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Amateur sleuth finds thefts from archives

When J. David Goldin saw the recorded interview of baseball great Babe Ruth for sale on eBay he knew something was wrong. There was only one original record of that 1937 interview of Ruth on a hunting trip, and Goldin had donated it to a government archive more than 30 years ago. Now someone was auctioning it off, the winning bid just $34.75.

"I took one look at the record label and I said, 'Holy smokes, that's my record,' " said the retired radio engineer.

From his home in Connecticut, filled with antique radios and tape reels, Goldin launched an amateur sleuthing effort that helped uncover a thief ripping off the country's most important repository of historical records. The heist turned out to be an inside job. The culprit was the recently retired head of the video and sound branch of the National Archives and Records Administration -- the government agency entrusted with preserving such documents as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

On Thursday, a judge in Maryland sentenced the thief, Leslie Charles Waffen, to a year and a half in prison and fined him $10,000. Waffen, who had worked at the National Archives for 40 years, acknowledged stealing thousands of sound recordings from the archive. Prosecutors said more than 1,000 were sold on eBay in thefts that started as early as 2001. The stolen recordings ranged from a recording of the 1948 World Series to an eyewitness report of the Hindenburg crash.

It was Goldin's meticulous recordkeeping and some sleuthing worthy of a modern-day detective drama, however, that brought Waffen to authorities' attention and helped catch him.

A veteran CBS and NBC employee, Goldin, 69, became passionate about preserving radio's history. He started creating his own archive of sound recordings, in the early days storing records under the bed in his small apartment in the Bronx.

Now retired, he spends his days preserving recordings by transferring them from their original metal, glass and plastic records to tape.

Once Goldin has listened to and copied the recordings, however, he doesn't need the original discs. That's one of the reasons why he asked the National Archive in the 1970s if it wanted the originals, most of them radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s.

The archive said yes, and Goldin donated thousands of recordings ranging from political speeches and interviews to congressional hearings. Then, he says, he mostly forgot about them.

When he heard the familiar Babe Ruth recording, Goldin wasn't sure what was happening. He wrote to the National Archives. Were they getting rid of old material? If so, he wanted his records back. He got a call a few days later. No, the archive hadn't sold anything. The record was missing, and it seemed likely it had been stolen.

Goldin turned over the information he had, including documentation of his donation. He knew the eBay seller with the Ruth record was going by the name "hi-fi--gal" and lived in Rockville, Md.

Then Goldin did some detective work of his own. He ordered a different recording from "hi-fi--gal," and when it arrived he traced the package's return address. It came back as the home of Leslie Waffen, the man who had accepted Goldin's donation to the Archives more than 30 years earlier.

With that information and more, federal officials obtained a search warrant and raided Waffen's home, carting away two truckloads of materials.