On Tuesday, federal marshals barreled into an apartment in Herndon and found a most unusual book: a leather-bound first edition of the Book of Mormon.
They also found the man who allegedly pilfered the prized tome — worth $50,000 to $100,000 — from a suburban Phoenix bookshop, authorities said.
Jay Michael Linford, a fellow Mormon bookseller who had been “like a grandson” to the shop’s owner, was arrested at his friend’s apartment and charged with theft and trafficking in stolen property.
The theft and arrest spotlighted the market for “Mormonia” — memorabilia about Mormonism — that has been thriving as Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, television shows and a Broadway play have stoked interest in the faith.
The news last month that Helen Spencer Schlie’s first edition had been stolen spread quickly through the small, tightknit world of rare-book dealers, who were aware of Schlie’s book as one of 5,000 original 1830 copies of the Book of Mormon, which is viewed by Mormons as sacred text.
But the theft didn’t elicit much sympathy for the Mesa, Ariz., widow, who had become something of a pariah for removing individual pages from the book and offering them for sale.
“Divine intervention,” a prominent Salt Lake City bookseller said about the theft.
Ken Sanders, who has overseen security for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, said, “It’s incomprehensible how someone could use their religion to mask what is, to me, just out-and-out greed. ”
To Schlie, the theft turned out to be heartbreaking for more than monetary reasons. The accused was a business partner and one of her closest friends, who chatted with her by phone for hours each week and helped her publish a book of her poetry.
“My other grandchildren haven’t had much interest in my projects, and here’s this young man who is a contemporary with my older grandchildren, but he has made things happen,” Schlie, 88, said Wednesday, her voice quivering.
Schlie and Linford were both steeped in the growing business subculture of Mormonia.
Linford, 48, had founded Experience Press in Palmyra, N.Y., a business intended to serve the growing number of tourists interested in Mormonism’s birthplace. The company produced handmade books that were meant to look like the originals and that sold for $100 to $1,000.
Linford and Schlie also worked together on video interviews with people who owned some of the prized first editions of the Book of Mormon. The videos were intended to be sold as mini-documentaries to buyers of the books.
Schlie, a convert to Mormonism, attracted sharp criticism a few years ago when she started removing pages from the first edition that her husband acquired in 1967. “Some people were disturbed I’d taken a perfectly good book apart, but each page in its lifetime is capable of touching hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said.
There were plenty of takers for the pages — priced at $2,500 to $4,500 — including some affluent Mormons.
Mormonism teaches that the text is God’s word, which was written on gold plates, buried in Upstate New York (before there was a New York) and found by a prophet named Joseph Smith, who translated them into English.
“For Mormons, the Book of Mormon has become the holy grail of collecting. It’s like an old-school big-game hunter goes and bags their Book of Mormon,” Sanders said.
No one knows how many of the original 5,000 copies are left. At the time they were printed, it was unheard of to print thousands of books in one run, and it was particularly noteworthy because there were no Mormons at the time. The run is considered part of the unusual history of Mormonism’s rapid spread during a period when Americans were experimenting with new religions.
Linford, who had residences in the District and Arizona, seemed to have run into financial trouble lately, said Mark Burris, a former employee.
The replica company, Experience Press, wasn’t filling all of its orders, and Linford and a partner lived far away and saw the company as more of a hobby, Burris said.
Linford’s main business, Burris said, was digitizing legal documents for law firms, and he worked in Washington, Arizona and Morocco. The replica firm had stopped paying taxes, and the building will be auctioned next week, Burris said.
Burris said that Schlie had long had trouble organizing her book business. He described working for her for a few months last year to help her auction books on eBay. The 1830 Book of Mormon, he said, was kept on the arm of the couch where he was sleeping.
“It was never in a safe place. The first thing she’d tell someone when she met them is where she kept the book,” Burris said.
Schlie said she realized that the book was gone Memorial Day when she went to show it to some Mormon missionaries from Asia who wanted their photos taken with it.
Mesa police said the day Linford allegedly took the book, he contacted a rare-book dealer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and asked whether the man was interested in buying some pages of a first edition Book of Mormon. A few days later, Mesa police said, Linford sold two pages of the book for $7,500.
Schlie — who said she was once Romney’s Sunday school teacher in Michigan — said the theft will not keep her from carrying out her plan, once she gets the book back from authorities. The plan includes selling the remaining 500 pages and using the money to buy an ice cream store whose profits will help fund Mormon missionaries, she said. It also includes work on a final poetry book, which she plans to title “And So It Ends.”