind.

The suspected victims and the number of items taken have tripled since the investigation began July 9 with an arrest by Baltimore police at the Maryland Historical Society, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick said during the lengthy, multi-part hearing in the city's U.S. District Court.

Investigators have now identified hundreds of stolen documents, instead of dozens, from at least 11 locations in five states and Washington, Warwick said. Two other people are being subpoenaed in connection with the case, and others are suspected of participating on the periphery of the plot, which went on for "years if not decades," the prosecutor said.

"This isn't an isolated incident. There is a history of fraud," Warwick told the judge, accusing Landau of obstructing justice "to deflect his [own] culpability."

He described Landau, 63, as a "complex bundle of lies and deceit" who the prosecutors said conned friends out of valuable artwork, wore specially made coats with deep, document-hiding pockets, and pilfered wallets from a Manhattan gym to get access to other people's IDs.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey ruled that Landau, 63, could return to his New York apartment, however, under strict electronic monitoring while awaiting trial. Co-defendant Jason Savedoff, 24, has already been released from detention under a $250,000 bond and his mother's supervision, though he has yet to be arraigned on the charges.

Warwick plans to appeal the decision during an appeal hearing set for Friday afternoon. If the appeal is unsuccessful, Landau, a well-known collector, could be on his way home Monday.

He has little to return to, said his Baltimore-based defense attorney, Andrew C. White. Landau has no family, and his friends have shunned him. "He's a pariah," White said. "Nobody wants to be associated with this case."

His ability to do economic damage "has essentially been capped" since the arrest, White said, noting that his client is depressed and anxious, and that he has heart trouble and kidney stones.

Landau coughed throughout Thursday's hearing, clutching a red inhaler in his right hand, and telling the judge he was too sick to stand.

White acknowledged that the case is "very emotional and it is bad."

Landau and Savedoff were indicted late last month on federal charges that they stole dozens of historic texts signed by American presidents and visionaries from three archives in Maryland and New York. The alleged scheme was discovered after a Maryland Historical Society employee said he saw Savedoff, who was accompanied by Landau, steal a text on July 9.

Investigators initially found 60 items that day stashed in a library locker and apparently stolen from the Maryland archive, and another 20 that were supposedly taken from the National Archives, Vassar College and the Connecticut Historical Society, Warwick said.

Since then, he said, several hundred other documents have been found in Landau's apartment belonging to Swarthmore College; Columbia, Yale, Cambridge and Vermont universities; the Smithsonian Institute and the New York Public Library. It was unclear whether the Cambridge he mentioned was the United Kingdom university.

The search for more documents continues, Warwick said. Officials from the National Archives are combing through thousands of documents recovered from Landau's home to see if they belong to others.

"We're extremely concerned that there might be a warehouse, safe deposit box, other apartment" with a cache of stolen goods, Warwick said, saying that Landau is a flight risk and that he has made "attempts to cover his tracks and destroy evidence."

An earlier detention hearing was postponed this week so the FBI could search Landau's apartment on West 57th Street, which he shared with Savedoff, for a second time. It was first searched July 12 and again on Tuesday.

Warwick said someone tampered with the dwelling between the first and second searches, removing historic photos of American aviator Charles Lindbergh, along with materials prosecutors said Landau used to scrub documents of their museum identifiers and papers from a document shredder. A wall was freshly painted to hide that something was once hung there, Warwick said.

"They're precious relics of American history. They cannot be duplicated, Warwick said. "It they're lost, they're gone forever."

He said Landau bragged of a storage facility in the Washington area that held "30 times" the amount of artifacts in his apartment, which was "chock full" of historic items.

White called the claims ridiculous.

"The fears of some grand scheme to destroy evidence are unfounded. They are just that, fears," he said.

Warwick also accused Landau of trying to bribe an unnamed individual, later identified in court as Savedoff, by promising to pay his attorney fees and helping him mount a "psychiatric defense."

He has a never-ending "capacity to engage in fraud and deceit," Warwick said in court.

Investigators say that Landau stole from his friends, as well, pretending to admire some precious item, then pointing out a flaw to the owner with either its presentation or preservation. Landau would then promise to correct the error, but actually stole the original and replaced it with a sophisticated copy, Warwick said.

A particular individual who frames such items, along with a reproduction company will be subpoenaed in connection with the case, Warwick said.

The FBI also found in Landau's apartment a jacket and two overcoats with extra-deep pockets that could be used to hide stolen materials, Warwick said, along with identification belonging to someone named Christopher McGovern.

Warwick alleges that Landau and Savedoff trolled the locker room of a Manhattan gym in search of IDs to steal.