NEW BEDFORD — The former New Bedford Whaling Museum maintenance worker accused of stealing artifacts estimated to be worth more than $150,000 has been indicted by a Bristol County Grand Jury on 19 felony counts, the District Attorney’s office said Thursday.
Robert M. Burchell, 42, who worked for the museum for about a year before he was arrested in early January, is accused in the indictment of selling or trying to sell stolen items worth more than $1,200 on 19 occasions, said Gregg Miliote, spokesman for Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III. According to police reports, the stolen items included jewelry, pocket watches and scrimshaw
The indictment was returned on Monday in Fall River Superior Court, where an arraignment is scheduled for April 7, Miliote said in an interview. Burchell, who according to court records has served time in county houses of correction in the past for shoplifting and other offenses, could face state prison time if he is convicted on these charges, Miliote said.
A full official count has not been released, but police reports and an interview with one shopkeeper who brought the thefts to light show that more than 100 pieces were sold to shops in West Bridgewater, New Bedford and Taunton from early November through late December last year. More information on the number of items stolen, where and when the sales or attempted sales took place cannot be released now, but could surface at the arraignment, Miliote said.
The DA’s office on Thursday said that the items are believed to be worth more than $150,000 and most have been returned to the museum.
After he was arrested on Jan. 5, Burchell, who was living in New Bedford, was released on bail and ordered to stay away from the museum. Each of the 19 felony counts carries a potential penalty of up to five years in state prison or up to two years in a county house of correction, along with a fine up to $25,000.
Burchell — who according to records in state and bankruptcy court has struggled with drug addiction and debt — told police in January that he had taken items from the museum on several occasions. According to a New Bedford Police arrest report, he told investigators that he had access to the whole museum, that he would take items that seemed valuable and try to sell them. When he was not able to sell them, he would return them to the museum, he told the police.
The day he was arrested, Burchell turned over to police three more stolen pieces, including a whale tooth with scrimshaw on it that he had taken that morning, according to the report.
Whaling Museum officials have declined to address questions about the procedures they followed in hiring Burchell as a “facilities associate” starting in December 2021.
Court records show that in the eight years before Burchell was hired, he had faced criminal charges in 13 cases in Bristol and Plymouth counties, although he was not convicted on all of them. These included drug charges, and nine charges of stealing from retail stores.
The New Bedford City Council this month voted to ask museum officials to appear before a council committee to answer questions about their hiring practices. At-large Councilor Brian Gomes, who introduced the motion to invite museum officials to appear, said that while the museum is a private institution, the artifacts held in the collection are part of the city’s heritage, a kind of public property that, in effect, “belongs to the City of New Bedford.”
The museum thefts came to light when the owner of a collectibles shop, West Bridgewater Coin and Jewelry Buyers, got suspicious about some of the 91 items Burchell sold to him on five occasions in December for $11,000 cash. In late December he checked Burchell’s name online, found a reference to his association with the Whaling Museum, then checked the museum collection online and saw images of some items he had bought.
The owner, Len Estabrooks, who had not sold any of the pieces, called West Bridgewater Police, who contacted the Whaling Museum. Museum officials visited the shop, which specializes in coins, jewelry and historical artifacts, and confirmed that the items had been stolen from the museum.
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.
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