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Historian who stole WWII dog tags from the National Archives is sentenced to year in prison

Dog tags at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in 2017.

ILKA COLE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By LYNH BUI | The Washington Post | Published: April 10, 2018

In messages with potential buyers of military artifacts, Antonin DeHays was an eager salesman who offered vivid descriptions.

When peddling World War II dog tags that had been recovered from a wreck, he pointed out the blood, fire and fuel stains on the metal, calling the markings "very powerful items that witness the violence of the crash."

On another dog tag, he texted a potential buyer that the item was "salty" or visibly war-damaged while also marketing the "partially burned" appearance of a Red Cross identification card from the same era.

But DeHays failed to mention one important detail in his sales pitches on eBay and by other means. The war relics he was hawking were government property, items he plundered during visits to the National Archives just outside of Washington, D.C., while leveraging his status as an expert on World War II.

On Monday, a federal judge in Maryland sentenced DeHays to 364 days in prison for the theft of government records and ordered him to pay more than $43,000 in restitution to the unwitting buyers who purchased the stolen goods.

Many of the relics had been taken from the bodies of fallen servicemembers, making the crime even more shocking, according to those who spoke at his sentencing hearing.

"He isn't just a thief, he's a grave robber," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.

DeHays, a historian, used his researcher identification card to gain access to hundreds of artifacts belonging to men captured or killed in World War II and made tens of thousands of dollars selling items pilfered from the public research room at the National Archives in College Park, Md., for profit, according to his plea agreement. His scheme went on for years, from 2012 to 2017.

DeHays is a native of Normandy, France, home of the famous D-Day operation that eventually liberated Western Europe. During his sentencing hearing in federal court in Greenbelt on Monday, he said he sold the relics partly to pay for an addiction to collecting war memorabilia and to acquire a collection for a museum he dreamed of running one day.

"At that time I saw it as a sacrifice I had to make if I wanted my dream to come true," DeHays said. "It was irrational behavior and a lack of judgment that I regret every day."

DeHays stole nearly 300 dog tags belonging to U.S. servicemembers and about 130 other records dating to World War II, the government said. The records were created by the German military, who kept materials from Allied airmen who crashed into Nazi territory in their reports of downed aircraft, federal prosecutors said. The materials were seized after the war and transferred to the National Archives in 1958.

DeHays stole immunization records, personal photos, military identification, letters, a Bible and pieces of fallen U.S. military aircraft, according to his plea agreement. He also pilfered official documents from the U.S. War Department, including papers related to the invasion of Normandy.

In December 2016, DeHays made off with two dog tags that belonged to a Tuskegee Airman who died after his fighter plane crashed in Germany in September 1944, the plea agreement states. He traded one of the dog tags to a military aviation museum "in exchange for the opportunity to sit inside a Spitfire airplane," court documents state.

All told, DeHays stole more than $45,000 worth of items, approximately the amount he received from buyers, prosecutors said. DeHays would often erase pencil markings left by the German military on items to avoid having them traced back to the National Archives, authorities said. In some cases, DeHays kept items for himself or gave them as gifts, officials said.

The government has recovered about 95 percent of the items DeHays stole, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas A. Mitchell said. He said DeHays owes restitution to 15 to 30 people who purchased the stolen goods.

In addition to prison time and restitution, U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang ordered DeHays to serve 100 hours of community service and be placed on three years' probation, eight months of which will involve home detention. Chuang said that as a historian, DeHays should have known better than to engage in the "auctioning of our history to the highest bidder."

"This was an egregious, morally repugnant crime," Chuang said.

Even among the recovered items, some of the damage is irreversible, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said. In one instance, DeHays stole two dog tags belonging to 1st Lt. Julian Columbus, who served in World War II. Columbus's father served in World War I, and Columbus wore both tags around his neck during his tour, Ferriero said.

After DeHays stole the dog tags, he removed the wire Columbus used to link father and son, "forever separating the items."

"DeHays's selfish acts," Ferriero said, "have robbed the public of an essential part of its history."
 

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