MESA, Ariz. — Bookstore owner Helen Schlie was heartbroken in May when she discovered a trusted friend had stolen her original Book of Mormon and sold a few pages to a rare-book dealer in Texas.
But Schlie, 89, was relieved Tuesday when Mesa police detectives returned the tome. She smiled as she read her late husband Walter’s signature on a back page.
A team of detectives first tracked pages from the stolen book to Texas dealer Reid Moon, who had purchased them from Jay Michael Linford, 49, not realizing they had been pilfered.
Police later recovered the rest of the rare first-edition book, valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, when the U.S. Marshals Service arrested Linford on June 11 in northern Virginia.
Linford, who previously had published a book of Schlie’s poetry, pleaded guilty to theft on Jan. 10 and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 12 by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Bailey.
Linford’s plea agreement calls for a sentence that includes probation.
He could also be sentenced to 7 1/2 months to two years in prison.
Police returned the book to Schlie because it was no longer needed as evidence.
Tuesday was the first time Schlie had seen her book since May.
She noticed the book was missing on Memorial Day weekend, when two missionaries stopped by her bookstore and asked to see it.
“This has hurt my heart terribly. Jay had been such a help to me,” Schlie said. “I can’t understand what happened in his mind to do this. I’m just happy to have it back.”.
Schlie’s family has owned the book, published in 1830, for 40 years.
It is believed to be one of about 200 first-edition printings in existence.
Schlie said she has sold a few pages of the book, but the majority is intact.
“It was in better condition 40 years ago,” Schlie said Tuesday as she examined the book.
Because of heavy media coverage of the theft, “it’s the most publicized Book of Mormon,” she added.
The book’s binding is loose, and there are glue stains and wrinkles, impressions created when the books were stacked after printing, Sgt. Chris Rash said.
He said the unique characteristics, along with photographs taken by Schlie before the theft, helped police identify the missing book.
“Each book has its own imprint. It’s similar to a fingerprint,” Rash said.
Detectives tracked how the pages were sold to Moon for $7,500 and shipped to him, consulted with experts on the book’s authenticity and worked with federal agencies, including the FBI’s art unit, he said.
Lead Detective Jodi Schock considers the Book of Mormon caper among the most unique and satisfying of her career.
“I’m so happy I could get it back to her,” Schock said.
Schock said she called Moon because he had discussed purchasing parts of the book from Schlie prior to the theft.
“Even though he was out the money, he wanted her to get her property back,” Purington said.
Linford’s plea agreement calls for him to repay Moon his $7,500.
Court documents said the book itself is valued at $50,000, with a second document quoting a range of $25,000 to $100,000.
But Schlie said the book is priceless to Mormons, who often come by her bookstore near the Arizona Temple to be photographed holding the rare edition.
Mormons consider the Book of Mormon another testimony of Jesus Christ, equal in standing to the Bible.
One couple brought their newborn boy to Schlie’s store and took a photograph of him putting his hand on the book, saying he could take the picture with him on his church mission 19 years later, Schlie said.
“They feel the spirit of it,” she said.