Ex-cleaning lady says she stole Ben Franklin bust out of anger

Andrea Lawton, 46, said she took the bust to Alabama.
Andrea Lawton, 46, said she took the bust to Alabama.
Posted: October 13, 2012

She had been fired. She was mad. She wanted revenge.

And so she took the one thing that, as a cleaning lady, she was warned never to touch in a Bryn Mawr collector's home: a plaster bust of Ben Franklin worth $3 million.

At a preliminary hearing Thursday for Andrea Lawton, 46, of Philadelphia, Lower Merion Township police released an interview in which she said she had an accomplice in the Aug. 24 theft of the art object - a man who broke into the house while she waited in a car.

Also for the first time, she detailed Ben's untoward journey from the Main Line to Alabama and back to a bus station in Maryland, with an overnight stay in a Dumpster at 31st and Parrish Streets in the city's Mantua section.

Asked by detectives to identify her accomplice, she replied: "No."

But in the interview, she described his alleged role in the heist and how and why it went down.

The motive was payback, 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."

Lawton said her accomplice broke into the home of lawyer George A. D'Angelo in the 600 block of Black Rock Road by kicking out an air conditioner. The man grabbed the bust in the drawing room, but when he went back into the house to steal its pedestal, a car pulled into the driveway. The two fled, but not before the car's occupants recognized her, Lawton said.

She told police the man dropped her off at 57th and Webster Streets in Philadelphia. That was 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, she told police.

"I got it early Saturday," Aug. 25, she said.

Police issued a warrant for Lawton's arrest on burglary charges that day, and called on her to turn herself in. Instead, she fled the next day to her cousin's home in Mobile, Ala.

"I got scared," she told police. "I put the statue in a big trunk and took him with me." Her cousin, she said, had no idea "of what was in the trunk."

Lawton was arrested Sept. 21 as she got off a Greyhound bus in Elkton, Md. The bust was recovered, but it was cracked and will need restoration.

Her statement was entered into evidence at the 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 across state lines.

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, had nothing to say.

Another item stolen during the burglary at the D'Angelo home was a shadowbox with a picture of operetta composer Victor Herbert and his baton. Lawton told police she never saw the $80,000 object in the car and didn't know about its theft until "you told me about it."

In the interview, she made a promise: "I will try to get the picture [box] back for you." The item hasn't surfaced.

When police asked whether she regretted the crime, she said yes.

"I regret giving into my emotions and getting involved in this. I should have turned myself in when you called. I miss my family, my husband, my daughter."

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

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