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I could scarcely believe my good fortune. I had begun research for an article on book theft, intended to cover the trial of Stephen Womack as a reporter, was summoned for jury duty on February 21, 1996, and found myself in the pool of prospective jurors to hear his case. I confessed to Judge Robert Barton of Middlesex Superior Court that I worked for Harvard Magazine, knew a little about the case, and had once had a drink with the attorney for the
Stephen Womack at his sentencing, with attorney William Homans. Photograph by Jim Harrison.
I had read that Womack, 42, was a former part-time staffer at Widener Library charged with stealing or mutilating hundreds of books on church history and linguistics, that he allegedly made bomb threats against Northeastern University, and that he was also charged with attempted extortion. "The Slasher"'s trial lasted seven days.
"I do not expect jury members to like Mr. Womack," said Homans in his opening statement. Some of the things he wrote in his letters were "hateful," some "disgusting." There would be no insanity defense, but the jury would hear a lot about mental illness. Homans would ask the jury to consider Womack's mental state as it bore on his intent. Assistant district attorney Anthony Gemma, the prosecutor, said he would show that Womack was filled with hate, had a desire for revenge, and wanted to extort money and control people.
Womack sat slumped in his chair with a vacant expression throughout most of the trial, looking remote, colorless, and meek. When he testified, he spoke softly, with composure.
He faced two counts of willful and malicious destruction of property valued over $250, one concerning Harvard's property, the other Northeastern's, and five counts of attempted extortion. Four alleged extortion letters had gone to the library at Northeastern's Burlington, Massachusetts, campus. One letter had gone to the president of the Belmont Savings Bank.
The jury heard from 20 witnesses, including Womack. We were told that Womack had worked as a medical laboratory technician, drawing and testing blood, for 10 years. In February 1987 he had "had a little trouble with the law," he said, and was sentenced to six months at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Billerica. While there he was seen showering in his underpants and socks, turning imaginary faucets, and talking to himself. He was transferred to Bridgewater State Hospital, a secure psychiatric facility. He was seen by Wesley Profit '69, Ph.D. '77, then chief forensic psychologist there, who found that Womack had "a major mental illness and true paranoia" and was "quite psychotic." In August, after his six months were up, Womack was sent to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Belmont. He was there for a year and a half, until February 6, 1989, and for all but the last four months he was locked up. He told us that his therapy team consisted of three Jewish doctors. He became aware that the hospital was attempting to have him committed for an even longer time, and so he hired a private doctor and a lawyer at a cost of $8,000 (a motive for extortion, said Gemma) and went several times to court to argue that he should be released, and finally a judge so ordered.
Womack explained that he was very angry to be held after he had served his six-month sentence. He warned one of his doctors at Metropolitan State that when he got out he would do something to get back at the system. He resolved to commit one illegal act for each day he had been held beyond his sentence. Womack testified that he decided to steal 2,000 books ($150,000's worth). By the time he was caught, he had stolen about 900 books from the Burlington campus of Northeastern, he said, about 300 from the Snell Library at the Boston campus, and 400 from Harvard. His thefts were "a payback to the Commonwealth."
In June 1989, three months after his release, Womack went to work part time at Widener shelving books. He remained on staff until September 1990. Charles Montalbano, who was in charge of the stacks and Womack's supervisor, testified that during the time Womack was employed the covers of many books from which the pages had been removed were discovered hidden behind intact volumes on the shelves. Womack said that during a half day he would typically thumb through 50 books as he was doing his shelving. If he saw something that interested him, he would usually rip the pages from the book, as it was much easier to steal pages than a complete, bound volume. He did occasionally take a complete book; two introduced into evidence were A.F. Sagan's Vilhjalmi Sjód (Womack said he was studying the Old Icelandic language at the time) and The Roman Galleys in the Lake of Nemi, by G.C. Speziale of the Royal Italian Navy. When he was arrested, Womack would not tell Harvard police lieutenant John F. Rooney how he got the books out of Widener.
From 1992 to 1994 he was a student at Northeastern. He studied mathematics and computer science and had a grade-point average of 3.407. He told Rooney that he typically removed books from the Snell Library in Boston or the library on the Burlington campus at the rate of 100 to 125 a week. About half the books had been properly checked out. One day in July 1994, about to leave the Burlington library, Womack was found to have books in his bag that had not been checked out. He forgot to do so, said Womack. He was caught attempting to remove noncirculating chemistry reference books from the Snell Library. Because of recent thefts of such material, library personnel had put into a number of likely candidates two of the magnetic strips that set off alarms when books are taken through exits improperly. The books Womack was caught trying to extract each had had one of their magnetic strips removed. In November Womack was told he could no longer check out books from Snell Library.
Womack said that he intended to make a list of the 2,000 books he would ultimately steal and send the list to the State House with a letter saying what he had done, that he had done it to get back at the system, and that the legislature should pass laws to prevent hospitals from holding people after they had served their time. Then he decided that the extortion notes would be a good way to get back at the system, too.
Womack signed the letters using names that meant something to him and from which an investigator could come close to deducing his identity. The first letter to Northeastern was signed by the judge who sent Womack to MCI-Billerica in 1987. Another was signed by a math adviser at Northeastern. The letter to the president of the Belmont Savings Bank was signed "Charlie Montalbano."
All the letters were typed. The first, dated May 31, 1994, demanded that $500,000 be left at Northeastern's library in Burlington and instructed the university to "terminate all Jew personnel." If not, cyanide grenades would be put in the ventilation system. Another letter, to banker Ronald Rossi--Womack thought his name sounded Jewish--began "Fucker Jew Ronald Rossi" and demanded that the bank put $100,000 in Widener Library, but then escalated the sum to $1 million. Part of the letter went like this: "pUt THe mONEy FucKer BEhiNd THE eLevATOR on D WEST in THE basemENT WhERE tHe 1,000,000.00 dollaRS IN rare GreEK bOOks wAS slASHEd ApARt MIGNE GREEK PATROLOGIA."
In his final letter to Northeastern, in November 1994, he threatened to cut out the rectums of the four women librarians at Burlington and nail the rectums to trees in the woods behind the library. He wrote those words, Womack told Gemma, to "spice up" the letter, to make it seem the work of a "deranged and dangerous" person, an "insane maniac."
Womack testified that he never intended to extort money or do any of the menacing things he threatened. An FBI agent testified that he participated in two stakeouts, one at Northeastern, one at Harvard. Packages pretending to hold money were put at the appointed spots. No one came for the money.
Womack realized in November, he said, that the police were on to him. He thought they were coming to his house to go through the trash, full of pages from books.
On December 14, 1994, a caravan of Harvard, Northeastern, and Arlington, Massachusetts, police, among them bomb-squad officers, plus state troopers and FBI agents, went to the house in Arlington where Womack lived with his mother and cat. They found a microfilm camera, about 60 books from Northeastern, stacks of pages from books, and 348 boxes of microfilms of books. No chemicals. No explosive devices.
We took up the willful-and-malicious destruction of property indictments first. The jury was uncertain. We sent a note to the judge. Did the malice have to be toward the owner of the property? we asked. He called us into court. Yes, he said. Because we had been told by Homans and the defendant--and we tended to believe it--that he had no malice toward Harvard or Northeastern, but instead toward Jews and the system, we voted to acquit Womack of these charges.
We then began to consider the five counts of attempted extortion. To find Womack guilty, we had to satisfy ourselves on five points, among them that the writer of the letter actually had the specific intent to extort money or to compel another to do an act against his or her will. We had a brief discussion and then voted about the letters as a group. Nine of us thought Womack guilty, three (I among them) thought him innocent. (Most of us, I think it is fair to say, thought him pathetic.) Those in the innocent camp felt that Womack never had an intention of doing any of the things he said; the letters were sent by a mentally disturbed person, not an extortionist. The judge excused us for the night.
Next day, some of us had had second thoughts about finding Womack innocent of malicious destruction of property. Perhaps Harvard and Northeastern could be seen as surrogates for the system. We all quickly agreed with that and found Womack guilty as charged. No one wanted us to find Womack innocent of everything. Still, we thought the charge was not quite right. Why hadn't it been grand larceny? we wondered. We felt similarly about the attempted extortion charges. Clearly, Womack was guilty of something, but was it this?
We had rationalized the malice problem. Now we focused on Womack's intent. No one thought he intended to extort money. But how about making people do things against their will? Many people had spent a lot of time investigating him, and surely that was against their will. We asked the judge, did the act to be done against someone's will have to be specified in the letter? Yes. We voted on the letters seriatim. Concerning the first letter, and the third through fifth, we deadlocked by varying votes. Concerning the second: all innocent. Eleven jurors voted innocent on the final letter. One was so shocked by the rectums in the trees that nothing, she said, would ever shake her. At the end of the day the judge declared a mistrial on the four indictments upon which we could not agree.
When court adjourned, Judge Barton came back to the jury room and told us a number of facts we hadn't known. Originally, there had been nine indictments, and on the morning the trial began Womack had pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving stolen property. He had a long record of prior offenses, beginning with a 1976 arrest for lewdness.
Of course, there were many things the jury still did not know. How the police connected Womack to the extortion letters, for instance. Perhaps juries never have all the facts.
At Womack's sentencing on March 14, Gemma said that Womack did $310,000's worth of damage to Northeastern and Harvard property. Homans said that Womack and his mother had agreed that $66,000 of the $85,000 they had in a joint savings account would be paid to Harvard and Northeastern.
Barton sentenced Womack to seven to 10 years. During a 10-year probation period thereafter, he must receive psychiatric counseling. Womack appealed his sentence and lost. He is now at MCI-Norfolk.
|"The Slasher"||Student, Teacher, Scholar||Caging the Man-eaters|
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