A Big Camera Heist at N.Y.U. Film School

Over the last few years, 18 of these gorgeous 16-millimeter movie cameras have been slipping out of New York University’s famous film school (Martin Scorsese! Spike Lee!) and making their way a few blocks uptown to a lesser-known school called the New York Film Academy (founded 1993).

When administrators at the N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts began to suspect that some of their cameras were missing last month, they really had no idea where the cameras might have gone. Now police say they have the answer: It was an inside job.

Up until Thursday, June 25, it seems only one man knew the solution to the mystery. He was Peter Baker, a repair technician at N.Y.U., and he knew how the cameras got from one school to the other for a simple reason, according to police: He stole them.

Over the years, he stole them one by one, according to sources at the two schools–sneaking them out of N.Y.U. sometimes with the help of his pals, who bluffed their way past unsuspecting security guards–and he sold all 18 of them to Jerry Sherlock, the director of the New York Film Academy, who paid each time by check, careful to note the serial number of each Arriflex S or Arriflex SB in the memo section of his checks with each purchase.

Detectives Ronald Wuench and Daniel Massanova arrested Mr. Baker June 25 on campus, at 721 Broadway, corner of Waverly Place. According to a source at N.Y.U., who spoke on condition of anonymity, the arrest went smoothly. Mr. Baker admitted to his alleged crime and put up no struggle; he did, however, have to spend a night in jail before his arraignment. Right now, the charges are still pending. The prosecutor in the case, Julie Selsberg, is on vacation and did not return a call seeking comment. Calls to Mr. Baker’s Manhattan phone were unsuccessful. Mr. Baker’s parents have apparently tried to get the charges dropped, according to the N.Y.U. source, but the school is in no mood to go along with that. Still, the parents’ efforts may do some good. Asked if the charges could end up being dropped, Detective Massanova said, “I don’t know about dropped. But maybe reduced.”

After making the arrest, the two detectives obtained a search warrant and headed over to the New York Film Academy on Union Square. “We got some property back, but there’s more work to be done here,” said Detective Massanova. The detective specified that he found nine cameras at the New York Film Academy; according to people at the two schools, the others may turn up in Paris or New Jersey, where the New York Film Academy sponsors lectures.

The alleged thief is known as an expert repair technician and an all around nice guy. He’s about 30 years old, according to his former employers. Before going to work at N.Y.U., he was repairing cameras at the New York Film Academy. “Three years ago, we were looking for a new repair technician and Peter Baker came to us,” said an administrator at N.Y.U., who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He was a great technician, fixes everything well, and he was very innovative–perhaps too innovative.”

N.Y.U. suspected that something was wrong as they were getting ready for the summer program. The manager of N.Y.U.’s production center decided to take an inventory and soon discovered that Mr. Baker was not exactly forthcoming concerning the whereabouts of cameras supposedly in his care. After being questioned, he at last told a colleague he had stolen the cameras, according to the source at N.Y.U.. After that, N.Y.U. wasted no time in making a call to the Sixth Precinct.

The cameras are much coveted by film schools all over the world, and they can fetch up to $4,000. They were made in Germany and were discontinued in the 70’s. Scott Bankert, equipment manager at N.Y.U., said they’re perfect for film students because they’re “rugged” and “very high quality–not a toy camera.” Mr. Sherlock said he was buying them from Mr. Baker for just under $2,000.

Mr. Sherlock, who was an executive producer of the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October , said his New York Film Academy owns about 150 Arriflex S or Arriflex SB model cameras. He said the price he paid for Mr. Baker’s booty was not out of the ordinary. “We have bought them for even cheaper,” Mr. Sherlock said, “and some we have bought for more. It averages out. It was not such a cheap price.”

Mr. Sherlock added that he had no way of knowing the cameras were stolen. “No way!” he said. “We are the injured party here. N.Y.U. got their cameras back, but we are out money. We just want to get back our money. Unfortunately, there’s no insurance on anything like this … I don’t feel like the wisest guy in the world.” He said he found Mr. Baker to be trustworthy and believed that he had assembled the cameras out of “discarded bodies and parts.”

“It was out in the open,” Mr. Sherlock said. “No one was doing anything clandestine. Why would a sweetheart of a kid do something to ruin his career?”

Asked if he was satisfied that he had arrested the only culprit, Detective Wuench said, “We haven’t solved it 100 percent. The case is ongoing and I can’t comment on anything that would jeopardize the investigation.”

Mr. Sherlock said Mr. Baker makes for an unlikely thief: “If you knew the person who did it, you would find it incomprehensible.”

Dispute at Washington Square

It’s high summer. Which can mean only one thing. Well, two things. Plenty of George Thorogood and plenty of Henry James!

Every summer, it’s the same. Push the “seek” button on the old car radio and–whether it be “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer” or “Bad to the Bone”–you’re sure to hear Mr. Thorogood’s good-time tunes blasting away. And in your chair each evening, with the TV off thanks to summer repeats, it’s Henry James time. If not The Golden Bowl (maybe next summer), well, then, at least Washington Square .

Was there ever a character so vivid as Washington Square ‘s Dr. Austin Sloper, whose cool logic masks a hot, possibly cruel nature? Was there ever a father more effective at keeping fortune hunters away from his daughter? But let’s see how Dr. Sloper fares against Delaware’s rudest rocker, shall we? We find ourselves at 21 Washington Square. Dr. Sloper, his plain, obstinate daughter Catherine and Mr. Thorogood are seated in the dining room…

George Thorogood: “I’m b-b-b-b-b-b-bad. Bad to the bone!”

Dr. Sloper: “I like your frankness, Mr. Thorogood. But allow me to inquire why you believe that an admission of your own moral lack would make for appropriate supper conversation, much less leave me any more kindly disposed toward giving up my daughter? Perhaps a certain waywardness is no bad thing in a dinner companion, but it is worthless in a son-in-law.”

George Thorogood: “I make a rich woman beg, I make a poor woman steal.”

Dr. Sloper: “Do not mock me with idle talk. I find it highly improbable that you could reduce a woman of means to the status of a lowly beggar, and if you were indeed capable of such a loathsome feat, one would suspect the woman involved. I say, even if there were a gentlewoman of questionable character whom you somehow brought to a penniless state, I do not see why you would boast of it! As for making a poor woman steal, again, sir, I fail to understand why you would find the topic worthy of anything but the most abject confession. You are a puzzle to me.”

George Thorogood: “I broke a thousand hearts, baby, before I met you. I’ll break a thousand more before I am through.”

Dr. Sloper: “I find your habit of speaking to Catherine in that coarse manner to be in bad taste. Those words may win you favor in a French play, but this is no French play, sir–no, this is life. Such hot talk further places you in a category of men from which it would be imprudent for me to select a husband for my daughter. I say, this breaking of multitudinous hearts on your part and boasting of it at my table do not serve to recommend you. My daughter may think me a tyrant for a twelvemonth, but I am not afraid to state that I utterly disapprove of your engagement. In fact, Mr. Thorogood, I abominate you.”

George Thorogood: “I wanna be yours, pretty baby. Yours and yours alone. But I gotta tell ya first, honey … I’m bad to the bone!”

Dr. Sloper: “You have laid out your terms neatly, Mr. Thorogood, just as I will lay out mine: I am taking Catherine to Europe for a sixmonth, and if, after witnessing the treasures of that continent, she still finds your stammered confessions charming, then perhaps you will marry. But you will do so without my approval–and without benefit of the thirty thousand a year I had intended to bestow upon her. You may protest that I place undue importance on my daughter’s fortune, but I must now ask you to leave my table, sir, and come no more to 21 Washington Square!”

Well, as we can see, even the Delaware Destroyer is no match for Dr. Sloper! Next week: Bo Diddley tries to steal the heart of Jane Austen’s Emma.

-Steven Wright Jr.

A Big Camera Heist at N.Y.U. Film School