Four priceless, weathered and fragile books intertwined with American history returned home here today, more than a year after their theft from the John Quincy Adams presidential library.
The rare leather-bound volumes included a 19th century Bible given to Adams by freed slaves of the Spanish ship Amistad, whose plight was recently depicted in a Steven Spielberg film. As they received the antique book from federal officials wearing protective white gloves, descendants of the nation's sixth president said they were astonished and touched by the recovery of a cultural treasure.
"It's a family Bible, but it is also the nation's Bible," said Abigail Browne, standing in a 19th century carriage house on the grounds of the Adams National Historic Site, where four generations of her ancestors lived.
Authorities also announced that a prime suspect in the November 1996 book theft was indicted by a grand jury today on government theft and concealment charges stemming from the case. Kevin P. Gildea, a 42-year-old painter and convicted antiques thief, is serving a five-year prison sentence for an unrelated probation violation. If convicted on the new charges, the Quincy native faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each offense.
Gildea has denied stealing the books but once offered to broker their return in exchange for immunity from other pending criminal charges. He reportedly said police rejected the deal because he refused to identify the alleged thief. "I wanted to be the good guy," he told the Boston Globe. "But I never told on nobody in my whole life."
The National Park Service, which operates the nation's first presidential library and other properties on the Adams National Historic Site, had closed the library for the season the day before the burglary. Gildea used a chain saw to cut through its oak door and steal three Bibles and another book. Authorities said their investigation is ongoing and declined to comment on whether they believe he acted alone.
The stolen books included: the 1838 Mendi Bible, given to Adams by 53 Mendi tribesmen he helped free after they mutinied while being transported on a slave ship from what is now Sierra Leone to Cuba; a Latin version of the King James Bible, which dated back to 1521 and was the oldest book in the Adams collection; a 1772 English Bible that once belonged to his wife; and Block's Ichthyology, an 18th century book of valuable hand-painted color plates with fish illustrations printed in French.
Detectives recovered all four last year in unusual circumstances: Bound in towels and stashed in duffel bags, the delicate books were discovered among lost and found items in the storage rooms of two New Hampshire gyms where Gildea had memberships.
Generally, stolen works of rare art are given a 10 percent recovery rate, according to the Art Loss Register in New York. But the Adams estate has been fortunate in the past: Goods from a 1979 burglary were recovered a year later, and in this case, two of the stolen volumes escaped serious damage.
The Mendi Bible and Latin version of the King James Bible appeared to be in "fair to good" condition despite frayed edges, conservators said. The other books, however, suffered extensive water damage that cracked their leather spines and blurred some illustrations, according to book conservation specialist Deborah Bender. They have been frozen pending restoration.
"This was not simply a theft of priceless books," said U.S. Attorney Donald Stern, who supervised the case. "It resulted in a piece of this nation's history being ripped out of Quincy." CAPTION: Peter Boylston Adams takes gloves from Judith McAlister to receive book from U.S. Attorney Donald Stern. Also shown is the FBI's Barry Mawn.