How two detectives followed the trail of York County’s missing artifacts

An artifact thief has targeted Pennsylvania museums for valuable, centuries-old firearms.

And for almost 50 years it was not taken.

“These objects were on display in these different museums, and they were carried away and hidden for decades,” said Andy Rathfon, a detective with the Upper Merion Police Department in Montgomery County, who worked on the case. .

Thomas Gavin, 78, admitted to stealing Revolutionary War weapons from various museums, including the York County History Center. His criminal follies, though barely on par with the heists described in “Ocean’s Eleven” or “National Treasure,” still had consequences for small galleries that relied on artifacts for education and research.

“When pieces are stolen from a museum, everyone loses because that story won’t be told,” said Rachel Warner, director of collections at the York County History Center. “As the person in charge of the collections, it is our dream, it is to see these pieces all come back.

Gavin, a resident of Pottstown, Montgomery County, stole 15 artifacts from a number of museums in the 1960s and 1970s and stored them in a barn for decades.

It wasn’t until he later tried to sell the artifacts to an antique dealer in Pennsylvania that police were alerted to Gavin’s activity.

Although Gavin admitted to taking the artifacts, an expiration of the statute of limitations prevented him from being charged with theft. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to one count of disposing of a stolen cultural heritage object from a museum.

His sentence ? One day in prison.

Detailed markings on Wednesday, December 22, 2021 helped authorities identify guns stolen around 1830 that were recovered and returned to the York County History Center.  A man from Pottstown admitted to stealing artifacts from downtown and other museums in south-central Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Photo by Bill Kalina

In addition to one day in jail, Gavin was sentenced to one year of house arrest and had to pay $ 23,485 in restitution and a fine of $ 25,000.

While a rifle and two pistols have been safely returned to the York County History Center, mysteries surrounding the theft remain.

“We actually have very little information on the circumstances of this theft,” Warner said. “They were in display cases, so we think he opened the cases and lowered the glass so that he could grab them and take them.”

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It took five years of investigation for the stolen items to be returned to York County – although detectives working on the Warner case have been tracking missing artifacts from other museums for even longer.

Rathfon and his fellow detective Brendan Dougherty, both from the Upper Merion Police Department, have been piecing together the mysteries surrounding the missing guns for 13 years.

And, while some artifacts have been successfully returned, both men said they would not stop finding the lost items, even after their retirement.

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The Upper Merion Police Department covers areas of eastern Pennsylvania, including King of Prussia National Park and Valley Forge. A now-defunct history museum within Valley Forge catapulted the two detectives into their 13-year investigation.

In 2009, a source came to the police station to report what she believed to be a stolen gun seen at an antique exhibit. Although the tip ended in a dead end, it opened Dougherty and Rathfon to something even bigger.

“It was an eye-opener for us to search for all the flight records at the museum (Valley Forge),” Dougherty said. “What we found, ironically, was that we had no criminal record. They had been destroyed because the cases were so old.”

Several of Upper Merion's law enforcement officers involved in the case, left to right, alongside one of York's stolen guns: Sgt.  Blaine Leis, det.  Brendan Dougherty, Chef Tom Nolan and Det.  Andy Rathfon.

Fortunately for the couple, all documents relating to the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum have been turned over to the Museum of the American Revolution. It was then that they discovered five thefts that occurred in 1968 and 1969.

Then the case exploded.

In 2019, antique dealer Kelly Kinzle presented what he believed to be a gun replica. Instead, it was one of the few surviving rifles made by master gunsmith John Christian Oerter – and it had been stolen from the Valley Forge Historical Society, according to NPR.

“Once we identified (Gavin) being linked to the Christian Oerter rifle, we found several antique rifles,” Rathfon said, adding that Kinzle’s revelation opened up investigations into many museums with missing artifacts.

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The puzzle was finally coming together.

The hardest part for the couple was reconstructing a timeline of events, when many records were missing or destroyed. In the case of the York County missing artifacts, however, the museum had detailed records of everything.

Thus, the couple were quickly able to recover the missing guns for York County.

After years of studying antique guns, the couple have learned exactly what to look for when trying to match a missing gun.

The lack of serial numbers is an excellent first indicator. Additionally, many rifles from the early 19th century exhibit distinctive features, such as marks in the lock, gouges in the wood, the position of the screw and the grain of the wood, Rathfon said.

“In the case of the rifle returned to York, the grain of the wood matched,” Rathfon added. “It was a cool time to see a game 100%.”

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When Gavin was sentenced in November, he apologized for the trouble he caused.

“I never really thought about it then, and now it all came out – I didn’t think it would make a big difference,” Gavin said.

Gavin’s attorney, Harvey Sernovitz, also added: “Tom is a collector of all kinds of old things… whether viewed as a collector or a hoarder, profit was not his motivation.”

Although Gavin has been convicted and the missing York County guns returned, Dougherty and Rathfon are still there.

Two unsolved cases with the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum from 1968 and 1969 remain.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Dougherty. “We think this is both a welcome burden, but it is also an honor for me to be able to participate in this survey.”

Detailed markings on Wednesday, December 22, 2021 helped authorities identify guns stolen around 1830 that were recovered and returned to the York County History Center.  A man from Pottstown admitted to stealing artifacts from downtown and other museums in south-central Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Photo by Bill Kalina

Dougherty and Rathfon both pointed out that working with experts like the FBI’s Jake Archer and US Attorney KT Newton made the investigation even more compelling.

Rathfon said he was happy to see the items finally returned to their rightful owners. He is proud to have worked on something of this magnitude and to be able to show his children the weapons he helped recover.

“I’m just thrilled they’re celebrating this, and while it does bring more attention to the York History Center, it’s a win,” said Dougherty. “That’s what we’re in there for. We were waiting until that day, to see Rachel pick up these guns and share their stories.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

– Contact Tina Locurto at [email protected] or on Twitter at @tina_locurto. Please consider subscribe to support local journalism.

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