By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into how a bullet-riddled diary found in Malcolm X's coat pocket following his February 1965 murder recently ended up on a California auction block, the Voicehas learned. The blood-stained artifact is supposed to be part of the original police investigative file, which is now being held for historical safekeeping by New York City's Municipal Archives.
As part of the probe, FBI agents in Los Angeles last month seized the diary from the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house, which had originally planned to peddle the item for upward of $50,000 during a May 27 collectibles sale. At the same time, federal investigators here were removing documents from the city archives, including the now empty evidence envelope that once held the small red diary Malcolm was carrying when he was assassinated in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom.
Following the shooting, investigators placed evidence, interview notes, and testimony into a file that was maintained by the Manhattan district attorney's office. Prosecutors subsequently used the material to help convict three men of murdering the black leader. Those records, which fill several storage boxes, were later transferred to the Municipal Archives, the repository for old D.A. case files.
The FBI launched its investigation which is apparently centering on the possible interstate transportation of stolen property shortly after a Voicereporter raised questions about the propriety of the planned auction. Citing the "ongoing investigation," FBI agent James Wynn, who is overseeing the diary probe, declined Monday to answer a reporter's questions about the case.
While confirming that the FBI had seized the diary, Butterfield's spokesman Levi Morgan last week refused to identify who had consigned the diary for sale, nor would he even name the collector's attorney. According to a press release, Butterfield & Butterfield, the nation's third largest auction house, shelved the diary sale on May 20, after "issues regarding title or ownership" were raised.
Kenneth Cobb, director of the Municipal Archives, said that an FBI agent reviewed the Malcolm X files on two occasions last month and that the bureau subsequently served a subpoena for some of the documents. Included among the records removed by the FBI were the original NYPD evidence envelope and the accompanying property clerk's voucher, which contains a brief description of the evidence: "1965 Red Diary with 3 bullet holes therein, property of Malcolm 'X' Little."
The focus on the Malcolm X diary began in early May, when Butterfield's announced that its May 27 rare book and historical manuscript auction would include for sale the 146-page diary "found in Malcolm X's front left coat pocket after his assassination." According to a catalogue description, the diary had "3 bullet holes through center of book, some bloodstains at bottom edge." Compared to far more mundane offerings, the Malcolm X diary is truly a one-of-a-kind collector's item. It is a jarring reminder of a brutal, historic crime.
But there can be little doubt that the diary itself is stolen goods.
The Butterfield's catalogue noted that the diary came with a letter of provenance, or proof of ownership, "from the original owner who bought the piece after the New York court system purged its files in the early 1990s." On May 13, when the Voiceasked for further specifics on the diary's provenance, a Butterfield's official claimed that the item "was bought from the police department" by an unnamed person who later sold it to the collector who consigned the diary for auction.
Butterfield's shifting assertions that the court system "purged" its files and that the NYPD was selling off evidence from a high- profile murder trial were equally ludicrous, since the diary was neither in the possession of the court nor of police officials.
Since 1993, the Malcolm X homicide files have been in the custody of the Municipal Archives, which allows visitors easy access to its extensive holdings. Included in the Malcolm X collection are scores of NYPD reports, autopsy photos, and a remarkable array of trial exhibits spent shotgun shells, mangled bullets, and even shrapnel removed from Malcolm's body by the medical examiner. Each piece of evidence is accompanied by a property clerk's invoice and has been placed inside an NYPD evidence envelope.
Prior to 1993, the Malcolm X files were held by the Manhattan district attorney's office, which had possession of the records for more than 25 years and kept the investigative files in its own storage facility. Along with thousands of other cases, the Malcolm X records were transferred to the archives as part of a records retention agreement between archives officials and the prosecutor's office.
Because the Malcolm X records have been in storage for more than 30 years, it may prove difficult for the FBI to pinpoint when the diary was swiped. During this period, the material was available to untold numbers of cops, prosecutors, and members of the general public. It was a Voicereporter who, during a visit to the Municipal Archives nearly 18 months ago, first noticed the red diary missing from the NYPD evidence envelope bearing the typed description "1965 RED DIARY WITH THREE BULLET HOLES."