Man who stole Revolutionary-era rifle from museum decades ago sentenced to 1 day
A 78-year-old Pennsylvania man who stole a rare Revolutionary-era rifle from a museum in 1971 was sentenced Tuesday to one day in prison and a year of home confinement, prosecutors said.
The man, Thomas Gavin, of Pottstown, was also fined $25,000 and ordered to pay restitution of $23,385.
He kept the flintlock rifle, made in 1775 by gunsmith Johann Christian Oerter, in his barn for 47 years after he stole it from a display case at the Valley Forge State Park Museum, officials said.
The theft might have remained unnoticed if not for a dealer who bought the rifle in 2018 and later realized its significance, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported when the artifact was returned to its rightful owners the following year.
“I actually thought it was a reproduction,” the antiques dealer, Kelly Kinzle, said at the time, according to the newspaper. “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.”
Gavin pleaded guilty in July to a single count of disposal of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum, prosecutors said.
His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
The attorney argued for no jail time in court documents, citing Gavin’s age and health problems, which include a stroke he suffered three years ago.
“He stole this rifle for his own appreciation,” not to make money, and it was sold for a fraction of its true worth, the attorney argued in a sentencing memorandum. He added that Gavin is a collector of all kinds of old items that he kept in his barn.
Gavin admitted stealing other guns and items from other museums in the 1960s and the 1970s, some of which were sold along with the rare rifle, and he helped authorities identify their rightful owners, prosecutors said in court documents.
“After four decades, justice finally caught up with this defendant,” Jennifer Arbittier Williams, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania, said in a statement.
The Christian Oerter rifle that was stolen and recovered is one of only two known rifles to have survived with its original flint mechanism bearing the maker’s name and the site and date of its manufacture, the U.S. attorney’s office said. The other is in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, it said.
The rifle belongs to the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution. It was on loan to the Valley Forge State Park Museum when it was stolen. After it was returned in 2019, it was put on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Oerter made rifles for the American Revolution in his workshop in the Lehigh Valley north of Philadelphia, which had been a rifle-making center, according to the museum.
The rare rifle “exhibits exemplary early American artistry and is a reminder that courage and sacrifice were necessary to secure American Independence,” the museum’s president and CEO, R. Scott Stephenson, said in a statement at the time.
When the rifle was stolen, a crowbar or similar instrument was used to pry off a metal strip, allowing the glass top to be slid off, The Inquirer reported at the time. A Boy Scout on a tour later noticed that the case was empty.