BANGOR, Maine — Bangor police have recovered thousands of dollars worth of Civil War, World War I and World War II memorabilia they believe was stolen from the Bangor Public Library last week by a man working there as a janitor.
Detective Sgt. David Bushey said Tuesday afternoon that detectives are searching for the suspect and plan to file charges against him. Police say the man, whose identity they will not release until charges are filed, stole about 75 Civil War-era cartes de visite — small 2 ½-by-4-inch portraits that were extremely popular during the war. Also recovered were about 50 posters from World War I and World War II.
Bushey said he expected an arrest “very soon.”
The man was working as a janitor under the city’s workfare program, according to Special Collections Librarian Bill Cook. The man no longer works at the library. Workfare is a system under which general assistance recipients work for the city or nonprofits in return for receiving their subsidy.
Cook said that, in all, the items have a value of about $4,000-$6,000, if not more. He said he may have an official appraisal done so he can pass a more reliable figure on to the district attorney’s office. The man also took some photographs depicting the Bangor fire of 1911, but apparently didn’t realize that they weren’t originals, Cook said.
On Feb. 25, just before closing time, the suspect allegedly walked into Maritime International, a buyer and seller of collectibles located at 93 Central St., about a half block away from the library. He brought in a stack of cartes de visite and about half a dozen World War I and II-era posters, claiming they had been passed down by his grandmother, according to Maritime International owner Paul Zebiak.
The man’s “girlfriend” was with him, Zebiak said during an interview Tuesday.
Zebiak believed something was off about the man’s story.
“The quantity and quality of these items told me that this was part of a serious collection,” he said.
The man didn’t have a valid form of identification, so Maritime International couldn’t have purchased the items from him anyway, Zebiak said, so he turned the man and his girlfriend away.
When Zebiak went home that night, he kept thinking about the items. He noticed several had connections to the Bangor-Brewer area, either descriptions on the back of photographs that mentioned soldiers from the region or World War II posters that specifically mentioned Bangor, and he knew that the library owned similar items.
The next morning, Zebiak called Cook and described one of the more unique cartes de visite to see if Cook recognized it.
This particular image depicted a soldier sitting in a chair, hat off, resting his head on the hilt of his sword. Scrawled on the bottom in period ink are the words “Drunk on Duty.” Cook immediately knew that the cartes de visite was the library’s and dug into the archives to figure out what was missing. Prior to Zebiak’s call, the library wasn’t aware of the theft.
Zebiak said he was surprised to see them try to peddle stolen goods “literally in the victim’s backyard.”
Police were notified and launched an investigation. The suspect did not return to work after Feb. 25.
On Feb. 27, the man’s girlfriend, who had been there two days prior, returned to Maritime International with the items in tow again, hoping to try again to sell the items, according to Zebiak.
Zebiak snuck into the back room to call police and, without tipping off the woman, reported that she was at the store. Two officers and a detective arrived and questioned the woman.
Police have been working to ensure they recovered as many of the items as possible and gathered the evidence. Bushey said he believes police have recovered everything that was missing from the collection.
Cook said the suspect took the items from “the cage,” a storage area in the basement where the library keeps a portion of its collection. He was seen by a volunteer inside or near the cage on two separate occasions early last week, just prior to showing up in Zebiak’s store. When questioned, he told the volunteer he was cleaning.
“He was not authorized to be [in the cage],” Cook said. “Even most staff aren’t allowed to go there.”
He only worked at the library for about two weeks before the thefts were uncovered, Cook said.
The cage isn’t locked, according to Cook. That will change during the library’s renovations, which will result in the collections moving into humidity-controlled rooms with locked doors and improved security measures.
“We house this stuff here for the benefit of Bangor. I look at it as a public trust to safeguard these things,” Cook said, adding that he sees the library as the “custodian of Bangor’s heritage.”
He credited police with their work to recover the stolen items, which are being stored in evidence at the Bangor Police Department.
BDN reporter Dawn Gagnon contributed to this article.