The Name of the Thief: A Portrait of John Charles Gilkey - by Ken Sanders

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

During my four-year tenure as security chair for the ABAA, I have been blessed and cursed with a plethora of book thieves, would-be book thieves, fraudsters, forgers, conmen, grifters, and all manner and kind of other predators within the book trade. My tenure has coincided with the rapid rise of Internet commerce and the swift rise to e-auction dominance of eBay. With this increase in cyber commerce, a Wild West frontier mentality has also come to the fore; the gunslingers and cattle rustlers of the Old West have been supplanted by the forgers and credit card thieves of the New West. Nineteenth-century hookers have become twenty-first-century hackers, and the poker players of old have been transformed into electronic auctioneers. This is a tale of a book thief, one of many I have acquired during several years spent in the underbelly of the rare book world. This parable, a rare tale of an unusual thief, tells of one of the few who were apprehended. Some days I feel like a modern-day Jonah, other days more like Pinocchio, swallowed whole by an unseen beast.

It was some three years ago that I had my first epiphany regarding the book thief who metamorphosed into John Charles Gilkey of Treasure Island, California. Back then I was receiving and dutifully reporting dispatches from ABAA members in northern California who appeared to be falling prey to a rash of seemingly random book thefts and whose only known connection was stolen credit cards. I was saving all the reports, and in my burgeoning files were patterns that I would eventually begin to see. At that time, given the usually genteel world that antiquarian booksellers inhabited, it was very unusual to be paid for a purchase with a stolen credit card. This new type of criminal behavior took the vast majority of us by surprise. However, the axis of the universe has since tilted, and booksellers will likely never be able to return to those days of innocence.

The rare book trade has always had book thieves. The situation is akin to the legendary saying of the bank robber Willie Sutton who, when asked why he robbed so many banks, replied, "That's where the money is." In the antiquarian book trade, we have the books, and our clientele, good and bad, come to us for them. In fact, not all book thieves start out as thieves. Many are collectors, first and foremost, who turn to the dark side to augment their collections. These rogue collectors often turn into full-blown book thieves, perhaps as in the case of John Charles Gilkey.

Three years ago, as reports of this type of credit card theft started to come in, a number of patterns became apparent. All of the defrauded booksellers were from greater or lesser northern California, from Berkeley to San Francisco, Oakland to San Mateo, San Jose to Palo Alto. An MO was emerging, which became visible after speaking with the bookseller victims: A man would call on the phone, sometimes younger, sometimes older, and would order a book that the dealer had in stock. The books ordered in this manner were from a few hundred dollars to as much as several thousand dollars, but always under $10,000. The prospective buyer was often knowledgeable about the book he was purchasing and the book trade in general. He would often talk with the bookseller long enough to gain the bookseller's confidence. A price would be agreed upon, and the thief would then proffer "his" credit card information, commonly an American Express card. At this early stage in the book thief's career, he would use an alias, not the real credit card holder's name. The charges would almost always go through, whether for $500 or $5,000, the merchant would dutifully obtain an authorization number, and the sale would be consummated--or so the bookseller thought. The thief would then interject that since he was going to be in the area anyway, he would come in that afternoon or the following day to pick up his purchase, or he would send in his "father," "brother," "son," or "nephew." It all seemed so plausible and innocent in those na´ve days of only a few years ago. No one then suspected the impending tsunami of credit card fraud that was poised to engulf us all. The antiquarian book trade, despite the occasional rotten worm, has a long history of trust and fellowship among its practitioners--novice and expert, collector and dealer alike. Those long-held traditions and beliefs were about to be severely tested, perhaps even strained beyond repair.

The thief's next move was to pick up his book and be off on the same day with it, leaving the unsuspecting bookseller with a credit card sale that no credit card company would accept as valid. Who had ever seen the card? Did the merchant have an imprint of the card? The thief would leave with his ill-gotten purchases; and days, weeks, or in some cases, months later, the bookseller would receive a charge back on the sale, when the real cardholder discovered the bogus transaction on his card and had it cancelled. The financial institutions and the credit card companies go to great lengths to protect the cardholder and place themselves beyond reach of the credit card thieves, leaving only the merchant to take the financial fall when a credit card transaction goes awry. (This is an area the credit card companies and the financial institutions seriously need to address, instigating procedures designed to protect merchants as well as cardholders from fraud. It is patently unfair for the merchant booksellers to bear the brunt of this ever-increasing fraud.)

As these reports began to trickle in several years ago, I had what I referred to earlier as my first epiphany. It seems so obvious now, but back then it was the great unknown. By talking with the booksellers who had been victims of this relatively new type of theft, signs and symbols began emerging, signs and symbols that are now as familiar to me as crop circles in farmers' fields caused by aliens. This alien as book thief had a name. It would take another two years to discover what it was.

As booksellers reported their losses to me, I was posting alerts that I called "Bay Area Book Thief" or the "Northern California Credit Card Thief." It was becoming increasingly clear to me that all of these thefts were related, and although I didn't have a face or a name, a portrait of the thief was becoming clearer to me. The Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco lost a nice two-volume first edition set of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge; the Heldfond Book Gallery in San Anselmo lost a signed two-volume Joseph in Egypt by Thomas Mann; Robert Dagg Books lost a Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad; Serendipity Books in Berkeley lost a ten-volume limited edition set of Burton's Arabian Nights; other booksellers in the northern California area were reporting losses ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars: all had the above described credit card scenario in common. All of these thefts had another common thread beyond geography: the "order" was always placed over the telephone using a credit card, and the "order" was always picked up in person by the thief. The nameless, faceless thief had a taste for nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, and as it turned out, children's books, fantasy and science fiction, mystery and detective fiction, and Hollywood memorabilia and movie tie-ins, in addition to a wide array of signed and autographed material, from Einstein letters to Brahms postcards and autographed Civil War carte-de-visites. The Bay area book thief was beginning to claim numerous victims and dollars. The thefts were rapidly mounting.

In the first half of 2002, there appeared to be a lull in the reports from northern California booksellers regarding the credit card thief. Had the brazen in-person thefts become too risky for the unknown thief? Then the thief seemed to stop altogether. Or had he? It was time for epiphany number two. During this apparent lull in the scammer's activities, I began receiving reports from other regions of the country, from booksellers who discovered belatedly they had been flimflammed out of expensive books ordered on the phone by a somewhat knowledgeable collector, one who paid for the books and overnight shipping with "his" American Express card. The northern California credit card thief hadn't stopped at all; he merely had expanded the parameters of his crimes. Looking back on the affair, it now seems so obvious, but then the waters were very murky indeed and nothing was clear other than this nameless thief's penchant for expensive books. By now, the anonymous book thief's modus operandi was all too familiar. Bridging two centuries, the anonymous thief was branching out from his northern California home, claiming new bookseller victims, honing his techniques, and leaving a trail of stolen books that would stretch from the California coast to the New York Island. But all of the book thefts were by now clearly recognizable as the work of one thief.

Possibly using an ABAA membership directory obtained at the Los Angeles Fair in 2000 or the San Francisco Fair in 2001, the Bay area thief was branching out. Perhaps he had run out of bookseller victims he could defraud in his home state of California. Perhaps, due to the constant alerts sent out to ABAA members, he was finding it increasingly difficult and risky to continue to order books over the phone and subsequently appear in person to obtain his sought-after treasures. After all, it was highly unlikely that any bookseller would fall prey to this type of scam twice! For whatever reasons, the NoCal book thief had gone coastal. Ed Smith Books in Washington State lost a pair of books, a nice first edition of Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and a signed limited edition of Samuel Beckett's No Knife, to this same thief with the new technique. Now there was an ingenious new twist. He would call up his intended victims, same as before, display more or less fairly good knowledge of the book(s) he was intending to steal, and after agreeing upon a price and giving the details of "his" Amex card, he would ask that the book be overnighted, adding that he needed it very quickly, sometimes giving the explanation that it was a "birthday present." He was always agreeable to adding the cost of the express shipping to his bill, and he would casually rattle off the credit card numbers and the shipping address. There were obvious clues that something was amiss, smallish things that no one gave much thought to at the time but that have come back to haunt in minute ways. It was remembered belatedly that the purchaser had stumbled over a street or city name; or he seemed to be saying the address slowly, as if he were reading it. Or he might be phonetically sounding out the pronunciation of a surname, little things that were seemingly of no consequence at the time. The address was always a northern California town, sometimes San Francisco, or San Mateo or San Jose or somewhere on one side of the bay or the other. The card, of course, would eventually turn out to be stolen, and the address would always turn out to be that of a hotel somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area. The result was the same; a bookseller had once again been defrauded out of a very nice book or two. The book thief seemed to be saying, "Happy Birthday to Me! Happy Birthday to Me!" over and over again.

Kevin Johnson of Royal Books in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the newer members of the ABAA. Unfortunately, Kevin was not yet a member, and thus not subscribed to the ABAA's listserv, when he received a phone call from the unknown book thief, who by this time I was calling the "Northern California Hotel/Motel Credit Card Book Thief." The thief's notoriety, along with his lists of victims, continued to grow. Kevin was enthused to receive an order for his fine first edition copy of Jack Kerouac's On The Road from an unknown California collector who was knowledgeable about both the book and its author. Kevin recalls the thief as friendly and polite; he seemed to be an enthusiastic younger collector eager to own this fine copy of Jack Kerouac's prized novel. The thief even solicited Kevin's advice as to who in the Bay area would make a clamshell box for this latest acquisition. He called near the end of the day, and Kevin had to scramble to get the book shipped overnight to California, which was undoubtedly part of the thief's plan. After obtaining an authorization for the credit card and dispatching the book to California, Kevin thought nothing more about the matter. The caller, however, had given a phony name and Amex card number to Kevin. The book was duly dispatched to an address that would turn out to be a hotel at the San Jose Airport. Alas, the card was stolen and the bookseller would lose the sale, becoming yet another victim of the Northern California Hotel/Motel Credit Card Book Thief. Kevin didn't take the loss of his prized copy of On The Road well. His proactive behavior in reporting the theft to the local police department in San Jose, California, would provide a momentous break in the case--that would ultimately lead not only to a name and a face for the thief, but also to his eventual apprehension and capture. Earlier that same day (July 29, 2002) in the small town of Hadley, Massachusetts, ABAA president Ken Lopez had received a similar call from the same thief, this time attempting to order a first edition of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That sale was never consummated--the Amex card didn't go through--and Ken was spared from becoming another victim. But Ken Lopez would remember that call.

By early 2003 the thief had stolen as much as $100,000 worth of antiquarian books from ABAA members, and the total was likely much higher. I remain convinced that many ABAA dealers are still unaware that they've been victims of John Charles Gilkey, to say nothing of non-ABAA book dealers across the country. Also, bear in mind that this type of theft--theft by deception with stolen credit cards--was relatively unknown at the time and was often not discovered until weeks and months had gone by. Typically, the cardholder wouldn't notice the charge until the statement came, so the charge backs to victimized booksellers sometimes occurred months after the original theft, when details might be hazy or altogether forgotten. In the case of Royal Books, the Amex card was a corporate card, and the charge wasn't noticed and disputed until almost five months later.

There were a number of puzzling factors about the thefts. Where was the thief obtaining the stolen credit card numbers, and why was he so confident that he could get away with making charges in the thousands of dollars on these stolen cards? And the books themselves: A number of the thefts involved high-end books, some uniquely signed or inscribed, yet I had found no evidence of any of the stolen materials being resold or turning up in the marketplace, including eBay. What was the thief doing with these books? It began to dawn on me that perhaps our book thief was a collector. As it turns out, the thief had worked for a period of time at an upscale department store in San Francisco and had been quietly harvesting its high-end customers' credit card account numbers and expiration dates. And, John Gilkey was a collector. Fifteen years before Gilkey, another notorious book thief had taken center stage across America. The tale of midwestern book thief Stephen Blumberg and the 20,000-volume library he stole and removed to an Iowa farmhouse is too well known to bear retelling here. Perhaps John Gilkey is a cyber-age version of Stephen Blumberg, caught early enough in his career that he had no time to equal Blumberg's massive haul over a twenty-year career as a book thief. Blumberg was also discovered to have a collection of over 50,000 antique doorknobs in his possession. We may never know John Gilkey's secret passion, nor may we want to learn his heart's true desire.

The San Jose I knew in the 1960s, from frequent trips to California in my youth, was that of the low rider capitol of California, if not of America. A collector friend of mine from Salt Lake had moved there around 1965, and I would make a trip or two a year to visit and buy books, comics, fantasy and science fiction, or my passion, illustrated books: Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke and company, and these odd new comic books, like Zap Comix, spelled with a "x" and featuring R. Crumb, Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, and Spain Rodriguez and company. Spain and my pal Al were both car-culture freaks. Nowadays, that region south of San Francisco, stretching the fifty miles or so down the peninsula to San Jose, is commonly referred to as Silicon Valley, and high tech has supplanted low rider.

The San Jose High Tech Crime Unit resides in the heart of Silicon Valley. It was formed as an elite investigative squad to ride herd on the emerging cyber crimes and piracy of high-tech trade secrets among the burgeoning dotcoms that had mushroomed from San Mateo to San Jose. As Ken Lopez and I were to learn, after spending half a day in San Jose searching for Detective Munson and his elite squad, even the squad's Silicon valley location was a well-kept secret--and not one that the San Jose PD was about to divulge to the hippie squad of the ABAA. One cannot wander from one dotcom HQ to another anywhere in greater Silicon Valley, even to use the bathroom, without signing a non-disclosure agreement. I doubt that these high-tech cyber squads could have known they would be investigating high-end antiquarian book thefts. They were no more aware of our existence than we were of theirs. If not for the dotcom crash, perhaps high-tech cops and high-end booksellers would never have gotten together. That fortuitous phone call from Kevin Johnson was another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, leading me to Detective Kenneth Munson and the San Jose High Tech Crime Unit and eventually to the name of the thief.

In January of this year, mere weeks prior to the opening of the ABAA bi-annual San Francisco Book Fair in February, Ken Lopez received another phone call from California, a call he believed was from the same anonymous person who had attempted to steal his Cuckoo's Nest six month's previously. This time the caller was after his Grapes of Wrath. The Northern California Hotel/Motel Credit Card Book Thief was about to receive a name. Holly Keith of Ken Lopez Books took the original order and had no idea she was talking to the by-now notorious book thief. Ken had been out of the office and would take the second call, when the thief called back to confirm the order. Ken thought he recognized the voice on the other end of the line, despite the thief using a different name and six months' passage of time. Remembering Kevin Johnson's experiences with the On the Road and his own near miss with the thief the past July, Ken was wary this time around. As the thief gave him the shipping address, Ken typed the address into and immediately knew that he had the Northern California Hotel/Motel Credit Card Book Thief on the line. Ken immediately called me with his suspicions. We decided to try a sting operation. Ken would pretend to go along with the order, agreeing to overnight the Grapes of Wrath to an address we were certain would turn out to be a hotel somewhere in Northern California. In the meanwhile, we asked Kevin for the name and number of the cop in San Jose to whom he had first reported the loss of his On The Road. When the thief called Lopez back, only minutes later, he wanted to know if the charge had gone through and if Lopez had tried to call him back. He was afraid he might have missed the call because he had been "out of the house." Ken went along with the thief and pretended to take the order. The thief had trouble pronouncing the name of his street and didn't even attempt to pronounce the name of his city, choosing to spell it out instead. Ken Lopez was setting the book thief up for a big surprise.

Detective Kenneth Munson not only took the theft of a book seriously, he was also eager and cooperative in pursuing and arresting the still nameless, faceless thief. I find this trait in a law enforcement officer to be simultaneously uncommon and refreshing. It took me a while to detail all of the thefts and my suspicions about the thief being one and the same, going back approximately three years, but he was willing to listen and furthermore, to take immediate action. A trilogy of Kens all in pursuit of the same nameless book thief! By another fortunate coincidence, this time the hotel was in Palo Alto, California, which happened to be within Santa Clara County and thus within Detective Munson's jurisdiction. We decided to overnight an FEL (First Edition Library) facsimile first edition Grapes of Wrath to the thief, our own little joke on him, instead of the actual $7,500 fine copy in dust jacket he thought he was ordering. Detective Munson and his squad meanwhile made plans to stake out the hotel the following day, for as long as it took to arrest our thief.

Approximately 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of January 15, a somewhat scraggily dressed Caucasian male, slim build, about five feet, nine inches tall, approached the desk and asked if there were any packages for him. A detail that I've forgotten to mention up until now is that the hotel/motel thief would always call and make a reservation at the hotel, with yet another stolen credit card number, so that the hotel in question would hold any deliveries pending his arrival. Detective Munson and his squad approached the thief as he left the hotel with the fake Grapes of Wrath first edition in his possession, although he hadn't had time to open it and find our surprise. The book thief pretended ignorance. "Some guy" on the train had given him twenty dollars and asked him to pick up a package, that was all. The thief pretended to be a homeless transient and proceeded to take Detective Munson and his squad on a wild goose chase through the Bay area, to various locales where he was to meet his imaginary benefactor and where he was supposed to deliver the package and collect his twenty dollars. Several hours later, the search for the book thief's imaginary friend was abandoned and the nameless book thief was booked into the county jail and charged with a felony. He still professed to be homeless and had no funds or identification of any kind on him when he was arrested, only the receipt for a prepaid phone card that would turn out to be the number from which he had called Ken Lopez. We now had a face to go with my very long-named, unnamed book thief. Unbeknownst to the book thief, he was about to involuntarily give up his real name.

Detective Munson determined, through the suspect's fingerprints, that our book thief was already in the California State Penal system. His portrait, while still incomplete, was becoming more fleshed out. The Bay Area/Northern California/San Francisco Hotel/Motel Credit Card Thief had a name: John Charles Gilkey. Gilkey was remanded into custody, and bail was set at $15,000. But before he could be brought up on charges, Gilkey, the indigent with no address and no funds, bailed himself out of jail and disappeared back into the streets of greater San Francisco. This was on the eve of the San Francisco Book Fair, held February 7-9 of this year. The book thief, John Gilkey, now had a face and a name, but once again, he had disappeared without a trace.

But now I was able to begin a new publicity campaign about Gilkey, one using his real identity. By this time, all of the thefts were known to be related, and a new round of security alerts was dispatched throughout the book trade. We went back and interviewed old victims, and new victims came forward. Erik Heldfond at Heldfond Book Gallery, John Crichton at Brick Row Book Shop, Peter Howard of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, Barry Levin of Santa Monica, all had been early victims. Detective Munson administered a photo lineup for these and other Gilkey victims. Only one was successful. Despite the passage of time, Erik's wife, Lane, distinctively remembered the man to whom she had innocently given the set of signed Thomas Mann almost two years previously. We had a positive ID on Gilkey and could now link him to other crimes, each one potentially a separate felony count leading to additional prison time. Equally important, Gilkey's ID validated my earlier theory that the two thieves were one and the same: the book thief that came in person to northern California shops was the same book thief who would later have books from across the country overnighted to hotels. But the lack of more positive identifications from the photo lineup of Gilkey was puzzling. While interviewing some of Gilkey's old victims, it became apparent that Gilkey had an accomplice. At Heldfond's, it was positively Gilkey who came in the shop. But at Brick Row, Serendipity, and others, the man who came in person to pick up books was described as an old man in his late fifties or early sixties, not the late thirties that fit John Gilkey's description. This was a puzzle that wouldn't be solved for some time to come.

Prior to the opening of the San Francisco Book Fair, we had another problem. Gilkey was now known, but he was on the loose and likely, in our opinion, to visit the fair. Ken Lopez had just downloaded a photograph of Gilkey from our Webmaster Rockingstone booth at the fair. The thief now had a name and an image, but we could not distribute it for fear of contaminating any photo identifications and jeopardizing the criminal case that we were so painstakingly building against him. For me this was an agonizing problem: how to spot a book thief that so few people had ever seen in person? My fears would turn out not to be ungrounded. On opening night of the book fair, I looked across the crowd in front of my booth and caught the eye of a man standing between a bookcase and a glass case in our booth. I had a funny feeling about him and walked over to my daughter Melissa to ask her to look at the fellow and remember his face. I have a notoriously poor faculty for recognizing people. Before I could get her attention, I looked back over to where the man had been standing, but he was gone, vanished into the crowd, and I would not see him again. Late thirties, slender build; face a bit chubby, shorter than I. To this day, that is the only time I have seen or met John Gilkey. I walked a few booths down searching for him and stopped at John Crichton's booth. I took John aside and said, "I think I just saw the book thief, John Gilkey." Crichton patted me on the shoulder and told me to relax, not to be so paranoid, there was nothing I could do about it. Turns out we were both partially right.

From the time of his arrest to his subsequent disappearance in January and finally to his ultimate re-arrest in March, John Gilkey had been a busy fellow. Twice more we would set up stings, but both times he got away. In March I received a phone call from the R.M. Smythe Company, a longtime New York autograph dealer and auction house. PADA president and ABAA member Catherine Barnes often reposts my security alerts to the PADA list, and it was here that the Smythe Company had become aware of John Gilkey. Earlier in the day, one John Gilkey of San Francisco had called offering to sell an autographed carte-de-visite of Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Smythe staff was immediately suspicious and called me. I enlisted their aid in setting up a second sting operation on our friend. I immediately called Detective Munson, who was game for another stake out. We all agreed that Smythe would ask Gilkey to overnight the image and then "agree" to send him the funds overnight, immediately upon receipt of the CDV. In this manner, we would not only recover what we believed to be stolen property, but we would also recapture the book thief. In the meanwhile, the Smythe Company determined that the CDV had in fact been stolen from a fellow autograph dealer in New York over a year ago. The method of their loss matched Gilkey's MO exactly: it had been overnighted to an address that turned out to be a hotel, and the credit card proved to have been stolen. We now knew Gilkey to have the stolen CDV in his possession. For reasons still unknown, Gilkey never called back and never overnighted the CDV. The CDV was not recovered from Gilkey, and it's believed he may have sold it to an unsuspecting dealer or auction house for cash. Its current whereabouts are unknown. At the time, Gilkey was facing an arraignment and was trying to raise funds for his defense. This would turn out to be the first, but not the last, attempt by Gilkey to resell stolen merchandise to raise cash.

As a result of the security alert that Catherine Barnes sent out to PADA members, I next heard from Roger Gross Musical Autographs concerning an autographed Brahms postcard the firm had "lost" in 2002. The circumstances surrounding this loss were identical to Gilkey's by now well-known MO. Gross had accepted payment via credit card and overnighted the item to a California address. The credit card, of course, was stolen, and the address that of a hotel. Gilkey had struck again.

On April 1, 2002, Cynthia Buffington of Philadelphia Rare Books called to explain she had received a suspicious order for a Bible leaf from a man in northern California. It was not an April Fools' joke. One of the things she thought odd was that when they discussed framing the page, she asked if he wanted it framed double sided, so he could view both sides of the leaf. The man seemed perplexed by the question and had to ask what was on the back of the page. The customer was to call back later to confirm the order. She was immediately suspicious, and after the phone call, she Googled the man's northern California address. To no one's surprise, it was a hotel. Cynthy immediately called the police, American Express, who confirmed that it was a fraudulent order, and me. I told her that it was the work of the book thief who now had a name. I asked her to pretend to go along with him and to overnight the leaf when he called back. We would set up another sting operation. I immediately called Detective Munson, and he agreed to set up another sting operation at the hotel, this time the Hilton in San Jose. Cynthy got a dummy package ready and overnighted it to the hotel via UPS overnight, barely in time to make that evening's pickup. April 2, 2002, found Detective Munson and his squad in place at the Hilton, where they waited for Gilkey to show. And waited. From 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. they waited. Finally they gave up, retrieved Cynthy's April Fools' package from the desk clerk, and departed. Gilkey was a no-show.

One of the lessons I learned during the John Gilkey affair was that working with real, live police officers is not quite the stuff of cop shows on television. Okay, I already knew that, but the sight of several cops hunkered down incognito in a hotel parking lot for six hours brought the lesson home. There'll be no television show, reality based or not, on this type of police work. By coincidence the coffee shop of this hotel is a favored lunchtime spot of the local police department. In hindsight, Detective Munson feels that Gilkey came for the package, saw the black-and-whites in the parking lot, was spooked, and left. In the Philadelphia Rare Books caper, Gilkey had grown slightly more sophisticated with his credit card thefts. Instead of employing a phony name, Gilkey adopted the actual name of the cardholder and had a ready explanation as to why his shipping address wasn't the same as the billing address for the card. In this particular case, it was because he had just moved to San Francisco from Atlanta and the credit card company hadn't caught up to his new address yet and made the change. Fortunately for the Philadelphia Rare Book Company, Cynthy wasn't buying any of it. But John Gilkey was threatening to become the big bad wolf of the rare book trade, and I was beginning to feel like the boy who kept crying "wolf" over and over again.

John Gilkey's next court date was scheduled for late March. But in the meantime he was still collecting, or rather attempting to collect, using his by-then thoroughly ingrained habit of paying for his purchases with stolen credit cards. San Francisco bookseller Thomas Goldwasser called me one afternoon while John Gilkey was in his shop. Gilkey was attempting to purchase a few titles by John Kendrick Bangs. He was attempting to pay with a check on a closed Wells Fargo bank account. Tom declined the sale. This was obviously the crime of a collector, there being no discernible market for the work of John Kendrick Bangs that I'm aware of; in fact, the entire sale was only around a hundred dollars. I called Detective Munson in the hope that Gilkey once again could be arrested, but San Francisco is out of jurisdiction for the San Jose Police Department and Munson assured me it would be quite difficult to get the SFPD interested in such a relatively minor bit of larceny. Once again Gilkey disappeared, but not for long.

On Friday, April 18, I received a phone call from Los Angeles bookseller William Dailey. Gilkey had just been to his shop and wanted to have four Winnie-the-Pooh books appraised for a possible sale. Again I called Munson, and once again it was impossible to have Gilkey arrested so far from Munson's jurisdiction--and the possibility that the LAPD would be interested was less likely than it had been a couple of weeks earlier in San Francisco. The four first edition Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne were the original British editions published by Methuen, in the limp leather bindings, still in the publishers' boxes, and worth approximately $12,000. I was certain that Gilkey had stolen these books, but from whom? And despite my best efforts, I have yet to be able to locate the legitimate owners. Over that weekend we tracked Gilkey from bookshop to bookshop as he unsuccessfully attempted to sell the Winnie-the-Pooh first editions. He also visited the Heritage Bookshop, George Houle Autographs, and another new ABAA member, Arnold Herr, all of whom were by now familiar with Gilkey and his tactics. A non-ABAA bookseller, Malcolm Bell of Bookfellows, unfortunately was not. Regrettably for the Bells, they had no advance warning that the by-then notorious Mr. Gilkey would be paying them a visit that Saturday. Gilkey attempted to sell them the allegedly stolen Winnie-the-Poohs, in which they had no interest, but they unsuspectingly sold him a Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard and a Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson, both first editions. They accepted a check from the same dead checking account that Gilkey had attempted to defraud Goldwasser with weeks earlier in San Francisco. Although the account had been closed for years, Gilkey was still putting the rubber checks into the marketplace.

From his weekend tour of LA area bookshops, valuable bits of information were gleaned. At Bill Dailey's he volunteered both his real name and an address that turned out to be on Treasure Island, a former military installation off the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco and home of the 1939 World's Fair. At Arnold Herr's he was observed getting into a vehicle boasting vanity license plates and driven by another man. At Heritage, he was accompanied by a man and a woman, and had the Winnie-the-Poohs in tow. As the reports came in to me, I dutifully relayed all of the information to Detective Munson. But as on previous occasions, it was extremely frustrating to me to be tracking my book thief, literally from shop to shop, hour by hour, day by day, and unable to do anything about it. After all, we had no proof that he had stolen the Winnie-the-Poohs. Gilkey flew back to San Francisco on Monday, April 21, and attempted to sell the Winnie-the-Pooh books to John Crichton. John stalled him, asking him to come back later, while he called me. John also informed me that Gilkey wasn't the same man who had stolen his Thomas Hardy two years earlier. That man had been considerably older than the thirty-nine-year-old John Gilkey. Crichton had an even more startling revelation: he had seen John Gilkey before, not at his bookshop, but at the San Francisco book fair in February! At the fair, Gilkey had approached Crichton and tried to sell him two books that would turn out to have been stolen from other ABAA members: Robert Dagg's Thomas Hardy and Ed Smith's Samuel Beckett. At the time, not knowing it was John Gilkey or that the books were stolen, Crichton simply turned down the offer. Crichton had an uneasy feeling about him. Gilkey later returned to the shop and recovered the Winnie-the-Poohs. Once again we were unable to arrest him, as we could not prove the books were stolen. The next day, Tuesday, April 22, Moe's Books in Berkeley called. Gilkey had been there and left the Winnie-the-Poohs for Moe's to make an offer. In Los Angeles, Gilkey had been trying to get $2,000 for the Winnie-the-Poohs; now he was open to offers. Since his court date was the next day, Wednesday, April 23, I can only surmise he must have been getting desperate to acquire the funds necessary to pay an attorney. Detective Munson arranged a photo line-up, for the second time, with John Crichton. This time, it would be Walter Gilkey, John Gilkey's father, which Crichton would positively identify from Munson's line-up.

Around lunchtime on Tuesday, April 22, I received a phone call from Detective Munson. He was calling from inside the apartment on Treasure Island. The address had not been bogus. Detective Munson was calling me from inside John and Walter Gilkey's apartment! Munson had obtained a search warrant from the attorney general and had gone to the address, expecting to find nothing. Everyone had assumed that Gilkey had given a bogus address, just as he had dozens of times before. But as it turned out, there was a treasure awaiting them on Treasure Island. The address he had given in Los Angeles turned out to be legitimate. While I frantically got on my computer and started going through the rather massive John Gilkey files, encompassing dozens of entries going back three years, I began feeding Detective Munson stolen book titles to look for inside of Gilkey's apartment.

Is there an On the Road by Jack Kerouac? Yes, Ken Munson replied. Grab it, I shouted excitedly into the telephone, that's the book stolen from Kevin Johnson in Maryland last July. Is there a two-volume Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy...? Yes! John Crichton's copy! How about another Thomas Hardy? Lord Jim? Yes, Bob Dagg's this time. Was there a signed limited edition of Samuel Beckett's No Knife? How about%u2026 We went down the list of books known to have been stolen by the book thief we now knew as John Charles Gilkey.

Twenty-six stolen books were recovered that day, including Kevin's On The Road; Crichton's Thomas Hardy; Heldfond's Thomas Manns; Bauman's Streetcar Named Desire and Eloise in Paris; Ed Smith's Samuel Beckett; Serendipity's set of The Arabian Nights; Bob Dagg's Lord Jim; Heritage's Life on the Mississippi and Little Lord Fauntleroy; and other books stolen or believed to have been stolen by John Charles Gilkey. The Shirley Jackson and the Robert Howard that Gilkey had stolen just the past Saturday from Malcolm Bell were recovered that Tuesday; they still had Malcolm Bell's codes and prices in them. Seventy-two hours after their theft, before the bad check had even bounced its way back to Bookfellows, the books had been recovered.

More disturbing are the books believed to have been stolen by Gilkey that were not recovered from his apartment that Tuesday, their current whereabouts are still unknown. They may yet be in his apartment or perhaps stashed in an unknown storage locker somewhere in Northern California or secreted back in Modesto, California, where Gilkey and his family hail from. We simply don't know. Please bear in mind that these books may have also been sold to unsuspecting collectors, dealers, or auction houses at some point in the past two years.

If you have any inkling of the whereabouts of these books, please contact the ABAA security office immediately: Ken Sanders, 268 South 200 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84111; phone 801-521-3819; fax 801-521-2606; email The missing books stolen by John Gilkey but not yet recovered include: Mrs. Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter (Asprey, Beverly Hills); Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (stolen from Ed Smith Books); Interview With The Vampire, warmly inscribed by the author, Anne Rice (Bauman's); an autographed Brahms postcard (Roger Gross Musical Autographs); and an inscribed Albert Einstein photo (Lion Heart Autographs) There are undoubtedly many others that will be added to this list in the future.

A third category of books allegedly stolen by John Gilkey exists as well. I say allegedly in this case because, although the books were recovered from Gilkey's apartment, the rightful owners have yet to be found. Again, if you have any clues as to the identity of the rightful owners of these books, please contact the ABAA security office. This list includes:

  • Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Air Glider.
  • Dinesen, Isak. Shadows on the Grass.
  • Jones, James. The Thin Red Line.
  • King, Stephen. The Dead Zone (signed).
  • Levin, Ira. Rosemary's Baby.
  • Lovecraft, H.P. The Dunwich Horror and Others.
  • Milne, A.A. Winnie-the-Pooh, When We Were Very Young, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner (all Methuen in limp leather and publisher's boxes).
  • Norton, Mary. The Borrowers Afloat.
  • Pearson, Arthur. Ghost Stories and Other Queer Tales.
  • Rice, Anne. Interview With the Vampire (signed).
  • Rice, Anne. Memnoch the Devil (signed).
  • Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
  • Steinbeck, John. East of Eden.
  • Updike, John. The Witches of Eastwick.

The following day, Wednesday, April 23, Gilkey and Munson were back in court. The judge was rather perturbed to find out what Gilkey had been up to since his last court appearance. Gilkey had no attorney present and asked that one be appointed for him. Apparently he had been unsuccessful in selling the stolen books to hire an attorney. The judge set the new bail at $200,000, and Gilkey was remanded into custody. He has remained in jail since that day, seemingly unable to come up with the new bail amount. And not so coincidentally, the three-year spate of books being fraudulently obtained with stolen credit cards, whether in person or shipped to a hotel in Northern California, has ceased. The reign of terror for this particular book thief is over. As I write these words, John C. Gilkey is set to appear in court on June 4. He has been offered a plea bargain of three years incarceration if he pleads guilty to the one felony count. As part of that plea bargain, it is my understanding that he is to confess to all seventeen of the felonies we have been able to charge him with and make restitution for the books he is known to have stolen. If he chooses to refuse the plea bargain, then Detective Munson and the state of California will begin proceedings against him for seventeen separate felony counts. His father, Walter Gilkey, will then be indicted as a co-conspirator, based on John Crichton's positive ID. If convicted, the two book thieves would presumably then serve a much longer sentence in a California prison.

It has taken three years out of my life to catch one book thief--a thief I have never met, except for the brief visitation to my booth at the February book fair. The information and help gleaned from ABAA colleagues and others have been instrumental in that process. I may have been the catalyst to catch this particular thief, but without the collective effort, he might have been the one that got away. And I cannot emphasize enough the role played in this affair by Detective Kenneth Munson and his high-tech crime unit in San Jose. Their hard work and expertise, and their willingness to enter into the unknown world of antiquarian books, are the real reasons that John Gilkey is now incarcerated. ABAA President Ken Lopez, John Crichton, Kevin Johnson, Erik and Lane Heldfond, William Dailey, and others have all stepped up at various points and played pivotal roles in the catching of the thief. Cynthia Buffington was extremely enthusiastic during our unsuccessful attempt to catch him. I cannot say which of us was the more disappointed when he escaped that day in April. Maybe Gilkey had pulled an April Fools' joke on us after all. During my four years as security chair of the ABAA, I have learned an enormous amount, not only about books and their thieves and how to catch them, but also about all manner of esoteric knowledge from the nether regions of the book trade. Frauds and forgeries, Internet scams, phantom auctions, third-world credit card fraud, white-collar thieves, sociopaths, and psychopaths, from Belgrade to Berkeley, from Moscow to Micronesia, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. And so much more. With the knowledge I've gained about the underbelly of our profession, I could easily become the Lex Luthor of the antiquarian book trade. I've been physically threatened, bullied, and harassed, and made new enemies in Africa, Indonesia, the former Soviet bloc countries, and all across America. I've had legal papers served on me by Internet bullies, threats of violence left on my answering machine, and I've even chased thieves right out of my store, across two parking lots and down three alleys. It's not a lifestyle I would recommend to anyone, but between the frustrations and the fears, there are occasional moments of personal satisfaction like this one. For at least three years, the book thief I've never met, my formerly faceless, nameless nemesis, is behind bars.

The author would like to acknowledge the editing help of Greg Gibson, Ken Lopez, and Melissa Sanders, all of whom took the time to read and comment on this piece. The errors, bad writing, and poor penmanship remain solely the work of the author.

For further information, please contact:

Ken Sanders Rare Books
268 South 200 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84111
(801) 521-3819
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