Robert Hardin Smith (1959–2010)
Robert Hardin Smith was a former Arkansas attorney best known for his string of high-profile thefts at archives in Arkansas and across the South and Midwest between 1995 and 2002.
Born on February 19, 1959, in Prescott (Nevada County), Robert Smith was one of three children and the only son of Norman Murphy Smith and Nancy Ann Hardin Smith. Smith’s father served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and went on to become a respected judge in several jurisdictions in central and southern Arkansas. Smith’s maternal grandfather, Buren Hardin, served as sheriff of Clark County between 1955 and 1958.
Robert Smith attended high school in Stuttgart (Arkansas County), graduating in 1978. He attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway (Faulkner County) between 1978 and 1980, transferring to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock), graduating with a BA in 1983.
Smith was awarded a Juris Doctorate by the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1987 but never excelled as an attorney. In March 1993, he underwent a “Rule 37” hearing for allegedly providing incompetent representation for David Johnson, a client sentenced to death in September 1989 for the beating death of Leon Brown, a security guard at the Little Rock Crate & Basket Co., 1623 E. 14th Street. In July 1993, while he was serving as a public defender in Stuttgart, Smith was indicted on two counts of second-degree forgery and two counts of writing insufficient checks in an alleged land scam. He surrendered his law license in September 1993 and was convicted of felony theft of property in Arkansas County in 1994 and sentenced to ten years in prison; a judge later reduced Smith’s sentence to ten years’ probation.
With his legal career in shambles, Smith also faced daunting personal problems. His third wife, Stephanie Carol Weatherford, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1993. His adopted son, Brandon, also had serious health problems and died of a brain tumor in 1997. Saddled with substantial debt, the Smiths declared bankruptcy in August 1993. During this time, Smith received psychiatric treatment at Baptist Medical Center and, in the years to come, sporadically took lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder.
Following the 1992 election of native Arkansan Bill Clinton as president of the United States, a friend of Smith’s in the antiques trade suggested that if Smith possessed any letters bearing Clinton’s signature they would be worth some money. The idea stuck with Smith, and in 1995, he began what was called a “multi-state spree of document theft targeting letter-writers and signatories from governors to guerillas, with plenty of presidents thrown in.”
In 1995 and 1996, Smith stole over 150 original documents from the archives of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (Washington County), the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the Arkansas History Commission (now Arkansas State Archives), the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He is also believed to have stolen hundreds of additional documents during these years from the Memphis Public Library, and the George F. Allen Library in Boonville, Mississippi, although he was never arrested for these thefts.
Among the documents stolen in Kansas and Arkansas were dozens with presidential signatures from John Quincy Adams to Lyndon Johnson, as well as letters from state governors and other notable figures. Smith’s modus operandi in all the thefts never wavered. Archivists who worked with him described him as the model researcher—professional and courteous—but always insistent on viewing original documents, which he would slip into the leather portfolio he carried before exiting with them, sometimes replacing original documents with copies. Smith then sold the letters at far less than their market value to manuscripts dealers, who resold them for a profit.
Smith first was arrested for the thefts in Kansas in March 1996, after Spencer Library staff member discovered that original letters of Confederate marauder William Quantrill had been replaced by photocopies. Smith had been the last person to use the letters prior to their disappearance. In March 1996, Smith pleaded guilty to one count of theft and was sentenced to eleven months in prison and $7,155 restitution. Three months later, in June, Judge William Storey of Washington County, Arkansas, sentenced Smith to fifteen years, served concurrently with the Kansas sentence, and $33,440 restitution. One year after the Kansas sentencing, Pulaski County judge John Langston sentenced Smith to fifteen years in prison (also to be served concurrently) with restitution to UA Little Rock and the History Commission. Smith was paroled in 1999.
Smith’s time in prison was not rehabilitative. Employed as a grocery clerk and unable to afford the medication for his bipolar disorder, by 2003 Smith had again resorted to document theft. The last known theft for which he was prosecuted was committed in late 2003, when he was charged with felony stealing from the archives at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, where he stole six letters by the Nobel Prize–winning author William Faulkner. The letters, valued at $25,000 at the time, were sold to an autograph dealer in Texas but were eventually returned to the university. Smith received a seven-year sentence in the Moberly Correctional Center in Missouri. Following his parole, Smith relocated to Branson, Missouri, where he died on April 8, 2010.
For additional information:
“Bankruptcy Watch.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 16, 1993, p. 4C.
Caldwell, Elizabeth. “Attorneys Seek New Trial in 1989 LR Beating Death.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 26, 1993, p. 2B.
———. “Jail Inmate Testifies about Threats to Keep Him Quiet.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 27, 1993, p. 2B.
Flory, Josh. “Sick Inmate Drawn to Life of Crime.” Springfield News-Leader, October 17, 2003, p. 15.
“Kansas Suspect Viewed Missing Lincoln Letter in LR.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 6, 1996, p. 1A.
“Stolen Faulkner Letters Bring Former Lawyer to Missouri Prison.” Monroe, Louisiana, News Star, October 12, 2003, p. 8.
“Stuttgart Public Defender Charged in Land Scam.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 10, 1993, p. 3B.
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