This article first appeared in the February 16th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Eric Francis
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – A North Hartland man found himself in newspapers across the country this week after he was charged with swiping and then selling a cache of just over a dozen cards and letters written by the beloved New England poet Robert Frost after a Hanover man inadvertently left the papers in the drawer of a desk that he’d donated to a charitable organization.
Timothy Bernaby, 42, pleaded innocent to a single felony count of grand larceny in connection with the tangled case that allegedly began late last summer at the LISTEN furniture outlet in White River Junction in the building that for decades was the landmark “25,000 Gifts and Woolens” store.
A witness who helped carry the desk into LISTEN’s furniture showroom later told police that he saw Bernaby open the drawers and take out some Christmas cards and then exclaimed that they were signed ‘Robert Frost’ before adding, “Oh these are fake,” before nonetheless putting them underneath the cash register.
The very much genuine Frost papers did not come to police attention until August after Plainfield Police Chief Paul Roberts, who happens to be an antiques appraiser, was approached by one of his local residents, Thomas Cady, who showed him the items, claiming to have paid $25,000 for them after Bernaby found them in the trash at the LISTEN store and realized they were valuable.
Suspicious of both the circumstances and of Cady’s claim to have shelled out that much himself for the Frost items, Roberts described the papers and the situation to detectives in Hartford and Hanover who eventually tracked down the donor of the desk, Kendal at Hanover resident Hewette Joyce who confirmed the Frost ephemera were his and that he had not intended to give them away when he donated the desk.
Although Bernaby did not technically steal the papers from Mr. Joyce since he’d accidentally let them out of his possession, detectives also contacted LISTEN Center Director Merilynn Bourne who told them that all LISTEN employees sign a contract saying that anything donated, intentionally or not, to LISTEN is LISTEN’s property and that the organization always makes a great effort to return any inadvertently transferred valuables they discover amongst donations back to their proper owner. Based on that, Hartford Detective Michael Tkac put together a case charging Bernaby with theft – albeit from LISTEN, where he’d already lost his job as a result of the incident coming to light, rather than theft from Joyce.
As part of his investigation, Detective Tkac asked Dartmouth College’s noted archivist Jay Satterfield about the worth of the items which Satterfield pegged at approximately $2,500, which would amount to just one-tenth of what Cady said he paid for them.
Asked what he thought of the apparent discrepancies in the valuations of the small Frost collection, Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand wryly channeled the iconic poet’s style as he told a half-dozen print, radio, and television reports who converged on the Windsor County Courthouse to cover Bernaby’s arraignment Monday afternoon, saying, “How much they’re worth, I think I know. A jury decides that question though.”
Although it is Bernaby who faces a potential maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000 if he were to be convicted of grand larceny for squirreling away Frost’s writings, questions surrounding Cady’s status in the wake of the filing of the charge against Bernaby have also arisen, especially since to date Cady has reportedly refused to turn the disputed Frost papers over to investigators.
Sand noted that Cady, who would essentially be relinquishing items that Cady at least feels are worth $25,000, was perhaps reluctant to do so without compensation for the large expenditure he claims to have made. According to court documents, Cady has retained a lawyer who advised him against handing anything back until the question of ownership is established.
Sand said that talks between authorities on both sides of the Connecticut River are continuing and he said the question of whether Cady could eventually be subject to a possession of stolen property charge if he continued to refuse to surrender the items was something of a gray area since prosecutors would have to prove that he knew the items were stolen in order to make such a charge stick.
The question of how Cady came to be in possession of the documents and how much he actually paid to obtain them is, according to the police affidavit, another grey area and one which may never really be resolved unless Cady got a receipt for the transaction. On the other hand, as Frost himself once said, “Nobody was ever meant, to remember or invent, what he did with every cent.”