FALL RIVER — The former New Bedford Whaling Museum maintenance employee accused of stealing historical artifacts from the institution’s collection pleaded not guilty on Friday to 19 counts in Fall River Superior Court, where the prosecutor said about 192 items were stolen and not all have been recovered.
Robert M. Burchell, 42, of New Bedford, spoke during the arraignment on Friday morning only to repeat “not guilty” for each larceny charge of a 19-count indictment returned last month by a Bristol County grand jury accusing him of stealing historical currency, gold jewelry, watches, medals and scrimshaw on several occasions between Nov. 4 and Jan. 5.
Burchell, who remained free on bail, declined comment after the proceedings.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Scott told the court that 170 to 175 items of the 192 have been recovered, the rest are still missing. He said about 30 additional items are still not accounted for.
He said Whaling Museum officials have estimated that the stolen items — part of a collection of about a million artifacts — are worth roughly $150,000. He said Burchell, who was fired from his museum job in January, was paid about $13,000 cash in selling pieces to shops in West Bridgewater, Taunton and New Bedford.
Burchell “may not have been aware of the gravity of what he was doing,” Scott told Judge William M. White Jr., emphasizing the historical significance of the stolen items and the importance of the Whaling Museum in preserving artifacts of local, national and world history.
“They’re priceless,” Scott said, referring to the stolen pieces. He singled out the dollar value of only one item, a piece of scrimshaw on a whale tooth, which he said museum officials estimated was worth $35,000 alone.
Of the 19 counts, 13 are felonies, for stealing property worth more than $1,200, and each of these carries a potential penalty of up to five years in state prison. The balance are misdemeanors, for taking cash in amounts of $1,000 or less each time for stolen items from shops in Taunton and New Bedford, each punishable by a house of correction sentence up to a year.
The first count refers to the overall “larcenous plan and scheme,” and the others are tied to separate occasions on which Burchell is accused of selling or trying to sell stolen items. Scott told the court that the charges are presented this way, as prosecutors do not have surveillance recordings of particular moments at the museum when items were taken.
In arguing that the bail on which Burchell was released in January should be doubled to $10,000, Scott emphasized the gravity of the alleged offenses, Burchell’s history of shoplifting, larceny, breaking and entering and malicious destruction of property and that he is facing state prison time on current charges.
Burchell, who according to court records has a history of drug addiction, personal bankruptcy, and of being charged with shoplifting from retail stores including Target, Best Buy and WalMart, has served time in houses of correction in Bristol and Plymouth counties.
Burchell’s court-appointed lawyer, Brian Fahy of Fall River, argued that bail should remain as is. He told the judge that Burchell has appeared for all proceedings in New Bedford District Court, that he was in court Friday with his wife and child and now lives with his wife in New Bedford.
White agreed, leaving the bail amount unchanged, although he noted that “I can read the record for what it is; it’s not pretty.”
He set a pre-trial conference date for June 22, and left in place the order that Burchell stay away from the Whaling Museum, and from museum employees and any witnesses in the case.
Burchell had worked for the museum in the maintenance department for about a year before he was arrested on Jan. 5. He told New Bedford Police that day that he had access to the entire museum, that he would take items and try to sell them, and return them to the museum if he could not. He told police that he had stolen an artifact, a piece of scrimshaw, that morning.
The thefts were discovered when Len Estabrooks, the owner of West Bridgewater Coin and Jewelry Buyers, where Burchell sold items on five occasions in December for $11,000 cash, got suspicious about scrimshaw pieces Burchell brought on his last visit to the store.
As he had Burchell’s name from his driver’s license, which all sellers are required to show, Estabrooks Googled the name and found an association with the Whaling Museum. After checking the museum’s online database and finding images of several pieces he had just bought, he called West Bridgewater police.
Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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