An overdue library book called “The Freedom Writers Diary” briefly cost an Independence woman her freedom Thursday.
Jesup police arrested Shelly Koontz, 39, on a fifth-degree theft charge because she allegedly failed to return the collection of essays about the struggles of inner-city Long Beach, Calif., high school students.
The book’s retail price is $13.95.
“Theft is theft,” said Jesup Police Sgt. Chris Boos, “whether it’s a 50-cent candy bar, a $13 library book or a $200 TV.”
Koontz is free after posting a $250 bond at the Buchanan County Jail. Efforts to reach her by telephone Friday were unsuccessful.
Tom McGlaughlin, president of the Jesup library board, said pursuing criminal charges against a patron for an overdue book is unusual, but the circumstances were also out of the ordinary. He declined to elaborate.
“There is more to this issue than is coming to light at the present time,” McGlaughlin said Friday. “It would be inappropriate to discuss those circumstances.”
Koontz checked out the book in April 2008. Library staff called Koontz four times asking for the book to be returned. Officials sent three letters to Koontz’s home and a fourth, certified letter, which Koontz refused to sign for, police said.
A police officer visited Koontz at home in September and told Koontz’s teenage daughter that the book needed to be returned or paid for.
After another month passed, Boos advised Jesup library director Cindy Lellig and the library board that Koontz could be arrested on a theft charge. In Iowa, a fifth-degree theft charge, a misdemeanor offense, carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine.
In Des Moines, which has the largest library system in the state, an overdue library book carries a fine of 25 cents per day with a maximum of $6 in fines. After 30 days, the book is considered lost and the offending patron is billed for the cost the book, said Sally Wisdom, Des Moines Public Library deputy director.
In some cases, unpaid fines and missing book losses are turned over to a collection agency that specializes in recouping library losses, but Koontz’s book would not have been turned over because it cost less than $25, Wisdom said.
The Jesup library has a fine system, but it does not have a collection agency because “it’s just not needed,” McGlaughlin said.
Statistics on monthly overdue books at the Jesup library were unavailable, but McGlaughlin, who has been on the library board for 11 years, could recall no instance where an arrest was made for an overdue book.
“It usually only takes a phone call or two,” he said. “People forget. It slips their mind.
“In rare cases, they lose the book and come in to pay for it.”
Woman embarrassed, angry over library book arrest
UPDATE: An Independence woman charged with theft for failing to return a library book said Friday she is both embarrassed and angered by the arrest.
“I do think it’s extreme going to jail over a library book,” Shelly Koontz, who underwent fingerprinting and mug-shooting during her booking Thursday night at the Buchanan County Jail, told The Gazette.
Independence police arrested Koontz at her home about 8:30 p.m. on a warrant charging her with fifth-degree theft, a misdemeanor, for not returning the “The Freedom Writers Diary.” She had checked the book out of the Jesup Public Library in April.
“It was my fault, and I should have had it back, but I was busy,” Koontz, 39, a third-shift worker at Deere & Company in Waterloo, said. Koontz is a single mother of two teenage daughters and is helping raise a grandson. She said she was engaged in moving her family from Jesup to Independence in October, when the library turned the matter over to police.
Given the dislocation of moving, Koontz said she’s not sure what became of the book, but said she would be happy to pay for it “or do whatever I need to do to make it right.”
Koontz said she checked out the book after seeing the movie based on it, “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank. “My daughters and I talked about the movie, and I wanted them to read the book,” which recounts the true story of a high school teacher who used writing assignments to inspire her inner city students to overcome obstacles, Koontz said.
Jesup Police Chief Rick Deitrick said the book was valued at $13.95.
“Theft is theft, no matter what it is,” Deitrick said.
Library employees tried to contact Koontz with four phone calls, three letters and one certified letter, according to a criminal complaint. A Jesup police officer visited her home in September and informed one of Koontz’s daughters that Koontz needed to pay for the book or return it.
When the book still hadn’t been returned by Oct. 10, a library official called the police again, wishing to proceed with theft charges.
“That’s about all the library can do,” Deitrick said.
Jesup Public Library Director Cindy Lellig declined to comment.
Koontz said she is glad to be gone from Jesup. “If you were not born there, you were not accepted,” she said.
Koontz’s mother, Jackie Gantz of rural Brandon, who helped her daughter post the $250 bond needed to get out of jail, called the whole situation ridiculous. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.
Koontz said her co-workers told her she ought to report the incident to the nationally syndicated “Bob & Tom” radio show, which finds humor in offbeat news.
“You have to have a sense of humor. Maybe I’ll tell the judge I’m a slow reader,” she said.
Unfortunately, she speaks the truth about rural small towns...if you are an outsider, you can get stared out of town. :-(