Man pleads guilty to 1971 theft of Revolutionary War flintlock rifle

The man responsible for the theft of a rare Revolutionary War flintlock rifle from the visitor center of the Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania in 1971 has pleaded guilty to the crime. Seventy-eight-year-old Thomas Gavin turns out to have been a sort of Pennsylvania Lupin who cut an impressive swath through museum weapons collections in the 1960s and 70s.

John Christian Oerter was the premier gun maker in Christian’s Spring, a Moravian settlement near what is now Nazareth, Pennsylvania, that was the main production center of flintlock long rifles during the Revolutionary War. His firearms feature distinctive silver and brass wire inlays and high quality wood carving that make them some of the most important pieces from the period. Very few of his works survive, and the stolen 1775 long rifle is one of only two signed and dated guns by the master riflemaker known to exist. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. The other is in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, presented to the future King George IV by Colonel George Hanger, a British cavalry officer who had served in the Revolutionary War.

Gavin crowbarred the precious rifle out of a display case in broad daylight. The theft was only notice a few hours later when an eagle-eyed Boy Scout spotted the empty case. It then disappeared for 47 years until it was sold to antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle along with a trunk full of more than 20 antique pistols and a Native American silver concho belt for $27,150. Thomas Gavin was the seller.

Kinzle said in 2019 that he had bought the rifle the year before at a barn sale in Berks County, that he initially thought it was a reproduction, that when he realized it might be a genuine Oerter he called his lawyer and arranged its surrender to the FBI. At the time Kinzle would not say who had sold it to him due to the ongoing investigation, but he believed him to be an indiscriminate hoarder who had no idea of the importance and value of the object when he sold it.

Well, he got the hoarder part right anyway, but Gavin definitely knew it was the genuine article because he had stolen the Oerter from the museum with his own hands. And that was just the tip of the iceberg with this guy.

In February 2020, FBI agents and detectives from the Upper Merion Township Police Department questioned Gavin, who admitted that he stole the Oerter rifle as well as antique guns from other museums across Pennsylvania, according to a plea agreement.

Gavin said he stole revolvers and pistols from several institutions, including the American Swedish Historical Museum, the Valley Forge Historical Society and the Pennsylvania Farm Museum, the plea agreement said. The weapons, one of which had a bayonet, were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, the document said.

He also confessed to stealing the silver belt and several firearms made in the 1850s from the Hershey Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, according to court documents.

The plea bargain does not reflect the pathological extent of Gavin’s collection-by-theft. He pled guilty to only one count of disposing of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The maximum penalty for that one count is 10 years in prison and prosecutors have asked the court to assess fines of no more than $20,200 in restitution. Given that the Oerter alone is conservatively valued at $175,000, that’s pretty modest as restitution goes. He is being held on $100,000 bail and will be sentenced November 15th.