Ex-lawyer accused in theft of letters arrested

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

A former lawyer wanted in the theft of six William Faulkner letters from Southeast Missouri State University surrendered to officers in Arkansas on Monday, nearly two weeks after Cape Girardeau County prosecutors charged him with the crime.

Robert Hardin Smith, 43, of Jacksonville, Ark., was being held in jail Monday evening in North Little Rock, Ark., police there said.

School officials welcomed the arrest. "We certainly are glad to know that he has turned himself in," said Ann Hayes, university spokeswoman. "At this point, we certainly hope that justice is served."

Morley Swingle, Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney, said late Monday afternoon that he would file extradition papers if necessary. Swingle said he didn't know if Smith, who is being held on $25,000 bond, would attempt to fight extradition to Missouri.

Swingle charged Smith on Nov. 19 with felony stealing in the theft of the letters, which are valued at $25,000. He is accused of stealing the letters during a visit to the university's Rare Book Room at Kent Library on Sept. 30.

Four days later, he sold the letters to a Rowlett, Texas, manuscript dealer, Swingle said.

The letters have since been recovered by various law enforcement authorities, he said, and will be sent to campus police for safekeeping while the case proceeds through court.

The letters by Faulkner, a Southern writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature, are part of the Brodsky collection, which the university acquired in 1989 from St. Louis collector Louis Daniel Brodsky.

University officials learned of the theft last month after a Faulkner collector reported seeing one of the letters offered for sale on eBay, an Internet auction site.

Smith, a former public defender, has prior convictions for stealing historic manuscripts from the University of Kansas and the University of Arkansas in 1996.

He was allowed to serve both sentences -- 15 years on the Arkansas charge and 11 months on the Kansas charge -- concurrently in a state prison in Arkansas.

He served nearly two years in prison before being paroled on March 22, 1999.

Smith surrendered his law license in Arkansas in 1993 after he was charged with forgery and writing insufficient funds checks.

In connection with the forgery, he was convicted of felony theft of property in Arkansas County on Aug. 26, 1994, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to Arkansas Supreme Court records. A judge reduced Smith's sentence to 10 years of probation on Nov. 22, 1994.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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