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Thursday, March 30, 2006 10:24 am

Closing the book

A happy ending, sort of, to the great Springfield library caper of 2005

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Last Monday morning, Lori Burger joined hordes of petty criminals, plus their kith and kin, in room 7D of the Sangamon County Courthouse. Crowded into pews and forced to sit with unsavory strangers, some first offenders grew restless during the hour and a half that lapsed before the judge appeared on the bench. But Lori didn’t mind the tedious delay; she had brought along her very best friend in the whole wide world — a book. This one was a juicy paperback of the chick-lit genre — not quite so highbrow as the fare that earned her a degree in British and American literature. But on this day, she needed a frothy distraction from the reality that she was facing two to five years’ incarceration and up to $25,000 fine. Burger, as you probably don’t recall, is the former library assistant who was caught last summer peddling cast-off library donations on eBay. She was the topic of a press conference featuring the mayor, the police chief, two city attorneys, and the director of the public library, announcing that the 31-year-old Burger had stolen some 2,000 books that had been given to the library. She immediately resigned her $28,570-a-year job and returned about 1,000 volumes. But that didn’t stop the justice system from throwing the book at Burger: She was charged with theft over $300 — a class 3 felony offense. The media mostly made light of the case, focusing on the novelty of her crime. After all, it was tough to make Burger sound like a menace to society, given that many of the books she “stole” were textbooks or damaged editions destined for the library Dumpster. The rest would have been offered for sale in the library’s used-book store at a top price of $2 apiece. My response to the press conference was a column asking why city officials had felt compelled to alert the media to Burger’s transgressions [see “One for the books,” Aug. 18, 2005]. At the time, city communications director Ernie Slottag offered this explanation: “I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone charged with stealing books and selling them on eBay,” Slottag says. “That’s pretty unusual, don’t you think?” The assorted cops and firefighters who drive drunk and the maintenance worker who pilfered $11,000 from the credit union are, apparently, not unusual enough to warrant the public humiliation of a full-scale press conference. No, just the lowly library assistant who took discarded books. Her felony charge made an amusing story on the front page of the State Journal-Register, and then it was forgotten — by virtually everyone but Burger. “I think about this all the time. I ponder this in the shower. I ponder this on my drive to work,” she said Monday. Coming to court — as she had done a half-dozen times, only to hear that her case had been “continued” — made the shame worse. “It’s another day where you worry about things, where you scrape the scab off the wound again,” she said. The one person she had on her side was John Sharp. He’s a lawyer I contacted last August when I was looking for someone to explain the charges against Burger. He never gave me anything quotable; all he would say was “You’ve got to be kidding! Tell the girl to call me.” He and partner Mike Harmon ended up representing Burger for free. “It became obvious to us that this wasn’t a felony. It was — if anything — a misdemeanor,” Sharp said, “and we knew Lori didn’t have the resources to retain us or anybody else. So this was the right thing to do.” He reminded prosecutors that the books Burger sold on eBay weren’t all from the library; she also listed books she had bought from thrift stores, garage sales, and Web sites. The dollar value of each book presented another question: Should it be gauged by the sum she sold it for on eBay, or by the paltry price the library would have charged? Steve Weinhoeft, first assistant state’s attorney, finally dropped the charge to a class A misdemeanor. On Monday, Burger pleaded guilty and agreed to two years’ probation, $1,000 in restitution to the library, and 250 hours of community service — tentatively scheduled to be spent reading newspapers and books onto tape for the visually impaired. The fact that Burger will enjoy this part of the punishment tickled Weinhoeft. “I think it’s a very appropriate sentence,” he said. Of course, Slottag didn’t hold another press conference to announce the downgraded charges, and the SJ-R relegated the news to page 14 on Wednesday. Burger, though, has had her life irretrievably altered by her small-time crime. Not only has she stopped selling books on eBay, but she has also sworn off libraries. Forever. The bookmark in the paperback she brought to court Monday was the receipt she printed out when she purchased the volume from Amazon.com. “Some people buy shoes; I buy books. I’m always gonna have books, and I’m always going to read,” she said.  “But I wish this had never happened. . . . You can’t go back and redo things — but if I could, I would.”
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