Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Augusta pudding thief legend

One of the many Maine urban legends I've been told over the years is about a man who was found hiding in the ceiling of the State Library in Augusta sometime in the 1990s. Up until last night, I hadn't been able to find out much about it, as many Maine newspapers are not yet digitized, and everyone I talked to had been pretty vague about the year it happened. My only clues were that this guy had set up camp in the ceiling of the library, and had a fondness for pudding.

The story, like many Maine news oddities, made its way into a bunch of AP "news of the weird" columns all across the country. When I finally found it via a searchable archive, it appeared in a Galveston TX newspaper article. Once I had the date, and the fellow's name, I made better progress finding the story in Maine papers.

To set the stage, the Maine State Library forms our backdrop. This austere establishment, founded in 1836, is located in our capitol city of Augusta. The library resides in the Cultural Building alongside the State archives and the State museum. The Cultural Building itself is part of the larger State House complex.

As part of the State House, the library is overseen by the officers of Capitol Security. In September 1991, library staff members sought their assistance in solving a series of baffling overnight item disappearances. These petty thefts continued into October and November.

The missing items were mostly useful everyday items -- flashlights, extension cords, things like that. Capitol Security's suspicions at first focused on office employees and members of a recent asbestos removal work crew. But the more noticeable vanishments were food-related. Employees arrived at work and found that not only had a candy vending machine been cleaned out, but two refrigerators had also been emptied. They knew it wasn't spooks, as whoever took the items had left behind a note of apology. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.

Patterns developed. The staff figured out that the culprits weren't interested in fruit much, but frozen pizzas and especially pudding were favorite targets. Office life being what it is, the employees kept themselves occupied recording a log that tracked what was disappearing and what was staying put. I personally would LOVE to see that log if it still exists.

The staff for the most part seemed to feel sympathetic to the mysterious bandits, and even took to calling up to the ceiling panels to offer assistance if the intruder would simply let them know what they needed. The Capitol Security officers professed themselves "stymied."

The mystery became flesh when on Wednesday, November 20, 1991, a human foot broke through the third floor ceiling of the library, alerting workers to the location of one Andre V. Jatho. He had stumbled while eluding police, who by process of elimination had found his crawlspace hideaway.

Newspaper articles added another character to the script. It turned out that Jatho had company for most of the time. Until shortly before his capture, a companion, the same man who had introduced Jatho to the advantages of the library's crawlspace area, had been his "assistant." By the time the police were closing in on their hideaway, the second man had moved out. Here is another mystery I would love to know more about. Who was the second man? How had he originally found the crawlspace which he later introduced Jatho to? His name is not recorded in the newspapers I have found so far, but perhaps with a little more digging in some microfilm it will emerge.

Why did Jatho need assistance? It could have been because the crawlspace was accessed through a 1 1/2-foot by 2 1/2-foot utility panel, which entered an area filled with bathroom pipes and heating ducts, with no more than 5 feet of clearance at any point. It must have been quite a trick to get in and out of the space, especially carrying contraband. An extra pair of hands for a boost and help maneuvering must have been almost essential.

It's not too difficult to imagine that Jatho might have been somewhat relieved when his arrest finally came. With the departure of his assistant, Jatho admitted that "I was pretty much trapped on the third floor," and expressed doubt that he would have made it on his own much longer. Photos of him being led into court show a small friendly smile on his face, as though he is glad to see everyone and be out in the open again.

Officers found "everything you could think of" in the hideaway, including sleeping hammocks made from mailbags, collections of books by Dickens, Twain and Joyce, 3 VCRs, a crockpot and an overhead projector. Jatho was unable to remember how many days he had actually spent in the crawlspace. Later court documents decided a simple 10-day span of trespass would be left on the record.

Only 20 years old at the time of his arrest, Andre Jatho had traveled cross-country from Santa Clara, California, seeing the country in a blissful fashion until his money ran out. Back in his hometown, his mother, Janine Eichenberger, had no idea where he was, and only learned that he was alive and safe when a newspaper reporter contacted her about her son's arrest in Maine.

Jatho stayed in Maine for some time after his arrest, waiting out his court dates and sentencing, which was gradually reduced to a $500 fine and 25 hours of community service in the local schools. The charges against him had been reduced from felony burglary and theft down to criminal trespass and theft misdemeanors, and even the theft charge was dropped at the end. The library staff he left behind remained fascinated by the events, examining the books and movies the pair had squirreled away, and marveling over their intriguing taste in material.

At the January 1992 sentencing, District Judge Kirk Studstrup spoke disapprovingly of Jatho's "folk hero" reputation, and his notoriety as the "phantom of the library." However he recognized the uniqueness of the situation, and Jatho's cooperativeness in working with authorities since his arrest. Unable to find a paying job in the area, Jatho had since his discovery been working doing maintenance at a local school to earn public assistance.

Jatho announced in court that he would "gladly work with the children" at an Augusta school, where it was arranged he would be installed as an aide to children needing assistance in learning to read better. Once his sentence hours were complete, he looked forward to returning home to California and going to college, and hopefully getting a job in a bookstore.

After the hearing, he smilingly and softly stated to reporters that the people of Maine had treated him very nicely. After the report on his sentencing, his name does not seem to appear in the Maine newspapers again.

If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that a lot of the details of this story still reside in undigitized news archives and in the word-of-mouth realm. The news reports only hint at a wealth of details. This, of course, means I have more digging to do in the future. There are obvious gaps in the press's version of the story which beg to be filled in. If you have any details you would like to add, please drop me a line and let me know!

Information in this article came from:
Lewiston Sun Journal 11/22/91 p1
Bangor Daily News 1/7/92 p7
Lewiston Sun Journal 1/8/92 p1

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I worked with Andre in a small company in Burlingame, CA in 1998. Nice guy. Never mentioned his stint in the library all that much though.

Anonymous said...

Andre is ashamed of this part of his life. He suffered a nervous breakdown that led him to live in the library. He ran away from home as far as he could.His car broke down during his travels and he hitchhiked to Maine.When people found out about his situation they donated money to him. He passed the funds to charity because he did not feel he deserved the money for breaking the law. He currently lives close to his family.
He is the only son of six. Andre is very much loved and respected. Highly gifted individual. I hope he publishes a biography one day.

Michelle Souliere said...

Dear Anonymous-- Thank you for the insight! I'm glad to hear he is in a better spot now. If he ever wants help in telling his version of the story, you know where to find me. When I was researching it, the more I read the more I wondered about him. Perhaps if you talk to him you can tell him that he is remembered anonymously and with a strange fondness that is only given to the most friendly of mysteries here in Maine. :)