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Crime Spree Targeting Small Museums Ends After 20 Years

The story hit 60 Minutes on Sunday, 7 April, and garnered more than 2,000 words from The New York Times: authorities had arrested nine people they say are a gang of unsophisticated burglars that had raided 14 small museums and exhibits—not to mention neighborhoods and small stores. Throughout the span of a couple of decades, the thieves had stolen, among many, many other things, such items as a jersey worn by Baseball Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson and a painting by Jackson Pollock.

Getting the OMG factor out of the way: they have either confessed to or been accused of stealing nine of Yogi Berra’s 10 World Series rings and melting them down, selling the gems and precious metal at a tiny fraction of what the rings would be worth. Of the group, five pled guilty and the remaining four have trial dates scheduled for later this year. 

And that’s all the heist was ever going to be for them. They had no buyer lined up or connections to any dark, sports memorabilia underworld. They saw what they thought was an easy mark—the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey—cased the museum, made a plan, and in 2014 stole the historic artifacts. In the 60 Minutes interview, one of the central figures, Thomas Trotta, said the gang only received about $12,000 for the rings’ gems and metals.

Just as with the rings, they had no connections to an art black market. Trotta and the others made a plan to steal the Pollock painting, and another by Andy Warhol, from the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but they had no plan about what to do with them afterward.

It’s as if the purpose of the burglaries was as much or more about stealing something unique and valuable than it was about getting paid. Trotta didn’t say as much in the interview, but the implication of the crimes was that if institutions care so little about protecting these artifacts to not have security that thwart a group like Trotta and his buddies, then they deserve to lose the artifacts—who cares if there’s not really much they can do the stolen goods?

A federal indictment from June 2023 listed the 14 museums and exhibits the gang hit. Most are in the U.S. Northeast, though they did make it to The Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC, and as far as The Roger Maris Museum in Fargo, North Dakota.

They may not have been criminal masterminds, but they were not careless either.

The indictment includes a charge of conspiracy where at least some of the defendants “made several trips to various institutions…where the above-described objects were displayed, for the purpose of gaining knowledge of security measures, access points, exit points, and the physical displays of the above-described objects. The defendants…recorded these trips for the purpose of later reviewing the above-described security measures prior to the theft of the objects of cultural heritage, and to conduct further research into the value of the objects of cultural heritage displayed therein.”

The 60 Minutes episode shows a video of Trotta that was taken by his niece or nephew at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The hall does not fit the M.O. of the group; it likely had far more sophisticated security than anything else the group had penetrated. Still, he narrated the video on 60 Minutes, using it to describe how he would get his nephew or niece to film him at other museums. They thought they were shooting family videos, but Trotta was using the footage to plan burglaries.

Still, well-planned or not, it almost belies belief that this ragtag group was as successful as they were and got away with it for as long as they did.

“Brien Bouyea, the communications director for the [National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York], said the institution had a solid security system in place at the time of thefts,” The New York Times reported. “‘The smash-and-grab style of the robbery, however, narrowly beat the police response time,’ he said.”

Being one step ahead of the police—almost literally—seemed to be a recurring theme for the criminals. Of the Yogi Berra heist, 60 Minutes set the scene panning across a field next to the Yogi Berra Museum: “Alarm blaring, police were already on their way as Trotta ran across this field to meet his getaway driver.” Trotta described, “We were a second away from getting caught.”

Their luck finally ran out in 2019 when Trotta was pulled over driving under the influence. The police acquired a DNA sample, and it linked him to evidence for several unsolved residential and small business break-ins. There were also suspicious items in his car, including bolt cutters, a sledgehammer, headlamps, ski masks, gloves, and several phones. The gloves in particular were linked to an incident where thieves hooked a cable to an ATM that sat just inside the entrance to a small grocery store and proceeded to steal the ATM using a snowplow, window and door frame crashing as the snowplow and ATM sped away. (Again, it boggles the imagination that they eluded authorities for as long as they did.)

Facing many counts, Trotta cut a deal and told authorities about the years of museum robberies and named the people that he worked with—even wearing a wire and recording conversations with the person Trotta said was the ringleader, Nicholas Dombek. For his part, Dombek has not pled guilty and faces trial. His attorney said Trotta was the ringleader.