SANTA CLARITA — There are two ways to look at the legacy of the late A.B. Perkins.
Either he was an important north county researcher and historian, whose collected belongings are an invaluable resource, or he had merely collected a lifetime's worth of family portraits and knickknacks, no more valuable to outsiders than the crayon drawings a proud mother hangs on the fridge.
In any event, Perkins' stuff is causing a heap of trouble for Stephen Steele, a Santa Clarita man who in June answered a newspaper ad placed by Perkins' heirs. The ad offered a free trailer to anyone who would haul it away.
Unfortunately, the family didn't know that A.B.'s treasures had been stored in the trailer. On Thursday, Steele--who allegedly was trying to peddle some of the items at local swap meets--was arrested for grand theft of 20 boxes of, well, stuff.
Perkins moved to the Santa Clarita Valley in the 1920s to mine for gold. He bought property and as he grew older he enjoyed researching the area's history. He wrote a history column for the Newhall Signal newspaper as well as for other publications.
But judging by the 20 brown boxes lined up along a hallway at the sheriff's station here, Perkins collected more than history. As bewildered passers-by walked along the row of crates, deputies picked through dust-laden photo albums and yellowing papers and books. They joked that they had raided a garage sale.
Civilian employee Dianne Avery was incredulous.
"People actually reported this stuff stolen?" she asked.
One stray black and white photo in a box showed three children getting snow cones from a woman at a table, perhaps at a long-ago county fair. A yellowing three-ring vinyl folder contained unlined, once-white paper covered with algebra problems.
There was also a wooden and clay life-sized bust of a frowning Perkins. Legend has it that it was the work of late newspaperman Scott Newhall, but the artist's true identity is a mystery.
"It was not Scotty, I can tell you that," said Ruth Newhall, the newspaperman's widow.
More mundane items were sprinkled throughout the boxes: An old pair of pliers, odd pieces of silverware, a wooden end table and a porcelain teacup with stenciled abstract shapes.
Deputies said they had no way to determine what the items were worth. Most of those not deemed junk would probably be of more historical than monetary value.
But what some would call "junk" holds sentimental value for the Perkins family.
The battle over Perkins' collection began when Ray and Jody Hegge, who rent a house belonging to the Perkins family, moved the boxes to the 1937 trailer kept on the land. Unbeknown to the Hegges, the Perkins family had placed an ad offering the trailer to the first taker.
When Steele came to pick up the trailer July 2, according to statements made by the Hegges to sheriff's deputies, they begged him to let them get Perkins' belongings out.
Steele claimed not to have time and drove off, the Hegges said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Brad Stone said that is the crux of the case. Because Steele was on the Perkinses' property, the Hegges should have been allowed to remove the trailer's contents, he said.
"We're talking about a person who received a gift and when he was told there was other stuff there, he took it against the will of the owner," Stone said. "We call that thievery."
The Perkins family didn't know his collection had been hauled away until weeks later when they read a local news account about Steele's "find."
When they asked for Perkins' goods back, Steele allegedly asked for $10,000 to account for the time he and his wife spent cleaning and sorting the items.
"I had the stuff for 12 or 13 weeks, cleaning it, preserving it, repairing it," Steele said. "Everything was broken up real bad."
Instead of paying, Perkins' heirs went to sheriff's deputies who on Thursday served Steele with a search warrant, confiscated the items and threw him in jail in lieu of $20,000 bail. Charges are expected to be filed next week.
Steele posted bond Friday morning.
"My father was the historian of this valley," Perkins said. "A lot of his manuscripts and research papers were involved. That type of information has no value and yet it's irreplaceable."
So why hadn't Perkins removed the items from storage at the rented-out house?
He was getting around to it, Perkins said.