A Vermont man pleaded not guilty Monday to a charge that he stole a number of original cards and letters written by poet Robert Frost that were in the drawer of a desk that was donated to the nonprofit agency where he worked and then sold them for more than $25,000 in cash and other goods.
Timothy Bernaby, 42, was arrested Friday after he was spotted by law enforcement officers while in the White River Junction courthouse on an unrelated matter. He is free on $5,000 bail and declined comment as he left the courthouse Monday.
An expert on Robert Frost from Dartmouth College in nearby Hanover, N.H., told police the documents, which include 13 Christmas poems by Frost and a letter to an employee of Dartmouth, estimated they would not be worth more than $2,600.
The documents remain in the possession of the person who purchased them from Bernaby, said Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand.
"Police are in contact with the person who has the documents," Sand said. "The purchaser declined to produce them having spent a fair amount of money to acquire them and was reluctant to turn them over to the police until he was compensated for the purchase price."
Sand said the original owner of the documents does want them back.
The court documents identified the person who bought the documents from Bernaby as Thomas Cady of Plainfield, N.H. Cady told police Bernaby claimed to have found the documents in the trash at the Listen Center in White River Junction and that they had come from a desk that was being cleaned out after it was donated. The man listed in court documents as Cady's lawyer, Brad Wilder, of Lebanon, N.H., said he had no comment Monday because he hadn't spoken with Cady in some time.
Dartmouth College special collections librarian Jay Satterfield, who estimated the value of the Frost documents for police, said Monday there is an active market for modern literary manuscripts by both institutions and private collectors.
"For a lot of people holding a manuscript that was written in the hand of an author they love creates a connection that the printed book can never do, a contagion of touch," Satterfield said.
He said one of the reasons Dartmouth rarely acquires documents from private parties is to be sure they aren't stolen.
"When we acquire something we are working with dealers we trust. Their reputations hang on that. If they were ever caught doing something illegal, places like us would stop dealing with them," Satterfield said.
The case first came to the attention of police in early August after Cady approached Plainfield Police Chief Paul Roberts, who is also an appraiser of items, court documents said.
Bernaby, who has a minor criminal record, was charged with a single count of grand larceny. If convicted he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Merilynn Bourne, the executive director of the Lebanon, N.H.,-based LISTEN Community Services, which has branches in Vermont and New Hampshire, said the documents were in the desk donated to her organization. She said the usual procedure when potentially valuable items are found in donated items is to contact the donor and ask if the donor meant to give the items as well.
She said Bernaby was fired last summer after she learned about the Robert Frost documents. She said she was also trying to get the documents back so they could be returned to the original donor.
Bernaby allegedly approached other dealers, as well. Ascutney rare book dealer and appraiser John Waite said Monday he was approached by Bernaby sometime last year and that he looked at the documents at a local restaurant where Waite was told the documents had been found in a desk.
"That story didn't seem terribly convincing. I pressed him a bit and that's as far as it went," Waite said.
"I said I'd give him X amount of money, it was a lowball offer," Waite said. "He wasn't satisfied with the offer. He went someplace else. That was the end of it."