Woman claims she had help in Ben bust heist

The 18th-century bust of Ben Franklin, allegedly stolen from a Bryn Mawr home, was recovered by FBI at a Md. bus station.
The 18th-century bust of Ben Franklin, allegedly stolen from a Bryn Mawr home, was recovered by FBI at a Md. bus station. (allegedly stolen from a Bryn Mawr home, was recovered by FBI at a Md. bus station.)
Posted: October 12, 2012

The woman accused of stealing a rare $3 million portrait bust of Benjamin Franklin from a Bryn Mawr collector's home this summer had an accomplice, she told police in an interview filed in a Montgomery County district court today.

In a statement to Lower Merion Township police on Oct. 2, Andrea Lawton, 46, of Philadelphia, said a man helped her in the heist. She also described how the crime was carried out.

Lawton said that man, who she did not name, was the one who broke into the home in the 600 block of Black Rock Road Aug. 24 by kicking out an air-conditioner.

He entered the house and grabbed the bust off its pedestal in the collector's drawing room while she acted as lookout in a car parked outside, Lawton said in the statement.

When he went back into the house to steal the pedestal, a car pulled into the driveway and interrupted the crime. The burglars fled in a dark red SUV, but not before the car's occupants recognized Lawton, she said.

The statement was entered into evidence today at Lawton's preliminary hearing in Penn Valley. She is charged in Lower Merion with burglary, theft, conspiracy, criminal trespass and theft by receiving stolen property.

In a separate federal case in Philadelphia, Lawton has been charged with illegally transporting a stolen object - the bust - across state lines when she fled to Alabama in September. She was arrested Sept. 21 as she got off a Greyhound bus in Elkton, Md. The bust was recovered, but it was cracked.

This morning, Magisterial District Court Judge Henry J. Schireson ordered Lawton to stand trial in Montgomery County Court on all five local charges.

She was returned to prison in Philadelphia after Schireson refused to reduce her $1 million bail.

Wearing a black headdress and prison garb, she averted her face when asked to comment after the hearing. Willis Watson, her court-appointed attorney, said he had no comment.

In her statement, Lawton said that after she and her accomplice left the scene of the crime, he dropped her off at 57th and Webster Streets in Philadelphia. That was on a Friday.

He gave her a sheet, she said, "and I wrapped Ben up."

She left "the statue" overnight in a dumpster outside an apartment building near 31st and Parrish Streets in the Mantua section, she told police.

"I got it early Saturday. I drove around on my motorcycle, and left on Sunday," she said, referring to her flight with the art treasure to Mobile, Ala.

Lawton said she took the bust because she had been fired by the firm that sent her to clean at the collector's house just months earlier. "I was fired. . . and I was mad," she told police.

She chose the bust because "I was told it was valuable and I wanted to get [her boss] fired. But I did not know how valuable until I saw the news."

A second item stolen that day from the collector's home was a shadowbox with a picture of operetta composer Victor Herbert and his baton. Lawton told police she never knew that was taken until "you told me about it."

Lawton said she never saw the shadowbox - worth $80,000 - in the red SUV in which the two rode.

Asked to identify her accomplice, she replied: "No. But I will try to get the picture [box] back for you."

Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.