ST. PETERSBURG — Years before Joshua McCarty-Thomas became ensnared in a bizarre case involving two stolen Galapagos tortoises and an assortment of pilfered rare books, the St. Petersburg man sat in an Ohio federal courtroom to answer for a similarly odd series of thefts.
The case centered on the taking of two rare books dating to the 1700s from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums in Fremont, Ohio. One of the books was resold multiple times to unwitting buyers after it was stolen and eventually found its way into the personal collection of Texas billionaire Harlan Crow for $45,000, according to court records.
“I guess I would just like to say that I’m sorry for the public in general, that went to that library to see the book and see the history of it themselves,” McCarty-Thomas said at his 2008 sentencing hearing. “I do genuinely feel bad about that … I’m sorry for depriving them of that.”
Fifteen years later, he’s back in trouble, with new allegations centering on the theft of unusual yet valuable items.
McCarty-Thomas was arrested last week after St. Petersburg police said he and his spouse, Dashae McCarty-Thomas, a corrections officer in training, sold stolen books and kept other valuables at a St. Petersburg home. The inventory included two exotic, endangered tortoises that had gone missing from a St. Augustine wildlife park. Police found one tortoise dead in Joshua McCarty-Thomas’ freezer and the other alive in his yard.
It is something of a strange sequel to an earlier story that spanned much of the upper Midwest. The earlier tale was told in Ohio federal court records.
Stolen books, a billionaire and Rutherford B. Hayes
An FBI probe began in the summer of 2008 when librarians at the Hayes library noticed one of their books was missing. It was called “Laws of the Territory of the United States North West of the Ohio.” Referred to as the Maxwell Code, it was published in 1796. Estimates of its value ranged between $75,000 and more than $100,000.
The book was part of former President Hayes’ personal collection. One of its pages bore his signature, which was said to have enhanced its value.
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Library employees told the FBI that in late June of that year a young couple visited the library and asked to see a copy of the Maxwell Code. They were given a box that held the book and a similar rare historical text from 1798 known as the Freeman Code.
Later, while the couple had the books, a librarian noticed the man coming out of a women’s restroom with one of the texts in hand. The librarian made him give it back. The couple left. The books were returned to a shelf.
Shortly after the Maxwell Code turned up missing, librarians examined their copy of the Freeman Code. The text numbered 32 pages, which had been packaged with 150 blank pages enclosed in bookbinding. Upon inspection, they said, it was evident that someone had removed the 32 printed pages.
Agents later spoke with Michael Brown, a bookseller in Philadelphia, who said Joshua McCarty-Thomas had contacted him about selling a copy of the Freeman Code. The book had not yet been reported stolen and thus turned up no warnings when Brown searched the title in databases. He verified its authenticity and bought it for $35,000.
The book was then sold to a person in England, who resold it to Harlan Crow, according to court records. The Texas billionaire has more recently attracted attention for his close relationship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
The buyers did not know the text was stolen.
Joshua McCarty-Thomas evidently had talked to a number of brokers and collectors of rare books, court records indicate. A couple of them told the FBI that he’d mentioned he also had a copy of the Maxwell Code. They felt it was suspicious because the Maxwell Code is extremely rare.
Investigators pulled Joshua McCarty-Thomas’ phone records and found calls to someone named Zachary Scranton. He matched the description of the person library employees said had stolen the Maxwell Code.
Scranton was arrested in September 2008 in Ohio. In an interview with the FBI, he said Joshua McCarty-Thomas had asked him for help stealing a book. Joshua McCarty-Thomas told him he’d already taken one book from the library and, while he was at it, he’d seen another book he wanted to steal. Joshua McCarty-Thomas didn’t want to go back inside the library a second time. So he offered Scranton $1,500 to go in and take it. Scranton did so, stuffing the book in his pants before walking out.
Agents obtained a search warrant for the Ohio apartment where McCarty-Thomas lived. Inside, they found a large collection of books. Two of them, the FBI found, were reported stolen during a burglary of Powell’s Bookstore in Chicago.
Several other books from the Powell’s burglary were sold to a bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. A woman, whom the FBI identified as Joshua McCarty-Thomas’ then-girlfriend, told the store she’d inherited the books from her recently deceased grandfather.
They also found a list of book titles with amounts of money next to them — ranging from $300 to $6,000. The titles matched those that had been reported stolen from another Columbus bookstore.
Investigators also learned that, in February 2007, a large number of maps were stolen from a book collector in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Joshua McCarty-Thomas attempted to sell the maps to a bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, according to court records. The bookstore owner was suspicious and soon found out about the theft. Police set up a sting and Joshua McCarty-Thomas was arrested as he returned to the store to try to sell more maps.
John Ransom, the head librarian at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, told the Tampa Bay Times that the library’s stolen books were returned after the investigation ended.
Joshua McCarty-Thomas removed a page that contained Hayes’ signature, according to investigators, presumably to make it easier to sell. Despite the damage, the library was able to preserve it.
”We couldn’t believe somebody would actually do this,” Ransom said. “We’ve never had a theft problem before … we were ticked off, basically.”
In court, Joshua McCarty-Thomas’ defense attorney noted that he had been diagnosed with mental health problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. A judge mentioned that he’d previously received psychiatric treatment at a hospital in Florida.
Joshua McCarty-Thomas was sentenced to 46 months, or just shy of four years, in federal prison. It was followed by three years of supervised release, with the condition that he comply with mental health and substance abuse treatment.
“This young man does not have insubstantial intelligence,” U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary said in the sentencing hearing. “And perhaps with institutional help he can come out of it with a renewed sense of worth and a view of his responsibility in this society and be a positive contributor to that society.”
New state, new troubles, old tortoises
This year, he attracted law enforcement scrutiny once again amid a probe into a series of thefts from bookstores in Florida and Indiana.
Investigators were able to connect him to an eBay account, dubbed “You_Can_Never_Have_Too_Much_Awesome,” which sold some books that had been stolen in a Tampa Bay burglary, according to arrest affidavits.
When they executed a search warrant at his St. Petersburg home, police found the juvenile Galapagos tortoises — one alive and one dead. The animals carried microchips. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators scanned the chips and confirmed they were the same tortoises that had been stolen Nov. 30 from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, police said.
According to Dee Brown, a spokesperson for the St. Augustine Police Department, two people walked into the park that day, hopped into an enclosure and grabbed the two endangered tortoises. The pair then put the rare reptiles into a baby stroller and walked out of the park with them.
Each tortoise was worth about $10,000.
Joshua McCarty-Thomas remains jailed in Pinellas County on charges that include burglary and dealing in stolen property. He has not been formally charged with taking the tortoises, but a spokesperson for St. Augustine police said a grand theft charge is likely.
The surviving Galapagos tortoise was returned to the park May 17. It will be quarantined for at least 90 days. On Friday, the park’s Facebook page announced the tortoise was given a name upon his return: Salvo, meaning “I’m safe.”