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Friday, February 14, 2020

Michael Rohana: The Drunken Museum Vandal

     In 2017, Michael Rohana, a 24-year-old department store shoe salesman, lived with his parents in Bear, Delaware, a town of 20,000 in the northern tip of the state. On December 21, 2017, Rohana attended an after-hours "ugly sweater" Christmas party held at the Franklin Institute, the world-renowned museum in downtown Philadelphia.

     While his friends partied, the intoxicated Rohana slipped away from the group and entered a roped-off area of the museum that housed an exhibit on loan from China that had been on display at the Franklin Institute since September 2017. The exhibit consisted of ten, 2000-year-old, life-sized terra cotta statues of Chinese warriors. Using his cellphone as a flashlight to get around in the dimly lit area, Rohana was recorded on a museum surveillance camera taking selfies with the fragile figures. The surveillance camera also caught him ripping a thumb from a $4.5 million statue called "The Cavalry Man."

     The next morning, Rohana awoke in his room at his parents' house still wearing his party jeans and his green Christmas sweater. He reached into his pocket and was startled to find the terra cotta warrior's thumb.

     After a week of worrying about what he had done at the Franklin Institute, and checking online to see if his act of vandalism had been noticed and was being investigated, Rohan confided to his mother about the broken museum piece. They discussed returning the thumb, but in the end did nothing.

     Two weeks after Michael Rohana trespassed into the Chinese exhibit area and broke off a piece of the statue, the assistant director of collections at the Franklin Institute, while making her rounds, discovered the missing thumb. Upon the discovery, the museum called in special agents with the FBI's art crime unit. It didn't take long for agents to come across the surveillance camera footage implicating Mr. Rohana.

     On January 13, 2018, a federal grand jury sitting in Philadelphia indicted Michael Rohana on the charges of theft and concealment of an object of cultural heritage, a federal offense that carried a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

     The next day, FBI agents arrested Michael Rohana at his parents' house in Bear, Delaware. At the dwelling the agents took possession of the stolen warrior thumb.

     The Rohana case went on trial in Philadelphia in early April 2019. The proceeding featured a battery of prosecution and defense art appraisal witnesses. Experts for the prosecution valued the terra cotta warrior's thumb at $150,000. Expert witnesses for the defense appraised the statue's thumb from $500 to $1,000.

     Michael Rohana took the stand on his own behalf and said: "I don't know why I broke it. It just happened, but there was never a thought of, 'I should break this.'"

     Rohana's public defender attorney, in her closing argument to the jury, accused the federal prosecution of over charging her client with a rarely used federal law aimed at professional art thieves and planned museum heists. It was not a law, the defense attorney argued, that applied to the stupid act of a drunken partygoer.

     Assistant United States Attorney K. T. Newton, in her closing statement to the jury of seven men and five women, said, "Michael Rohana deliberately broke the thumb. He took it out of the Franklin Institute and he took it home. That's theft. That is stealing."

     On April 18, 2019, after deliberating eleven hours, the jury voted to acquit the defendant seven to five. The judge declared a mistrial.

     Federal prosecutors, in May 2019, refiled the theft and concealment of an object of cultural heritage charges against Michael Rohana. The second trial was scheduled for February 18, 2020, but on February 3, 2020, the United States Attorney's Office announced that the Rohana retrial was postponed indefinitely due to the Coronavirus travel ban that precluded key Chinese witnesses from coming to the United States.

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