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Case of the purloined Bill of Rights is solved - after 140 years

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US Attorney Frank Whitney's heart was beating fast. Gov. Mike Easley, a man known to take a few speedy turns on the NASCAR track, couldn't keep his fingers from trembling a little as he touched the faded parchment that was once handled by George Washington himself. State Archivist Jeff Crow knew the document would cap his career, and found himself fairly speechless.

Late Thursday, North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights - the very copy that swayed the state's vote to ratify the US Constitution - returned to the state capitol for the first time in 140 years.

It was stolen from a case in the capitol in 1865 by one of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Union "marauders" during the Civil War, on his way back home from razing Atlanta. In 2003, the FBI recovered the North Carolina copy in a sting in Philadelphia. Until last week, it had been in federal custody, its future unclear.

This is partly a cloak-and-dagger story of how the founding words of the country became embroiled in a real-life twist on the movie "National Treasure," involving wealthy Yankee antique barons and a nail-biting FBI sting.

But the document's transfer from US custody to state vaults is also a victory for generations of state officials, who can mark the end of an unusual legal fight testing one of the Bill's own amendments and a still-standing 1862 order by Abraham Lincoln outlawing looting by US soldiers.

"For the Bill to be returned to the very building it was stolen from right at the end of a bloody civil war has tested not only the meaning of the Constitution, but also honors George Washington's wishes and Abraham Lincoln's wishes as well," says Mr. Whitney.


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