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Historian gets 18-month prison term for stealing presidential letters

NEW YORK (AP) – A historian and author was sentenced Friday to a year and a half in prison after apologizing for stealing letters that were written by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and prized by Theodore Roosevelt.

Edward Renehan Jr., 52, also must pay more than $86,000 in restitution to a Manhattan gallery where he tried to resell the letters, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin ordered as he imposed the sentence.

Renehan admitted he stole the presidential letters in 2006 and 2007 from the Theodore Roosevelt Association, based in Oyster Bay, on Long Island. He was then its acting director.

“I have taken my golden bowl and foolishly and recklessly dashed it upon rocks of self destruction,” said Renehan, who has written six books. “I alone am responsible for this one great, indelible stain which now and forever disfigures a life I am otherwise proud of.”

Renehan, of North Kingstown, R.I., said the crime occurred when he was in the manic phase of what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

He pleaded guilty this year to interstate transportation of stolen property. One letter was handwritten by Lincoln on March 1, 1840; two were written by Washington. One of those was dated Aug. 9, 1791, the other Dec. 29, 1778.

Renehan still faces a state charge of stealing and trying to auction off a 1918 letter that President Roosevelt wrote about his son Quentin’s death in World War I.

Roosevelt Association director Jim Bruns said outside court that it was “a painful pill when a historian is caught in a position like this.” But he said it was a significant breach of trust that must be faced.

Roosevelt bought the letters because they reminded him of the quality of character that Washington and Lincoln both had, he said.

One Washington letter was to a general and pertained to the treatment of some property, while the other Washington letter dealt with day-to-day concerns of the American people, Bruns said. The Lincoln letter was written to a friend and related to an 1840 election, he said.

Roosevelt kept all three letters in the library at his home until his death, he said.

The letters were stolen from a vault at the home where Roosevelt was born, on East 20th Street in Manhattan, Bruns said.
He said the association expected to have the letters back soon, though one of the Washington letters is now missing the ornate frame that Roosevelt had made for it. A buyer did not understand its value and destroyed it, Bruns said.

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AP-ES-09-19-08 2008EDT