'Labor of love': How 2 Pa. detectives helped recover stolen antique guns after 13-year search
Detectives Andy Rathfon and Brendan Dougherty say they'll continue tracking down lost artifacts, even after they retire
By Tina Locurto
The York Dispatch
UPPER MERLON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — An artifact thief targeted Pennsylvanian museums for valuable, centuries-old firearms.
And for almost 50 years — he wasn't caught.
"This stuff was on display in these various museums, and it was taken and hidden away for decades," said Andy Rathfon, a detective for the Upper Merion Police Department in Montgomery County, who worked the case.
Thomas Gavin, 78, admitted to stealing Revolutionary War-era weaponry from various museums, including the York County History Center. His crime sprees, though hardly on the level of heists portrayed in "Ocean's Eleven" or "National Treasure," still had consequences for small galleries that relied on the artifacts for education and research.
"When pieces are stolen from a museum, everybody loses out because that story won't be told," said Rachel Warner, director of collections for York County History Center. "As a collections person, that's our dream — is to see these pieces all come back."
Gavin, a Pottstown, Montgomery County, resident, stole 15 artifacts from a number of museums in the 1960s and 1970s and stowed them in a barn for decades.
It wasn't until he later tried to sell the artifacts to a Pennsylvania antiques dealer that the police were alerted to Gavin's activity.
Though Gavin admitted to taking the artifacts, an expiration in the statute of limitations prevented him from being charged with theft. In the end, he pleaded guilty to one count of disposal of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum.
His sentence? One day in prison.
In addition to one day in prison, Gavin was ordered to serve one year of house arrest and was required to pay $23,485 restitution and a $25,000 fine.
While one rifle and two pistols were safely returned to the York County History Center, mysteries surrounding the theft still remain.
"We actually have very little information regarding the circumstances of that theft," Warner said. "They were in exhibit cases, so we think he pried the cases open and let down the glass to be able to reach in and take them."
It took five years of investigating for the stolen items to be returned to York County — though the detectives working on the case with Warner have been tracking down missing artifacts from other museums for even longer.
Rathfon and fellow detective Brendan Dougherty, both from the Upper Merion Police Department, have been piecing together the mysteries surrounding missing firearms for 13 years.
And, even though some artifacts have been successfully returned, the pair said they won't stop tracking down lost items — even after they retire.
The Upper Merion Police Department covers areas in eastern Pennsylvania, including King of Prussia and Valley Forge National Park. A now-defunct history museum within Valley Forge catapulted the two detectives on their 13-year investigation.
In 2009, a source came into the police station to report what they believed was a stolen gun seen at an antique show. Though the tip resulted in a dead end, it opened Dougherty and Rathfon to something even bigger.
"It opened our eyes to look for any records of any thefts at the (Valley Forge) museum," Dougherty said. "What we found, ironically, was we had no police records. They had been destroyed because the cases were so old."
Luckily for the pair, all records pertaining to the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum were turned over to the Museum of the American Revolution. It was then they discovered five thefts occurring in 1968 and 1969.
Then, the case exploded.
In 2019, antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle came forward with what he believed to be a replica gun. Instead, it was one of few surviving rifles made by master gunsmith John Christian Oerter — and it had been stolen from the Valley Forge Historical Society, according to NPR.
"Once we identified (Gavin) being tied to the Christian Oerter rifle, we found multiple antique rifles," Rathfon said, adding that Kinzle's revelation opened up investigations for many museums with missing artifacts.
The puzzle was finally coming together.
The most difficult part for the pair was rebuilding a timeline of events, when many records were missing or destroyed. In the case of York County's missing artifacts, however, the museum had detailed records of everything.
So, the pair was quickly able to recover missing firearms for York County.
After years of studying antique weaponry, the pair has learned exactly what they need to look for when trying to match up a missing weapon.
The absence of serial numbers is a great first indicator. Additionally, many early 19th century rifles have distinctive features — like markings in the lock, nicks in the wood, position of the screw and the grain of the wood, Rathfon said.
"In the case of the rifle returned to York, the grain of wood matched," Rathfon added. "It was a cool moment to see a 100% match."
During Gavin's sentencing in November, he apologized for the trouble he caused.
"I never really thought about it back then, and now it's all come out — I didn't think it would make a hell of a lot of difference," Gavin said.
Gavin's lawyer, Harvey Sernovitz, too added: "Tom is a collector of all manner of old things ... whether he is considered a collector or a hoarder, profit was not his motivation."
Though Gavin has been sentenced and York County's missing weapons returned, Dougherty and Rathfon are still at it.
Two unsolved cases with the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum from 1968 and 1969 remain.
"It's a labor of love," Dougherty said "We do feel it's both a welcome burden, but it's also for me an honor that we can participate in this investigation."
Dougherty and Rathfon both emphasized that working with experts like FBI's Jake Archer and U.S. prosecutor K.T. Newton made the investigation even more compelling.
Rathfon said he is happy to see items finally being returned to their rightful owners. He's proud to have worked on something of this magnitude and be able to show his children the guns he helped recover.
"I'm just excited for them to celebrate this, and even if it brings a little more attention to the York history center, that's a win," Dougherty said. "That's what we're in it for. We've been waiting for this day, to see Rachel take these guns away and share their stories."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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