Former student pleads guilty in theft of rare signatures

A former UW-Madison student pleaded guilty Monday in his home city of Hamden, adjacent to the town of New Haven, Conn., to three counts of larceny in the first degree and three counts of criminal mischief in the first degree, after being arrested last October for stealing famous historical documents from a Yale University library, where he worked last summer.  




Benjamin Johnson, 22, lived in the Bradley Learning Community dormitory during the fall 2001 semester when the Capitol Police Department arrested him under suspicions that he stole documents from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Authorities later found that Johnson stole, among other items, an original letter from George Washington to the French general Rochembeau, with an estimated value of $350,000 and three rare volumes of \Moby Dick,"" by Herman Melville, estimated at $125,000. 




Police were first notified about the thefts after one of Johnson's buyers, based in Philadelphia, became suspicious of the signatures and described them as being in unusually good shape. 




""I know I am completely guilty,"" Johnson said during his pretrial appearance this week.  




By entering a plea of guilty to the six criminal charges, Johnson's case will proceed directly to sentencing, which will occur on June 14. 




Connecticut Assistant State Attorney John Waddock is recommending two years in prison, a $5,000 lump sum-payment to Yale and any additional reparations Johnson's probation officer deems appropriate. In addition, Johnson is ordered to relinquish control of a $50,000 bank account in Wisconsin to reimburse autograph and document dealers that he scammed. He is also banned from Yale property without permission. 




""The university is satisfied,"" said Yale spokesperson Tom Conroy. 




Johnson's lawyer Penn Rhodeen called the case a ""tragic situation"" and said his client suffers from mental instability. 




""He's really been committed to righting this wrong as much as he can, and this plea is part of that,"" Rhodeen said. 




The defense will be able to argue a lower sentence in June, according to New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington. On a personal note, Dearington, New Haven's lead prosecutor, said he has never dealt with a case of this nature before. 




""We have a lot of larceny cases but not where they involve these precious documents,"" he said. ""This is highly unusual."" 




UW-Madison sophomore Aaron Lawrence, Johnson's freshman roommate, described him as ""kind of a loner."" 




""It's one of those things where you're surprised if it happened to anyone,"" he said. ""It's probably more likely I'd hear about it happening to him than anyone else."" 


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