Photos from the Vault

Cal Poly police busted an Oscar-nominated writer for stealing thousands of library books

In a photo taken July 14, 1987, author Gustav Hasford stands in a San Luis Obispo storage locker that held research for an upcoming work.
In a photo taken July 14, 1987, author Gustav Hasford stands in a San Luis Obispo storage locker that held research for an upcoming work. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County Libraries are eliminating overdue fees. A friend, Nick Hoover, reminded me about one of the strange library stories told on these pages.

The aroma of bookbinder’s glue, old pages and stories, permeated the storage locker as I took photos of author Gustav Hasford in July 1987.

Hasford was a natural raconteur and happy to give us a window into his creative process.

The storage locker was filled with banker’s boxes; Hasford said it was research for an upcoming work. I remember thinking, “That’s a lot of research.”

Hasford had written the novel “The Short-Timers” and was one of three writers who adapted it for the Stanley Kubrick movie “Full Metal Jacket.”

It would soon be nominated for an Academy Award for best-adapted screenplay.

A Telegram-Tribune article written by Steven Churm profiled Hasford, who was living in Morro Bay on Jan. 31, 1979, shortly after the novel was published.

Churm said Hasford laughed a lot.

“It’s an infectious laugh that wells up deep inside his imposing frame and bursts forth with the staccato impact of a machine gun. The roar of his rapid-fire chuckle is followed by a wide grin that splits his long, round face. The grin is commonplace these days.”

The Alabama-born high school dropout joined the Marines in 1968. Six months later, the 18-year old was in Vietnam filing news reports, a battlefront correspondent with the First Marine Division.

The novel is a fictional account of a combat reporter who must choose between killing his boot camp best friend and survival.

“I wrote for all those veterans who wanted to express themselves, but just couldn’t. Nobody seems to listen to them, but they know the real story,” Hasford said.

“Veterans have either been ignored or made scapegoats for the war. But they didn’t want to go. And when they lived to come home, they were hassled and abused. People asked them why they did all those horrible things.”

Almost a decade after the novel was published, the story took an unexpected turn. Gregg Schroeder wrote the March 18, 1988, Telegram-Tribune story:

Book search a bonanza for police

When Cal Poly police served a search warrant at a storage shed in south San Luis Obispo this week, they didn’t realize what they were getting into.

Investigators were looking for 83 Cal Poly library books checked out a few months ago with a library card issued to former Morro Bay writer and Oscar nominee Jerry Gustav Hasford.

Police said they recovered only seven of the missing books when they raided two lockers they said were rented by Hasford.

But they also found about 10,000 other books and magazines at the lockers at Alamo Self Storage at 645 Tank Farm Road, some of them rare antique volumes believed to have been stolen from libraries around the world.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Ray Berrett, university investigator.

Investigators found so many books, stuffed in boxes with labels ranging from voodoo dancers and Ambrose Bierce to book collecting. Police had to return Thursday with a bigger truck to haul them all away.

They also said they found boxes of obscene magazines, research materials and newspaper clippings.

The evidence room is too small at the Cal Poly Public Safety Department, so the close to 400 boxes of books are being sorted at the Sheriff’s Department.

19883-18HasfordbooksA
Cal Poly officer Mike Kennedy holds book — titled ‘Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit’ — one of the 10,000 found in a raid on a shed of Oscar nominee Jerry G. Hasford. David Middlecamp Published 3-18-1988 David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Investigators spent all day Thursday sifting through the boxes to try to identify where they were taken from. Those books which have their “zebra bars” with computer identification numbers intact are easiest to log, said Wayne Carmack, university investigator. He expects the cataloging will continue through next week.

Police will photograph the books rather than hold them as evidence — “You couldn’t fit them into a courtroom,” Berrett said — and then return them to their owners.

But returning 10,000 books to libraries won’t be easy.

Police have contacted a worldwide book-library security network to help determine which libraries are missing volumes.

The FBI will notify countries from where books were taken and, working through embassies, will try to bring charges against Hasford from those countries.

Many of the books had been damaged in an attempt to cut or blot out library identification markings, police said.

So far, they have verified some of the volumes were taken from collections in England, Australia and South Africa in addition to libraries from throughout the United States.

Berrett declined to estimate the value of the books, calling many of the volumes “priceless,” including first-edition works by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe.

“It’s hard to say,” Berrett said. “It would be an ominous figure, to be sure.”

From the United States, Berrett said 150 books valued at $2,000 belong in Sacramento libraries; $1,500 worth of volumes were taken from St. Louis, Mo., libraries.

Still missing are $2,000 worth of mostly Civil War history books from Cal Poly. The fines for the overdue books from the university total $3,000, he said.

Some of the recovered publications belong to the Cuesta College library.

Police are looking for more books.

“We do know that he’s got some in people’s private garages,” Carmack said, adding that Hasford has another storage locker in another city. Berrett urged anyone with information about more books to call Cal Poly police at 756-2281.

Police are still looking for Hasford, who has been nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation for “Full Metal Jacket” from his book about the Vietnam War, “The Short-Timers.” Sharing the nomination with Hasford are Stanley Kubrick and Michael Herr. Police don’t anticipate Hasford will turn up in Los Angeles to attend the awards ceremony. But if he does, police may be there too.

“That’s a possibility,” Carmack chuckled. “I guess I hadn’t really considered that.

Library officials at Cal Poly put a hold on Hasford’s card on Jan. 14 when the value of the materials checked out reached close to $2,000.

The case will be turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for a formal complaint.

“He’s not going to be walking into libraries in the United States,” Berrett said.

“You would think as a writer he’d have more respect for the public libraries,” Berrett said.

•••

Hasford claimed to be innocent but later told probation officers he was sorry for checking out books and not returning them.

He entered a plea bargain Dec. 3, 1988, pleading no contest to possession of stolen property. Superior Court Judge Warren C. Conklin sentenced him to six months in jail, but he was released early on good behavior.

Hasford’s third novel in 1992, “A Gypsy Good Time,” was about a Hollywood rare book dealer pulled into a noir-style detective thriller.

According to a Feb. 3, 1993, Los Angeles Times obituary, Jerry Gustav Hasford died on the Greek island of Aegina of complications from untreated diabetes.

His three novels are out of print, and prices on Amazon range up to $600 for like-new hardbacks.

Though late fees are gone, readers will be charged for lost books.

A longer version of this story was first retold in 2012 but due to digital platform changes, it was no longer online.

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