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Stolen Guns Recovered After 50+ Years!


If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, then you’ve probably seen the couple of posts I’ve made about the half-century-long cold case regarding the theft of a historic longrifle from a museum in Pennsylvania.


Well, they finally found the guy who did it – 78-year-old Thomas Gavin – and he was recently sentenced for the crime. Due to the statute of limitations, he served just one day in jail, followed by one year of house arrest, two years of probation, and have to pay $49,000 in fines.


At his sentencing, hunched over in a wheelchair, his breathing labored, Gavin said, “I’m sorry for all this trouble. I never really thought about it back then, and now it’s all come out. I didn’t think it would make a hell of a lot of difference.”

Half of the recovered guns stolen by Thomas Gavin
Half of the recovered guns stolen by Thomas Gavin

Turns out, Gavin burgled a string of museums on the east coast in the 60s and 70s stealing a number of different firearms. He targeted the American Swedish Historical Museum, Hershey Story Museum, Landis Valley Museum, Mercer Museum, Museum of the American Revolution, and the York County History Center. His goal, it seems, was not financial gain; instead, it was just greed, since he hid the items in a barn for 50 years before trying to sell the longrifle in 2018.


K. T. Newton, the assistant United States Attorney who prosecuted the case said, “In my experience prosecuting these types of cases, oftentimes it’s that these individuals just want to have the thing,” Ms. Newton said on Wednesday. “It’s really a phenomenon. We’ve seen it before with antique firearms and antique maps. Their obsession is that they want to have them and so they take them.”

Other half of the recovered guns stolen by Thomas Gavin
Other half of the recovered guns stolen by Thomas Gavin

He tried to sell the rifle, currently valued at $175,000, to a local antique arms buyer for just $4,000. The dealer bought the gun thinking it was a reproduction but found a photo of the gun in a book from 1980 with a caption noting that it had been stolen years before.


In total, the buyer paid him $27,150 for a grouping of items, including other firearms that would also turn out to be stolen. This set the wheels back in motion on the cold case that ultimately resulted in his arrest and confession, but not before a number of the items made their way to auction and into the hands of other collectors. Thankfully, the new owners of these stolen items willingly gave up their claims and returned them to the museums.


On December 17, the items were finally returned to the victimized museums. Of course, there was the longrifle made by John Christian Oerter, one of only two flintlock rifles bearing the gunmaker’s name in existence today. The other belongs to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England.


John Christian Oerter rifle
John Christian Oerter rifle

There were a number of other guns in the repatriation, too, including another flintlock rifle from about 1830, a Colt Model 1860 Army revolver engraved to Nere Elfwing, which was stolen in 1969 and sold at auction in 2019 for $6,000. The other guns were a Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver also stolen in 1969, a pair of French pocket pistols, a brass-barrel dagger pistol, two 18th century French military pistols, a Pettengill revolver, stolen in November 1970, and a Josiah Ells double-action revolver, both stolen in November 1970, and a Josiah Ells bar hammer revolver stolen in May 1965.


Gavin’s actions say a lot about the history of museum security and concerns that still exist today in smaller museums with smaller budgets. The case Gavin stole the Oerter rifle from in 1971 was thought to be theft-proof, but he brazenly used a crowbar to pry it open in broad daylight, soon after the museum opened that morning. A tour later that day by Boy Scouts noticed that it was missing. No one knows how Gavin made it out of the building unnoticed with the almost-five-foot-long rifle.


Jacqueline Maguire, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division, noted that “The absence of the items from these museums represented not just a physical or financial loss, but a loss to every visitor, every student, and every researcher who didn’t get to see the items over the years and missed out on important pieces of our nation’s heritage. The absence of these items was, for so long, a loss to the historical record.”


Thankfully, the items are back where they belong in their respective institutions. Personally, I don’t know that I consider Thomas Gavin’s sentence to be justice served, but at least the items have been returned.


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