By the time he walked into West Bridgewater Coin and Jewelry Buyers in December with a story to tell and things to sell, Robert M. Burchell had experience. He had since 2015 been caught trying to walk out of big-box stores and supermarkets with, among other things, TVs, cell phones, power tool batteries, home security cameras, a camcorder, carpet cleaning machine, chainsaw, generator, and bags of beef jerky.  

But now it was different. Now he was working for the New Bedford Whaling Museum with access, he later told police, to the whole place — hundreds of thousands of historical artifacts. According to felony larceny charges now pending against the 42-year-old man, he was moving onto fresh terrain with thefts from the museum, a venerable city cultural institution drawing more than 70,000 visitors last year, and even more before the pandemic. 

Burchell would step into the collectibles shop in West Bridgewater not once but five times in two weeks during December, always late in the work day, sometimes calling ahead to see if the owner would be in. The tall man with tattooed arms then living in New Bedford’s North End carried a backpack and a story: his father, a collector, had recently died. He was there to sell possessions left behind. At first it was coins, currency, jewelry, just the sort of stuff that the shop would expect to see in the usual course of business.

“It was right up with what we do,” said the business owner, Len Estabrooks. “Ninety-percent of what we do is estate work.”

During those two weeks, though, this impression began to change. 

Estabrooks was doing his best during an interview to avoid being too specific about the items, trying not to say anything that could compromise a criminal case. The pieces Burchell brought in were getting “better and better,” he said. They were “just unique,” he said. “More and more interesting,” he said, “things I would personally collect.”

Estabrooks, who opened the shop three years ago, said he’s been collecting historical artifacts for about 20 years, keeping his eye out for “rare items.” Some are there in the small shop at a busy intersection near where Route 106 meets 24, on the walls and in a corner cabinet for display only, not priced for sale. Note the documents signed by presidents long ago, including Theodore Roosevelt. There’s a photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train framed with a fingernail-sized swatch of the blood-stained sheet from his deathbed. High on one wall a flintlock pistol, on another an American Revolution-era musket, aged to charcoal patina. 

It’s part retail collectibles store, part micro Americana museum. It turned out that the big, friendly man who was stopping in again and again, who said he and his late father once worked together at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, had been learning about museum work himself, from the inside. Estabrooks did not know that, at least not right away. He would learn soon enough. 

Museum job followed years of thefts and incarceration

Burchell started working at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in December 2021 in maintenance, a position the museum calls a “facilities associate.” One photograph published in The Standard-Times during his 13 months there shows him scraping clean the white whale statue sometimes displayed outside near the front entrance, preparing it for a coat of paint. Another, evidently taken last fall, shows him using a leaf blower to clear an area out front of the museum of orange and yellow leaves. The calm suggested in the demeanor of the man in the blue polo shirt and khakis belies years of turmoil.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum in downtown New Bedford. Credit: New Bedford Whaling Museum

Between 2014 and the time Burchell started working at the museum, according to District Court case files, he had faced criminal charges in 13 cases in Bristol and Plymouth counties, although not convicted on all of them. Four drug counts, for instance, were continued without a “finding,” after Burchell admitted there was enough evidence to convict him and he accepted probation.

One incident in the Brockton area in May 2015 led to several counts including breaking and entering and malicious destruction of property, a guilty plea and a six-month Plymouth County House of Correction sentence.

Mostly, though, there was one charge after another for stealing merchandise from retail stores, according to court records. In nine instances from 2015 to 2019, including two that were weeks apart at the same store, he was charged with taking items from Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Home Depot and a Hannaford supermarket in Raynham, Easton, Taunton, Bridgewater, Avon and Middleboro.

Three of those nine cases were dismissed, and there were guilty findings in six cases, according to District Court records.

During that time, court records show him with addresses in Taunton, East Taunton, Lakeville, Middleboro, and Freetown. On two occasions, he was described in reports by police in Taunton and in Wareham as “homeless.”

Burchell was living for weeks and months at a time during those eight years in county jail, with six stints in either pre-trial detention or serving sentences in Bristol County custody at the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth and the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford. The longest stretch was about nine months for shoplifting from December 2017 through early September 2018, as confirmed by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office. 

Court records show Burchell had been sentenced to two six-month terms and one 30-day term in the Plymouth County House of Correction. One six-month and the 30-day term were for the destruction of property incident, one six-month sentence for shoplifting. Officials of the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office would not confirm or deny that he had served time there, citing their interpretation of a state law on releasing criminal records information.

Sign up for our free newsletter

Years before the first criminal charges in 2014 of possession with intent to sell prescription drugs, including Suboxone, Ritalin and Valium, Burchell struggled with debt. 

District Court records show that Burchell experienced money troubles at least as far back as 2005, when a collection agency pursued him in small-claims court in Taunton for credit card debt that, with fees and interest, came to just over $2,100. Three years later another collector took him to Brockton District Court for the balance due on a car loan, more than $5,700 with fees and interest.

Both creditors turn up in a list of 26 — credit card companies, collection agencies, retail stores, medical providers, Verizon wireless — that appears in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition Burchell filed in March 2009, according to a U.S. Bankruptcy Court record.

A bankruptcy judge in July 2009 granted the “discharge,” or relief from more than $23,000 in debt. As is often the case in Chapter 7 proceedings, the relief came at the price of turning assets over to a trustee for sale. Burchell at the time owned a condominium unit in East Bridgewater.

The Chapter 7 law is meant as a way to give the petitioner a new start, but in this case the trouble did not end there. Court records show a new round of collectors pursuing Burchell in 2015, 2016 and 2021. 

It is not clear what, if anything, Whaling Museum officials knew about Burchell’s civil or criminal court record when they hired him.

The root of the struggle is hardly clear.

A voice message left at a number that appears as Burchell’s phone in recent court files was not returned. Neither was a request for an interview sent by regular mail to his daughter, whose initials are tattooed on Burchell’s upper left arm. A woman with whom he was once in a relationship said in a brief phone call that she did not wish to comment. According to a police report, her name is tattooed on Burchell’s left wrist.

Burchell’s older sister told the police in 2017 that her brother was driven to shoplifting by an addiction to Oxycontin. Her comments appear in a police report written in December 2017, after he was arrested at the Target store in Easton for stealing items valued at $1,145, including Amazon tablets and a home security camera. She had driven him to the store to do Christmas shopping and said she did not know he intended to steal anything.

Court records include a 2019 letter from a High Point drug treatment center to the Taunton District Court certifying that Burchell was in residential treatment there, a program called “New Chapters” that could run three to six months. He was doing well, the letter said.

“Robert has been a positive peer within the community,” wrote counselor Claire Murphy. She wrote in November 2019 that he was taking steps to find a job and was expected to find work “sometime next week.”

In April 2021, in a document filed in response to a child support lien brought against him by the state, Burchell wrote that he was gaining the upper hand on his addiction.

“I have been two and a half years clean and sober now and have been on a Suboxone protocol also for 2½ years,” Burchell wrote in the note that appears in documents dealing with probation in a file on a 2019 shoplifting case. He was referring to a medication used to treat opioid addiction.

You can power local journalism with a monthly donation. Give here!

Still, the paperwork in that file showed that eight months before he started working at the Whaling Museum, he owed more than $1,500 in child support and was behind $2,250 in rent on his New Bedford apartment. In a separate case, a debt collector in September 2022 won a $739 judgment against him in New Bedford District Court.

It is not clear what, if anything, Whaling Museum officials knew about Burchell’s civil or criminal court record when they hired him. 

Citing concern about the open criminal case, the museum’s public relations representative said museum officials would not answer questions about the vetting process used in hiring Burchell, or whether the museum has special access to the Criminal Offender Record Information system run by the state courts.

The museum passed along a statement released last month by Amanda McMullen, museum president and CEO. McMullen said the museum has “always employed security measures that are above the industry standard, including tech-enabled and human monitoring of our collection. We have swiftly responded to this incident with increased security measures to further protect our collection.”

Some of the case information on the small claims and a probate court case would have been available through a conventional online search of the Massachusetts court system database. The online criminal case information, however, would not be. Without a specific case number, a conventional search for a defendant’s name does not show criminal cases even exist.

Criminal case information would be available from public computers at a district court, or if an employer making the inquiry has been granted access to such material under the state’s law governing public release of criminal records.

What sort of vetting would be recommended for hiring at museums is not clear. Representatives of three museum organizations, the Small Museums Association, the New England Museum Association and the American Alliance of Museums declined to respond to email messages. 

Whatever bar was set for a “facilities associate,” Burchell cleared it, and got to work.

How he got caught

Burchell was at work at the museum on Thursday, Jan. 5, as usual, but it was not a usual morning. He was told he’d been fired from his job.

He was in a meeting in the facilities office with Michelle Taylor, the museum’s chief administrative officer and CFO, D. Jordan Berson, the director of collections, and New Bedford Police Officer Victor Ramos, who had been called for a report of thefts by an employee, according to a New Bedford Police report on Burchell’s arrest. Heading to the museum was New Bedford Police Detective Thomas W. Jupin, who was already on the case.

Jupin and a West Bridgewater detective had been investigating after hearing from Len Estabrooks at West Bridgewater Coin and Jewelry Buyers.

As Estabrooks recalled, he saw Burchell one last time late in the day on Friday, Dec. 30. Burchell had called ahead, this time bringing items that were even more striking than the rest.

He paid Burchell in cash for the last sale, as usual — the five purchases of 91 small items adding up to $11,000. He had not yet sold any of the pieces, he said, as the shop holds everything for 30 days in case questions arise.

The shop requires an official ID such as a driver’s license to complete all sales, but Estabrooks said he’s not in the habit of vetting customers. He did not do anything this time. At least not right away. 

Scrimshaw pieces that police say were stolen from the Whaling Museum and sold at a collectibles shop in West Bridgewater. Credit: New Bedford Police

But the items Estabrooks bought on Dec. 30 raised more serious questions in his mind. He said the last thing he needs is to be found dealing in stolen merchandise.

By the evening of Jan. 2, he was troubled enough to search Google for “Robert Burchell” and “New Bedford.” He found a reference to Burchell’s association with the Whaling Museum.

“As soon as I saw that my heart just sank,” Estabrooks said.

He went to the Whaling Museum website to search the collection, finding three or four pieces that he had bought. The next morning he called a West Bridgewater detective whom he knew, who stopped by the shop that day with another detective. They looked at the items, and called the Whaling Museum from the shop.

Two museum employees visited the shop the next day, looked at the pieces, and confirmed they had been stolen from the museum, according to Jupin’s account in Burchell’s arrest report.

In questioning at New Bedford Police headquarters, Burchell told the investigators that “he had complete access to the entire museum, along with access codes for alarms, as well as keys for all the doors,” Jupin wrote.

He may have had access, but not necessarily carte blanche to roam the place. Museum officials told Jupin that Burchell had been spotted “in an area of the museum where he did not belong” and was confronted on Jan. 5 about stealing.

The thefts had not been going on very long, Burchell told the police.

“Mr. Burchell told us that he had been dealing with financial problems, and only recently, began to take items from the museum to sell for profit,” Jupin wrote.

Three gold pocket watches sold at a Taunton pawnbroker that police say were stolen from the Whaling Museum. Credit: Taunton District Court

He would take things from different areas at different times of the day, not targeting one particular place, Jupin wrote. He would try to sell them, and if he could not, he brought them back. He told police he sold pieces not only at West Bridgewater, but also in pawn shops in New Bedford and Taunton.

In two separate criminal cases, Burchell is charged in connection with selling stolen pieces, including six pocket watches, and a gold bracelet at the Taunton Antiques Center and Fall River Pawn Brokers, which is also in Taunton, according to case files held at Taunton District Court.

According to a police report, Armen Tenkarian, owner of the Antiques Center, told police that he bought two watches for $1,000 in early November, but was suspicious. He said Burchell told him that they had belonged to his grandfather, but according to the report by Taunton Police, “he knew these items were not items that ended up in an individual possession, as they should be somewhere in a museum.”

In questioning at New Bedford Police headquarters, Burchell told the investigators that “he had complete access to the entire museum, along with access codes for alarms, as well as keys for all the doors.”

Tenkarian told the police in January that he contacted Taunton Police in November, but had not heard back. Tenkarian declined to comment, as did the proprietor at Fall River Pawn Brokers.

At the museum, Burchell told police he had stolen items in his backpack, a wooden box and a City of New Bedford emblem, two chest medals and a metal logo for the “Union St. Ry. Co.,” Jupin wrote, apparently referring to the Union Street Railway Company. But that was not all. That morning when he arrived at work for the last time, he had taken a whale tooth with scrimshaw on it, which he had stashed in his car.

After his arraignment on a felony larceny charge on Jan. 6, Burchell was back at the Ash Street Jail, where he had served a good part of his sentence in 2018 while serving as an inmate worker there. This time, he stayed a week and was released on bail posted by his daughter. 

In the related Taunton cases, an arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 23. In the main Whaling Museum case, a pre-trial conference is now scheduled for March 8 at New Bedford District Court.

It is not clear exactly how many items were stolen or recovered. Estabrooks said the West Bridgewater Police took custody of all 91 items that he bought. The Taunton Police also took custody of at least four items, a bracelet and three gold pocket watches. Police took custody of items the day Burchell was arrested.

A statement from the Bristol County District Attorney last month put the value of all the stolen pieces at more than $75,000.

Estabrooks said he would estimate a lot more. With historical artifacts, he said, it’s hard to know without understanding the story behind the piece. Even a common household item can gain great value if it’s associated with a particularly significant historical event or figure.

He wonders about Burchell, this friendly man who seemed at ease there in the shop, who handed over his driver’s license without hesitation while selling items from a museum collection. He’s either very foolish, Estabrooks said, using a more harsh term, “or he was desperate.”

Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at

Thank you to our sponsors

Founding benefactors: Joan and Irwin Jacobs fund of the Jewish Community Foundation, Mary and Jim Ottaway

Learn more about our community of individual donors

For questions about donations, contact Chrystal Walsh, director of advancement, at

For questions about sponsoring The Light, contact Peter Andrews, director of business development and community engagement, at