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History hoarder halted

Street crime unit nabs artifact thief

H Division's street crime unit found more than 1,600 stolen artifacts in John Mark Tillman's home. Credit: Courtesy Sgt. Colin MacLean

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Book returned

On Thursday, October 8, 2015, US Immigration Customs and Enforcement returned a stolen book — a first edition written by Charles Darwin, "On The Origin of the Species" — to the RCMP at a ceremony in New York City. The book will be returned to the Mount Saint Vincent University Library in Nova Scotia. Tillman is currently serving a 9-year sentence.

John Mark Tillman probably wishes he never left his house that day.

As he was driving home one afternoon in July 2012, the Halifax, Nova Scotia, resident, who was under house arrest, was pulled over by police for violating his probation.

But when Cst. Kristen Bradley saw a suspicious-looking letter and a cheque on Tillman's passenger seat, he knew this was more than just a traffic stop.

An informative letter

At that time, the Halifax District RCMP street crime unit had unconfirmed evidence that Tillman was stealing artifacts in the area, such as historically significant books, antiques, and art. The letter in Tillman's front seat finally made the link.

It was written by General James Wolfe, a British army officer who defeated Louis-Joseph de Montcalm's French forces during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759.

The letter was likely stolen, so the member gave it to the street crime unit for further examination.

"We started to do some research on where the letter came from, and it took us several months to figure it out," says Sgt. Colin MacLean of the street crime unit.

After scouring for information as far away as Ireland, the unit found out, through several local librarians, that the letter was from Dalhousie University. They then had enough information to apply for a search warrant for Tillman's house, which listed 15 items that had been reported stolen in the area — including a first edition copy of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and a few paintings from the provincial government.

Piecing it all together

Around the same time, a witness provided members with a videotape that guaranteed them a search warrant.

"It was basically a video of Tillman going around his house and showing all of his property," MacLean says. "Some of the items we were looking for were on the video."

The nine-member unit entered the house in January and didn't leave for seven days. They began by looking through his filing cabinets to find more historical letters — specifically, one written by George Washington.

"We found bank records that indicated he had a great sum of money," says Cst. Hector Lloyd. "But his tax records stated that he had been claiming his personal income at a level that would put him well below the threshold of poverty — between $8,000 and $11,000 a year."

Lloyd says the evidence found in the filing cabinet was enough for the provincial proceeds of crime unit to seize Tillman's house, bank accounts and records to further its investigation.

The street crime unit also brought in a local librarian to search for first edition books and letters to help identify if they had been stolen.

"She told us that these items would not have formed part of a collection because they were still marked as library books," MacLean says.

The street crime unit also included its own subject matter expert on antiques — Cst. Darryl Morgan, a local antique collector. While searching through Tillman's desk, Morgan came across an antique dealer's guide that had a few locations circled. So he started making some phone calls.

"I asked one vendor if anything was ever stolen from his business that really annoyed him and he said a hand-carved canoe went missing," Morgan says. "I turned around and said, 'You know what, that is sitting on the desk behind me.' "

Morgan made call after call and ended up identifying many of the 1,600 items in the house that way.

Happy endings

Tillman ultimately gave himself up. Not only was it obvious that he stole the artifacts, but police found the detailed records he kept of some of the items he'd stolen.

"Every time you looked around, you found something else against this individual," Lloyd says. "Nothing about him was legitimate or legal."

In September 2013, Tillman was sentenced to nine years in prison and forfeited his home, its contents, and his bank account that contained $338,000 — a satisfactory close to a case that the unit will never forget.

"Generally, when somebody breaks into a house and steals a TV, a laptop or some jewelry, we investigate that," MacLean says. "This was a file that was pretty much unprecedented for any of the units around here."

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 1, 2014).

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