Thursday, July 2, 2015

Case Study No. 2063: Leslie Waffen

Brad Meltzer's Lost History: Stolen National Archive Recordings (S1, E9)
A radio historian discovers that ex-Archives worker Leslie Waffen was stealing recordings and selling them on ebay in this scene from "D-Day Footage."

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Brad Meltzer's Lost History
Season 1
Episode 9
D-Day Footage

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Added: 9 months ago
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[scene opens with Brad Meltzer speaking directly to the camera]
BRAD: On May Sixth, Nineteen Thirty Seven, radio reporter Herbert MOrrison gives listeners a heart-breaking and ground-breaking account of the Hindenburg disaster.
[cut to the infamous archival footage ("Oh the humanity!") of the Hindenburg blimp going down in flames]
BRAD: [in voice over] That recording would go down as one of the most remarkable and emotional "you are there" moments in history.
[cut back to Brad speaking directly to the camera]
BRAD: But the recording was stolen from the National Archives.
[cut to an older man standing in his living room, his arms folded across his chest]
BRAD: [in voice over] In Two Thousand Ten, historian and radio aficianado David Goldin is the first to figure it out.
[cut to a shot of the various pieces of old-timey radio equipment on the shelves behind the man]
BRAD: [in voice over] After he spots several historical recordings that he had donated to the National Archives ... for sale on eBay.
[cut to the man speaking directly to the camera]
DAVID: Whoever took these records has knowledge of old radio recordings, and had access to the collection.
[cut back to Brad speaking directly to the camera]
BRAD: Okay, this is getting scary. The National Archives is the home to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and millions of priceless articles of American history. How did these recordings just end up for sale online?
[cut to the older man typing at his computer]
BRAD: [in voice over] Posing as a buyer, Goldin gets the address of the seller ...
[cut to the man holding up a printout of an eBay auction for "Radio Transcription BABE RUTH Bird Hunting 1937"]
BRAD: [in voice over] Known only as "HiFiGal."
[cut to a shot of people walking outside of the Archives of the United States of America]
BRAD: [in voice over] The address belongs to a man who happened to work at the National Archives, until his retirement in June Two Thousand Ten ...
[cut to footage of an older male archivist (brown hair, balding, glasses, suit and tie) speaking to a group of people from a podium]
BRAD: [in voice over] Leslie Waffen.
LESLIE: Sure, it's "Waffen." W-A-F-F-E-N. First name, Les.
[cut to a woman speaking directly to the camera]
WOMAN: Leslie Waffen wasn't just a random employee at the National Archives. Before he retired, he was head of the Motion Picture, Sound and Video unit. He was the guardian of our nation's audio recordings, our video recordings.
[cut back to the footage of the archivist giving a press conference]
LESLIE: We're talking films of the Wright Brothers' first flight. We're talking films of the assassination of King Ferdinand in World War I. We're talking the crash and burning of the Hindenburg in Nineteen Thirty Seven, that footage is here.
[the footage stops and turns black-and-white, then cut back to the radio aficianado speaking directly to the camera]
DAVID: It was quite a shock to see that the head of the henhouse was stealing chickens.
[cut back to Brad speaking directly to the camera]
BRAD: If Waffen is the one selling these items on eBay, it would be more than shameless ... It would be a federal crime.



For more than 40 years, Leslie Waffen was a guardian of national treasures. But for the final 10 years of his career at the National Archives, he secretly peddled some of those rare pieces of history on eBay.

On Thursday, in a federal courtroom in Greenbelt, the 67-year-old Rockville resident was sentenced to 18 months in prison and two years of supervised release for embezzling U.S. property.

Fighting back tears, Waffen told the court that his "passion" for historical audio had become an "obsession."

It all began, he said, when he started taking recordings home without permission to listen to and determine whether the material was suitable for the Archives' collection. But he never returned the items.

"I should have returned it. I did not return it," he said in court, reading from a prepared statement. Over time, his behavior became "compulsive" and "arrogant" as he stole items from the Archives' permanent collection "with the intent of selling it."

When Waffen plead guilty in October to theft of U.S. government property, he admitted that he stole 955 items from the Archives, including original recordings of the 1948 World Series and a rare recording of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. A government expert valued the 955 items at $83,238.

The courtroom was full of relatives and friends. Also present were National Archives staff members and the man who helped authorities crack the case, J. David Goldin, an enthusiast of historic radio recordings who had donated a Babe Ruth hunting recording.

Goldin did not speak during the hearing, but afterward he said he had come to know Waffen and was "disappointed" with what Waffen had done. "I have great respect for Les. I've known him since 1976," Goldin said. "He's one of the best archivists for sound in the U.S."

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte said he had received letters from Waffen's friends, family and neighbors praising his good character and asking the court to take that into consideration during sentencing.

"One hopes as you go forward, you will abandon that parallel universe of crime," Messitte said.

Messitte said that Waffen's actions involved not just a monetary issue, but also an issue of trust. Waffen, the judge said, jeopardized the reputation of not only himself, but also of the Archives and other federal agencies.

"You take our history if you take the thing to sustain our history," Messitte said, echoing the sentiments of Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice." A restitution hearing is set for Aug. 13.



Brad Meltzer's Lost History: Season 1, Episode 9
D-Day Footage (26 Dec. 2014)

Host Brad Meltzer enlists America's help to find lost and stolen historical artifacts, which are going missing from museums and public collections at an alarming rate. Among the missing: rare and historic footage from D-Day, shot behind enemy lines during an remarkable mission. Then, FDR's inaugural address is just one of many stolen from the National Archives. Plus, the shocking tale of George Harrison's guitar.


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  2. J. David Goldin, a reincarnation of Peter "Colombo" Falk.
    Well done, and the "Shadow" lives to tell another tale.