To Catch a Thief

How a UVA detective brought a man accused of stealing maps across the country to justice

by Diane Tennant

The thefts were bold—carried out in plain sight—in university libraries across the country. Rare maps were disappearing, sliced from antique books.

The crimes were reported by major newspapers at the time, and later chronicled in a book.

The thief was brought to justice through dogged determination and a UVA detective’s ability to, as he says, “think like a bad guy.”

On Dec. 7, 1995, a man calling himself James Perry asked to see some antique books at the George Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A librarian set him up at a table in the grand stack room, where only one other person, a doctoral student, was working. That student happened also to be a manuscripts curator at the Maryland Historical Society, where she had learned to keep an eye on patrons, just in case they were up to no good.

According to the book The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey, the student thought she saw Perry tear a page from one of the volumes in front of him. She notified librarians, who called security.

When officers arrived, Perry picked up his notebook and left. The officers followed.

Perry walked faster. The officers did, too, and finally began to jog. Perry tossed his notebook into some shrubbery, climbed the steps of an art gallery, and found the door locked.

He meekly went back to the library with the officers, who had retrieved the notebook. Inside it were 200-year-old maps.

Perry’s offer to pay $700 cash for the damage he had caused at the Peabody in lieu of arrest was accepted and he was allowed to leave, but he left the notebook behind, apparently by mistake. As Peabody officials flipped through it, they found the names of other universities and libraries, with titles of rare books in their collections, the maps in those books and, in some cases, dollar values noted.

A librarian at Hopkins began calling libraries that were named in the notebook, and sent out a warning on an electronic discussion group that included a name Perry had given to officers: Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr. Librarians at UVA discovered that a James Perry had signed in at Alderman Library on Dec. 5 and 6, just before his visit to the Peabody. When they pulled the books that he had asked to see, they discovered several maps missing, including an odd one from Herman Moll’s 18th century atlas. This map is noteworthy not only for its age but for its unusual take on geography: It shows just off the West Coast of North America a long island labeled “California.”

It wasn’t just the loss that outraged the librarians, it was the mutilation of the books. A razor blade had sliced not only the stolen pages but the pages that came after them. The university police department was called. The case was assigned to general investigator Thomas Durrer.

*   *   *   *   *

Durrer is a genial man who lives a quiet life, raising vegetables on the family farm  in Albemarle County where one of his sons lives, and patiently instructing his new Australian shepherd puppy not to jump on visitors.

Thomas Durrer is now retired from the University of Virginia police department, but recalls well the case of Gilbert Bland Jr. Monica Pedynkowski

Over his 67 years he’s been a grocer, a farmer, a security officer, a patrolman, a police sergeant. Even now, in retirement, he holds three part-time jobs.

But it’s his days as a detective that are captured in a framed photo displayed in his living room. It’s a picture of eight men standing in a row in front of the federal courthouse in Charlottesville: the FBI agents and attorneys who worked the case of the map thief, and Durrer, who tracked him down.

He remembers the day he was sent to investigate. “Tom,” he recalls his supervisor saying, “go up to the rare books section. Some plates have been stolen.”

Durrer imagined china with blue decorations, maybe pictures of a church or other building. He was in no special hurry as he walked to meet with librarian Michael Plunkett, who explained that here, plates were actually maps from books. Expensive maps from books.

“I didn’t realize what was involved as far as money,” Durrer says now.

Plunkett enlightened him. The value of maps varies according to the market, but their worth was rising in the 1990s as demand increased. To librarians, the value of old books lies in the knowledge contained, and the historical and cultural significance. But decorators and collectors were willing to pay for aesthetics and ownership, to the tune of thousands of dollars.

“I didn’t realize until I got into the case that there was a market for those things,” Durrer says. He took his new knowledge back to the office and found his supervisor.

“I’m gonna need to sit down and talk about this a little bit,” Durrer recalls saying. Then the two of them went to the police chief, who listened to their story of missing maps and big money and responded simply: “Oh, man.”

Durrer went back to the library. He began his investigation with the library’s register of visitors, and with the call slips that researchers fill out to obtain books.

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library maintains two files pertaining to the thefts. The visitor register (center) for Dec. 5, 1995, lists a James Perry, with an address in Durham, North Carolina. Stacey Evans

The register for Dec. 5, 1995, listed a James Perry, with an address in Durham, North Carolina.   He left blank the area asking for his affiliation as a student, faculty member or independent researcher. On four call slips, Perry checked boxes indicating he was a graduate student at UVA. On two more, he checked the box for UVA undergrad. On four others, he checked no boxes.

Durrer noted that Perry had also signed the register on Dec. 6, which meant he had stayed overnight in the area. He thought it unlikely that the man had slept in his car in December, so he looked up nearby hotels and motels. Knowing that parking can be difficult on Grounds, the investigator began his search within walking distance of Alderman.

“I started with the closest,” Durrer recalls. “That was just a guess, and it worked.”

At the first hotel he visited, a Howard Johnson, he found Perry’s name in the register, as well as his car make and license plate number. It was a rental car, so Durrer contacted the rental company and confirmed that Perry was really Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr.

He’d paid for the rental with a credit card in his real name, Durrer says, with an address in Florida. Also on the credit card were a number of gasoline purchases and the locations of the stations. Durrer could trace Bland’s route.

“Now I’m on to him,” Durrer recalls. “My case file was growing.” The larger it grew, the more phone calls came in from, as he says, “everywhere.”

As investigators contacted libraries listed in Bland’s notebook, librarians discovered that more maps were missing from old books. Bland had made several stops along the East Coast. He went to Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before his two-day visit to UVA, and he ended at the Peabody in Baltimore, where he was caught and let go. In all, Bland’s alias was found on library paperwork at 19 institutions, including the Library of Virginia in Richmond and two in Canada.

Durrer took his evidence to the commonwealth’s attorney. “He said, ‘You know where he lives?’ ” Durrer recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I know exactly where he lives.’ ”

An arrest warrant was issued. Virginia wanted the map thief. So did North Carolina. The FBI was involved. On Jan. 2, 1996, Bland turned himself in to the police in Coral Springs, Florida.

Soon after, Durrer and a fellow detective flew to the Sunshine State and brought him back to Charlottesville to face charges.

*   *   *   *   *

“It was a big deal,” says UVA librarian Edward Gaynor. “All over the special collections world, if you say ‘Gilbert Bland,’ everybody knows who he was.”

When the thefts occurred, Gaynor was working in the catalog department at Alderman, but he was transferred to Special Collections in January 1996, one of three librarians given a special task: Identify the owners of maps recovered by the FBI.

Gilbert Bland Jr., January 1996 Courtesy of the South Florida Sun Sentinel

According to Harvey’s book and numerous newspaper accounts, Bland and his wife had opened a shop called Antique Maps & Collectibles Ltd., in Florida in early 1994. Soon after Durrer tracked Bland down, the shop abruptly closed and its inventory vanished.

Virginia wanted three charges brought against Bland, but as part of a plea agreement, he told investigators where to find the missing maps in exchange for two counts being dropped.

About 150 maps were recovered from a storage locker in Florida, and 100 more from Bland’s clients. The maps were brought to UVA for identification.

“It was a real learning experience, for all the wrong reasons,” Gaynor recalls. “Some of them came in on a board, shrink-wrapped, with a price sticker on it. That was a little upsetting. That made it very real.”

Court documents filed on March 28, 1996, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia list seven maps stolen from Alderman Library. Six of them—Les Isles Du Japon (1700), A Map of New France (1711-1717), A New Map of North America (1711-1717), A Map of Mexico or New Spain (1711-1717), A Map of America (1711-1717), and Mappe-Monde ou Carte Generale Du Globe Terrestre (1700)—were valued together at $14,150. A seventh item, Plan of the City of Washington (1792), was valued at a staggering $26,000 on its own.

In all, Harvey estimated in his book, the 250 maps recovered by the FBI had a market value of about $500,000.

UVA librarian Ervin Jordan recalls seeing Bland seated at a table in the Special Collections reading room during his December 1995 visit to Alderman. The man had one hand inside his shirt.

“When I looked at him, he jumped,” Jordan recalls. “I thought I’d caught him scratching himself. He looked a little sheepish. I really didn’t think anything nefarious was going on.”

Investigators later said Bland stored stolen maps inside his shirt after cutting them from books. Jordan had come close to catching the thief in the act.

*   *   *   *   *

The federal case against Bland ended with a plea agreement. Harvey wrote that during his sentencing hearing in Charlottesville, Bland apologized for the thefts, saying: “I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done. ... It will never happen again.”

North Carolina and Delaware pursued state actions against Bland. Between the three, he served fewer than 17 months in prison, Harvey wrote. Bland was also ordered to pay $70,000 total in restitution to UVA and Duke, and $9,000 to Delaware.

Since then, Bland seems to have faded from public view. Attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.

Of the 19 institutions from which maps were suspected stolen, only four pressed charges, Harvey wrote.

“In theory, they all could have prosecuted,” he says now. “But some of them didn’t want the publicity.” Libraries worry that news about thefts could cause donors to reconsider where they leave their collections, he explains.

According to Miles Harvey’s book, The Island of Lost Maps, the FBI alleges that Bland stole from more than a dozen libraries in the United States and Canada. He was charged in connection with three (in yellow).

About nine years ago, Harvey says, he was doing research in a library when the librarian called him aside. “She told me this whole story about how Bland had been there and they never told anybody,” Harvey says. “I understand their concerns, even if I don’t agree with their decision.”

Harvey’s own files on the case, compiled over the years he spent researching his book, have been donated to UVA and will be cataloged into the library’s own materials on the thefts.

The maps that were returned to UVA have been glued back into their source books, the repairs hardly noticeable to the average reader. But damage remains.

“Even if you put it back, you’re not seeing something the way it was 300 years ago,” Gaynor says. “You’re seeing a repair.”

“The monetary value isn’t the primary reason we have something,” he adds. “Nonetheless, it does reduce the value of the object when it’s cut out and replaced. Mercifully, the information is still there.”

The school did not attempt to conceal its losses, in part because it hoped the publicity would help bring the materials back.

“A lot of libraries hesitate to confess that they’ve been robbed,” Gaynor says, “but how can they hope to get it back if no one knows it’s missing?”

Comments (3)

Susan Cole on 03/25/2016

Surely he went to Swem Library at The College of William & Mary. That library has a vast collection of extremely rare books. I’m guessing W&M is a school that didn’t want the publicity. He truly would not have gone to UVA and the University of Richmond without checking out W&M// This is a great detective story, but the thief should have done serious prison time. I can’t believe he was able to pretty much plea bargain his way out of his crimes. .

V. Harker on 03/22/2016

For the sake of accuracy, I feel compelled to point out that they would not have used “glue” to reattach the maps to the books they were stolen from. They more likely used wheat starch paste (a reversible, plant-based adhesive) and a bridging layer of thin Japanese tissue where necessary.

Constantine Roussos on 03/18/2016

A great real-life detective story!

Leave a Comment