Pennsylvania man, 78, sentenced after stealing collection rifle 50 years ago

Pennsylvania man 78 sentenced after stealing collection rifle 50 years


A 78-year-old Pennsylvania man was sentenced to one day in prison and a year of home confinement for stealing a Revolutionary-era rifle from a museum over 50 years ago, prosecutors said on Tuesday. 

Thomas Gavin, from Pottstown, took the rifle from the Valley Forge State Park Museum, now Valley Forge National Historical Park, in 1971 and kept it in his barn until he decided to sell it in 2018. 

Kelly Kinzle, an antiques dealer who bought the rifle from Gavin, realized the rare artifact was an original made in 1775 by famed gunsmith Johann Christian Oerter and alerted authorities. 

‘I actually thought it was a reproduction,’ Kinzle told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019. 

The .50-caliber rifle, worth more than $175,000, is only one of two known well-preserved with the original flint mechanism from Oerter.

Gavin sold the Oerter rifle, a trunk filled with more than 20 antique pistols, and a Native American silver conch belt to Kinzle for $27,150, local news site the Patch reported. 

‘My first inclination was that it had to be fake, because the real gun isn’t going to show up in a barn in today’s world. Things like that are already in collections,’ Kinzle added.  

Gavin, who pleaded guilty in July to one count of disposal of an object of cultural heritage, also was ordered to pay $25,000 in fines and $23,385 in restitution by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  

Thomas Gavin, from Pottstown, stole a rifle, now in exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution (pictured), 50 years ago. Gavin will spend a day in jail, one year of home confinement and was ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution as a result

Thomas Gavin, from Pottstown, stole a rifle, now in exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution (pictured), 50 years ago. Gavin will spend a day in jail, one year of home confinement and was ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution as a result

The .50-caliber rifle, worth more than $175,000, is only one of two known well preserved with the original flint mechanism made by famed gunsmith Johann Christian Oerter

The .50-caliber rifle, worth more than $175,000, is only one of two known well preserved with the original flint mechanism made by famed gunsmith Johann Christian Oerter

Gavin sold the Oerter rifle, a trunk filled with more than 20 antique pistols, a Native American silver conch belt to an antiques dealer who later alerted police for $27,150. The rifle is now in exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution

Gavin sold the Oerter rifle, a trunk filled with more than 20 antique pistols, a Native American silver conch belt to an antiques dealer who later alerted police for $27,150. The rifle is now in exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution

The one-day-in-jail sentence came almost as a formality after Gavin’s attorney asked the judge for no jail time citing his advanced age, health issues and a past stroke.

‘After four decades, justice finally caught up with this defendant,’ said Jennifer Arbittier Williams, the US attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania.

Gavin’s attorney argued that his client stole the rifle merely for appreciation and had not intended to make money off it, selling it only for a fraction of its actual value to Kinzle.     

The rifle had been loaned by the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution to the Valley Forge State Park Museum, where it was on display at the time of the robbery. 

The collection item was inside an aquarium-like case of unbreakable glass, but Gavin managed to detach the metal strips on the case on October 2, 1971, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time. 

Gavin then lifted the glass, took the rifle and left the museum.  

A Boy Scout who later visited the museum with his troop noticed the piece was missing and alerted the staff.  

The rifle had been loaned by the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution to the Valley Forge State Park Museum, where Gavin stole it in 1971

The rifle had been loaned by the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution to the Valley Forge State Park Museum, where Gavin stole it in 1971

The cold case would go unsolved for 47 years, until Gavin decided to sell the rifle three years ago.  

Gavin is reportedly a ‘collector of all kinds’ of vintage items and keeps them in his barn, his lawyer said. 

He also confessed to stealing other guns and collection items from museums in the 1960s and 1970s. He sold those items.

He has since helped authorities trace the rarities and relocate them to their rightful owners, court papers said. 

The rifle is now on display at the Museum of the American Foundation, also in Pennsylvania. 

‘It is deeply gratifying to be able to return this rare artifact to public view after nearly fifty years,’ said Scott Stephenson, the museum’s president and CEO.

‘The Christian Oerter rifle exhibits exemplary early American artistry and is a reminder that courage and sacrifice were necessary to secure American independence,’ he said.  



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