It may be true that “good fences make good neighbors,” but is it also true that bad donations make for bad cases? This week, Tim Bernaby, 44, pleaded guilty and was given a $100 fine for stealing two letters and 13 Christmas cards written by Frost that were left in a donated desk. The status of the property complicated the criminal case with both the availability of the property and a key witness in doubt. As for the donating family, they insist it never intended to give away the valuable letters and cards. The donor, who has since passed away, saw no need to take the property to a more secure location. After all, Frost himself said “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” In this case, it would be walling in property worth tens of thousands of dollars and walling out one Tim Bernaby.
The case began with the donation of a desk to a non-for-profit called the Listen Center three years ago. Bernaby worked at the center and took the letters and cards that had been left in the desk. Bernaby insisted that the letters and cards had been thrown in the trash — a viable defense to embezzlement or unlawful taking of property. However, he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful taking of personal property and a $100 fine.
Bernaby sold the letters for $25,000.
Bernaby, a former Listen store clerk, maintained that he took the papers in 2010 not from a desk that had been donated to the nonprofit, but rather from a trash can — a potentially significant difference legally — and was unaware of their value.
He eventually sold the letters to a Plainfield man for $25,000. The donor, Hewlett Joyce, has insisted that he never intended to leave the letters and cards in the desk. He fought for their return but died during the pendency of the civil litigation. His estate is still fighting for the property and the Listen Center’s policies dictate that the property should be returned to the Joyce family. However, there remains Tom Cady, the man who bought the papers from Bernaby. Cady will have a challenge since, if the property is shown to be stolen, he is not entitled to it. That in turn complicated the case for prosecutor since Cady might not want to cooperate in a criminal trial that would undermine his claim.
While Joyce says that the property was accidentally forgotten, Cady could claim it was discarded, particularly if the letters ended up in the trash. There is no resolution of the property and the parties remain in court. This case it appears will fulfill Frost’s view on life: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life — It goes on.”