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How 'Encyclopedia Brown' crossed over to textbook burglary

Despite a plea for mercy that likened him to fictional boy detective "Encyclopedia Brown," the case of the caught-on-camera textbook thief at the University of Virginia ended with more than a year behind bars.

The 63-year-old Charles Lewis Hickman was sentenced last week to 15 months in jail for taking $1,250 worth of textbooks from the UVa Engineering School.

"Charles Hickman understands all too well why he has been sitting in jail for months," his defense team noted in a sentencing memorandum. "What he did was wrong, a huge mistake that he wishes he could take back."

What he did, according to the investigating officer, began by using contraband keys to enter a professor’s office in Thornton Hall on the evening of Nov. 1. What Hickman may not have realized was that he entered the office of a surveillance-savvy professor. Zongli Lin, the Ferman W. Perry Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, having grown frustrated by prior textbook thefts, had installed a hidden camera.

"Mr. Hickman can be seen entering the office wearing a blue button-down shirt, glasses, and a black Under Armor backpack," according to the arrest warrant filed by Sgt. Daniel Stuart of the UVa Police Department. "He then removes some books from the shelves."

This early November incursion produced images of a balding, middle-age man, but his identify was unknown and the case went unsolved until Jan. 4 when a similar suspect returned to Thornton Hall. This time, the man chose a lecture hall, and an alarm summoned UVa police officer Beckett Thelen.

"I arrived in the area and had a consensual encounter with a Charles Hickman, who advised that he was in the area and heard an alarm," wrote Thelen, who initially let Hickman go without detention.

But while still on scene the officer received an image of the November suspect and asserted that two suspects were the same man: Hickman.

"Hickman had driven from the area but was stopped by officers at the intersection of Emmet Street and Ivy Road," wrote Thelen. "I read him Miranda."

According to the police report, around 8:16 p.m, Hickman had handed over the keys, the textbooks and his freedom. He faced three felony charges: burglary, grand larceny and larceny with the intent to sell. Four weeks later, he was hit with a fourth charge for the November entry into Lin’s office.

Citing the workload of the impending fall semester, Lin declined to discuss the case. But according to the court file, the professor estimated the value of the textbooks taken in January was $1,250, which is $250 above the threshold that constitutes grand larceny. The fact that two pairs of the books were identical appeared to bolster the charge of larceny with intent to sell.

Hickman was pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering when he met his wife in 1982 at an Elvis Costello concert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, according to a letter she sent the court.

"I intuitively knew when I first met him that he was a good person, and that proved to be true," Katherine Woltz wrote.

She said that Hickman reminded her of "Encyclopedia Brown," the titular kid sleuth in a series of books about a boy who solves crimes.

"His interests were broad, and he could recall lots of things that other people forgot," she said.

However, unlike "Encyclopedia Brown," Hickman found himself as the target of several criminal investigations. By his own accounting, his record includes convictions for trespassing and petty larceny in 2017 and felony larceny 1998.

Less than a year before his Albemarle County arrest, Hickman was convicted of burglary in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Additionally, an Albemarle prosecutor claimed in court that Hickman has a nonextraditable charge of auto theft in North Carolina.

Such a track record suggests to longtime Charlottesville criminal law attorney Scott Goodman that Hickman has a criminal habit.

"Judges don’t say this aloud, but nobody is so unlucky they’re going to get caught every time," Goodman told The Daily Progress. "Science backs this up that he’s probably done this many, many times."

Hickman’s 2022 burglary sentence came from a book theft at James Madison University. While all five years of that five-year sentence were suspended, Hickman’s January arrest triggered probation violation proceedings in Harrisonburg.

He remains jailed in Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail, and Goodman said that Hickman didn’t learn his lesson.

"If you’re caught a second and a third time it’s not just happenstance," said Goodman. "It’s an ongoing problem."

Hickman plans to get mental health treatment for the first time in his life, according to a report compiled by a mitigation specialist with the public defender’s office. That report is a tale of family expectations, unfulfilled dreams and an unfinished college degree.

"It is certainly not lack of intelligence or an inability to master the work that stood in the way," wrote social worker Teresa Musolino. "There simply wasn’t enough money or time to devote to the pursuit of formal education."

The specialist claimed that Hickman never understood his family and that they never understood him.

"They are a family of high achievers, an impressive array of doctors, professors and intellectuals with a slew of advanced degrees between them," Musolino wrote.

She said Hickman chose a "self-guided" education and contented himself professionally by delivering newspapers.

"He appreciated the solitude, there was no boss breathing down his neck, and he was providing an invaluable service," Musolino wrote. "Prior to today’s easy internet access, the paper was a tangible connection for rural towns like Mr. Hickman’s."

For more than two decades, the hamlet of Banco in Madison County has been the home of Hickman and his wife. There, instead of having children, they have taken in about two dozen stray and feral cats and have offered food to gather more of them, according his wife’s letter.

"Charles loves animals and they love him," she wrote.

But to Goodman, the criminal defense attorney, these narratives provide inadequate excuses.

"There are hundreds of people who have hard-luck stories, but that doesn’t excuse stealing," said Goodman. "If you use that as an excuse, he’d be able to steal for the rest of his life."

The plea agreement that Hickman signed with prosecutor Susan Baumgartner provides a sentence of four years and three months with three years suspended on a single felony count of larceny with intent to sell. Two misdemeanor counts of entering property to damage it brought a pair of 12-month suspended sentences.

"He has no violence in his history," his public defender, Jonathon Packard, told a judge at a bail hearing in January.

Hickman is due back in court next week, only this time he’ll face a judge in Harrisonburg and Rockingham for a hearing on his probation violation charge in that jurisdiction.


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