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How An FBI Sting Operation Helped NC Recover Its Copy Of The Bill Of Rights

Charles Harris
Our State
From left, Deputy Attorney General Karen Blum and state Archivist Sarah Koonts reveal North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights.

In an effort to tell more stories from throughout North Carolina, WFAE has launched a new collaboration with Our Statemagazine. In this report, Our State's Jeremy Markovich has the story of  a priceless document that was stolen during the Civil War, and recovered in an FBI sting operation 138 years later.

This story starts in a small room, on the third floor of the old Capitol building in Raleigh. In April of 1865, in the closing days of the Civil War, a Union soldier came into this room, looked through cabinets and found a folded up piece of parchment. That parchment turned out to be North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights. 

"When the Bill of Rights was proposed in Congress, they created 14 original copies, one for each of the original states and one that the federal government kept," explained state archivist Sarah Koonts. "And North Carolina's was sent to us, and it has had a long and interesting journey."

That is an incredible understatement. Because over the next 138 years, the document itself was missing. We now know that a Union soldier sold the Bill of Rights to a family in Indiana for $5. That family kept it for more than a century before selling it to an antiques dealer named Wayne Pratt, who used to be a regular on the Antiques Roadshow on PBS.

In 2003, Pratt and his associates tried to sell the document to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for $4 million. And that’s when then-North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley received a surprise phone call.

"I remember being up in the Southwest bedroom at a desk working on a State of the State address when I got this call that Governor Rendell from Pennsylvania was on the other line and wanted to speak to me," Easley said.

And Pennsylvania’s governor told Easley that somebody wanted to sell a copy of the Bill of Rights that was stolen from North Carolina.

"And I told him I was certainly surprised to hear that it had surfaced again because there's only two other times to my recollection,” Easley said. “And that I certainly want to figure out a way to get it. I did not want to give it up to Pennsylvania or anybody else, and it was our property and we would take that position."

After that, a lot of people get involved – including the FBI – and a special agent named Robert Wittman, who specialized in recovering priceless documents and works of art.

"Probably the most valuable piece that I ever recovered was the North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights. The value on that has placed it close to $100 million — if it could be sold," Wittman said.

"In other words, if it could be brought legitimately to market and marketed to the collector societies, it can actually bring as much as $100 million," he added. "True reality though, of course, is zero because it belongs to the state of North Carolina. It's owned by the people of North Carolina. And, therefore, it can't be sold. It can't be passed. So it's actually zero."

So it’s worth a lot and nothing at the same, "the case with all stolen art," Wittman said.

Wittman and the FBI put together a sting operation. First, they got the National Constitution Center's then-CEO Joe Torsella to play along.

"What I assumed at the beginning of this was us calling and saying we’re going to buy it, why don’t you bring it over next Tuesday," Torsella said. "What wasn’t really clear to us, in the beginning, was how real this was going to need to be."

It was so real that Torsella and his attorneys negotiated a deal with Pratt, and on March 18, 2003, they showed up in the conference room of a Philadelphia law firm with paperwork and a check.

“So we actually had a check drawn up on the National Constitution Center,” Wittman said.

A cashier’s check for $4 million that was shown to the sellers when they arrived.

He added, “Of course it was not going to be paid, but we had it there."

Wittman was in the room undercover playing a wealthy philanthropist. The lawyer for the seller went into the room, looked over the paperwork and checked out the check.

"That's when he made the phone call, it was almost like a drug deal in some respect," he said. "You know, you see the money then you make the phone call to have the drugs delivered. And in this case it wasn't drugs. It was the North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights."

A bike messenger showed up with a cardboard carrier. Wittman opened it up and took a look.

"I said, ‘That's really a neat looking piece, isn't it?’ It was like, ‘Wow that's the Bill of Rights,'" Wittman said. "It was just a eureka moment."

Right after that, someone in the room gave the signal to the five FBI agents waiting in another room to come in.

"He (the seller) was a bit surprised," Wittman recalled.

A few hours later, Governor Easley got another surprise phone call.

"And he said we got it," Easley said. "I said, 'Got what? What are you talking about?' He said, 'We got the Bill of Rights.'"

Two weeks after that, the Bill of Rights was flown back to Raleigh on the private jet of FBI Director Robert Mueller. It would take five years of legal wrangling with Pratt and others before, in 2008, the North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights was officially declared to be property of the state. So, where is it now?

In a vault underneath the state archives building in downtown Raleigh.

"The main concern that we have with having this document on display all the time is fading," Koonts said. "When it was out of the state's custody, it was exposed to a lot of light a lot of natural and fluorescent light. So it is extremely faded in spots and we have been advised by an outside conservator to not have it on permanent display."

But from time to time, it does come out as part of an exhibit, and it usually draws a big crowd – proof that the Bill of Rights can’t belong to one of us, but it can belong to all of us.

For more on how the North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights stayed hidden for 138 years, and how it was proven that a really old piece of parchment really belonged to the state, you can find the answers in the newest episode of Away Message, Our State magazine’s podcast about hard to find people, places, and things.