In the waning days of the Civil War, a Union soldier who was ransacking the Capitol building in Raleigh came across North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, folded up and placed in a cabinet. He took it home to Ohio, and later sold it to a Midwestern businessman named Charles Shotwell. The price: $5.
Even as the State of North Carolina demanded the return of the Bill of Rights, the document remained, unbeknownst to nearly everybody, in the Shotwell family until 2000, when a regular on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, Wayne Pratt, bought it from a Shotwell heir. Pratt invented a new backstory to hide the fact that his document was North Carolina’s priceless copy. Then, in 2003, he tried to sell it.
This is the story of the FBI sting that recovered the Bill of Rights, and the battle that unfolded afterward.
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MIKE EASLEY, North Carolina governor (2001-2009): I remember being up in the southwest bedroom [of the Executive Mansion], working on the State of the State address, when I got this call that Gov. [Ed] Rendell from Pennsylvania was on the other line and wanted to speak to me.
PAUL NEWBY, assistant U.S. attorney (1985-2004): It was a Thursday morning. I’d gotten into work, and I got a call from our U.S. attorney, Frank Whitney. Frank said, “Paul, come up to my office. You’re not going to believe this.” (Newby’s remarks come from a 2013 speech.)
EASLEY: Governor Rendell said that he was on the board of the new National Constitution Center that they were building there in Philadelphia, and that they had been approached by someone who had an original copy of the Bill of Rights.
JOE TORSELLA, CEO, National Constitution Center (1997-2003, 2006-2009): [They] had this cover story, or what later appeared to be a cover story, that it had been purchased [at some point] from a hardware store in New York. But once we started investigating, it turned into something different entirely. And by the end of it, it felt absolutely sleazy.
EASLEY: I was certainly surprised to hear that it had surfaced again, and I certainly wanted to figure out a way to get it.
SARAH KOONTS, North Carolina state archivist: It kept surfacing again periodically over the years, and we know now who was behind it. At the time, we didn’t. It was always through a front or through a lawyer contacting the state. But by then, the state got pretty entrenched and said that we’re not buying something that belongs to us.
NEWBY: Governor Rendell told me: We’re willing to pay the $5 million [for it], and not only that, we will allow North Carolina to put it on display one month out of the year if you’ll sign over the rights of North Carolina to this document. What do you think about that?
EASLEY: I did not want to give it up to Pennsylvania or anybody else. It was our property.
TORSELLA: At some point, in asking the seller to fess up about this, there was some vague threat made. The implication was that the document would end up in the Middle East.
NEWBY: The problem was, we didn’t know who had it, we didn’t know where it was, and the last letter that we knew about was the one from the [sellers’] attorney from Washington, D.C., that said if we try to find out who has it, or where it is, it will be destroyed or taken overseas. So we came up with the plan.
EASLEY: I told Governor Rendell [to] have the people who want to sell it contact me. And eventually, I did talk to someone, and I asked how much they were asking for — $5 million. And I just said, “Sure, we can do that. We’d love to have it back.” And then at that point I called Reuben Young, my legal counsel in the governor’s office, and told him that I wanted to put together a sting operation like we used to do back when I was district attorney.
ROBERT WITTMAN, FBI special agent (1988-2008): I had a call from our FBI office in Raleigh, and they said that an individual was trying to sell North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights to the National Constitution Center. So we initiated the undercover operation to try to recover it in Philadelphia.
TORSELLA: [The FBI] wanted to know if we would be willing to participate in a kind of sting to recover the document. We said yes.
WITTMAN: We decided to set up this operation to buy the piece — act as if we’re buying it — and then seize it when it was delivered. We were afraid that with that veiled threat, if for some reason we went to a residence [to seize the document and didn’t find it], there was a possibility it could be destroyed rather than turned over. And that was not acceptable.
TORSELLA: Our sense was, the FBI’s involved now, they can sort of swoop in and rescue the document. But they said, “No, we can’t do that. We need to lure the seller and the document here.”
NEWBY: The law firms that were representing the National Constitution Center agreed to go along. They continued in the negotiations, and they got the price down to $4 million.
WITTMAN: Of course, it was not going to be paid, but we had it there.
TORSELLA: We had this handoff arranged; it was all very cloak-and-dagger. It was in a law firm.
WITTMAN: It was on the 18th floor of an office building. Very nice conference room. A lot of windows looking out on the skyscrapers around the city. And on the actual conference room table, they had a series of documents set up in document holders and folders that were to be signed, just as if we were doing a real deal.
TORSELLA: There were all these weird code words. There was this cover story concocted that the FBI agent was our rich donor.
WITTMAN: In this particular case, I was Robert Clay. It was the height of the Internet bubble. And I had made all my money on the Internet, at the time, with things like AOL and popular things that were happening. So that was the backstory.
NEWBY: It was a Tuesday morning, 9 o’clock.
WITTMAN: We had agents in the lobby of the building. We had agents on the street, watching.
NEWBY: Sure enough, the attorney from Washington, D.C., shows up, but he doesn’t have the original copy of the Bill of Rights.
WITTMAN: We all shook hands. At that point, the attorney for the individuals that were selling the document looked through the contracts to make sure they said exactly what they wanted them to say.
TORSELLA: The courier wouldn’t come until the lawyer had examined all the documents and verified that the certified check was in order.
WITTMAN: That’s when he made the phone call. It was almost like a drug deal in some respects. You know, you see the money, then you make the phone call to have the drugs delivered. And in this case, it wasn’t drugs; it was the North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights. And it was delivered by a bicycle messenger. He comes up to the offices, comes in, opens it up, and it was amazing to see this piece, the original document from 1789 that George Washington had sent. Had John Adams’s signature on it. Sent to North Carolina for ratification. I moved it to the end of the conference room table. And I made the excuse that I was so enamored and looking at it, and it just fascinated me and I wanted to read it.
TORSELLA: The FBI had arranged this kind of script [that] the signal for them to come in was [that] one of our people was to say, when everything was in order, “Let’s go get Torsella and tell him he needs to come in and sign everything.”
TORSELLA: The FBI was there; they got the document. The lawyer was having an interaction with the FBI that wasn’t pleasant for him.
WITTMAN: He was a bit surprised.
EASLEY: I got a call from Reuben Young. He said, “We got it.” I said, “Got what? What are you talking about?” He said, “We got the Bill of Rights.”
WITTMAN: Usually, with evidence like that, we’ll ship it, but in this case, because of the value and the sensitivity of the piece, we weren’t even comfortable driving it to North Carolina from Philadelphia. One of [then-FBI Director Robert Mueller’s] jets flew up from Washington and met us at the Philadelphia airport. We transported it down on a private jet to Raleigh.
EASLEY: I thought we were home free, but there were five years of court proceedings.
KAREN BLUM, assistant North Carolina attorney general (2002-2008): It came out during the litigation that the folks who approached the National Constitution Center were Wayne Pratt and his attorney and his business associates.
EASLEY: I remember the name Wayne Pratt, and it was like, yeah, he was on Antiques Roadshow. I used to watch the show a lot. And I was actually kind of disappointed because I always liked the show. I was kind of mad about that.
BLUM: From 2003 all the way to 2008, we were fighting in state court over the ownership issue. So there was a lot that had to get done. We’re pulling together the history: where the document had been, whether or not it was authentic, whether or not we could prove that this was North Carolina’s copy. [The late NC archivist] George Stevenson was instrumental in proving that this was the document that was received from the United States by the State of North Carolina.
GEORGE STEVENSON JR. (from 2006 deposition): I had no doubt that it was the real McCoy. You want to hear about the copy error?
BLUM: I was typing up George Stevenson’s affidavit on New Year’s Eve, and I was transcribing everything from the [Bill of Rights]. And when I got to Article the Eighth, which is the Sixth Amendment that says, “The accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” I noticed that on this copy, it says, “of the State and district where the crime shall have been committed.” It’s about 11 o’clock at night, when I could contact nobody, and the first thought that went through my head was: It’s a fake.
KOONTS: When you think about that error, you have to think about government at the time. When they would accept a document in from another source, they would be transcribed completely, because they didn’t have copy machines.
BLUM: When I realized that North Carolina’s other documents [referencing the Bill of Rights] had where instead of wherein, we were able to use those and prove fairly conclusively that this was North Carolina’s copy, because ours is the only [missing] copy that has this transcription error in it.
KOONTS: That’s a neat way to show that ours is unique.
BLUM: From the criminal point of view, there were no charges against anybody.
EASLEY: I said, ‘All I want is the Bill of Rights, and I don’t care whether anybody goes to jail.’
BLUM: When the attorney general’s office finally resolved the [civil case over ownership] in 2008, I remember walking back from court with lead counsel Dale Talbert, and we stopped on the Capitol grounds and shook hands and decided that a belly bump would probably not be appropriate at the time. But I’m pretty sure we went out for Cook Out vanilla shakes, which is what we did the night before every single court argument. We would go to a Cook Out and get a vanilla shake. So that’s how it ended.
WITTMAN: The value on the Bill of Rights has placed it close to $100 million — if it could be sold. True value, though, of course, is zero because it belongs to the State of North Carolina. It’s owned by the people of North Carolina. And therefore, it can’t be sold; it can’t be passed. So it’s actually zero.
BLUM: I don’t know anybody who participated in the case in one way or another who does not still talk about it. I don’t know a single person.
KOONTS: To show you how important this document remains to all of us in this story? Ask Karen what her license plate is.