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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Thousands of Potter books stolen
A Potter book launch is always a big event
Thousands of copies of the long-awaited fifth Harry Potter book have been stolen from a warehouse just days before the book's eagerly-awaited launch.

The books were in a white TNT trailer parked on a trading estate in Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, waiting to be distributed to stores ahead of the launch at 0001 BST on Saturday.

Merseyside Police said: "A man with the front cab of the lorry turned up at the trading estate and presented himself as legitimate and was able to get away with the trailer full of goods.

"How he did that is still under investigation."

The lorry cab was stolen from St Helens, Merseyside, on Sunday afternoon, police added.

The trailer was found abandoned and empty 18 miles away in Salford, Greater Manchester, on Monday afternoon. It has since been forensically examined.

After initial confusion over the number of books stolen, Merseyside Police and publishers Bloomsbury confirmed the haul comprised 7,680 books worth some 130,000.

The book is eagerly awaited by millions
They warned the public that anyone who tried to sell or buy the books between now and Saturday could face criminal charges.

"If anyone is offered the book, before or after Saturday for under the listed price or in unusual circumstances we would ask them to contact us on 0151 777 6062 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111," said a police spokesman.

Author J K Rowling is aware of the crime and is being kept closely informed, her agents said.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is due to go on sale at 0001 BST on 21 June in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and in English in other countries.

Fastest selling

Millions of fans are expected to queue for hours on Friday night to buy a copy at midnight bookshop openings around the UK.

The book is more than a third longer than author J K Rowling's previous book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was the fastest selling book in history on the first weekend of its publication in July 2000.

Rowling and Bloomsbury have kept the plot a strict secret.

A spokesman for supermarket chain Asda said he believed the shipment which was stolen was meant for its branches.

"We think they would have been delivered to our Wigan depot and then on to stores across the north of England," he said.

"Although it is a lot of books, we have ordered around 500,000 copies so it shouldn't mean we go short."

Bloomsbury said in a statement: "An injunction, already in place, prevents any publication of the contents or summary of the book prior to 21 June 2003 and requires the return of the books to Bloomsbury.

No shortage

"We hope that nobody will spoil the excitement for all Harry Potter fans who are looking forward to reading the book."

A spokeswoman added the theft would not mean there would be a shortage of books in the north east of England.

TNT said: "TNT takes security of customers' property very seriously and a thorough and detailed security investigation has been launched with the full involvement of the police."

The first four books have sold almost 200 million copies in 55 languages and 200 countries.

Earlier this month, forklift truck driver Donald Parfitt was fined and given a community service order after admitting taking pages of the new book from a printing firm in Bungay, Suffolk.

Magistrates in Lowestoft, Suffolk, heard how Parfitt, 44, found the pages in the firm's car park, put them in his lunchbox then tried to sell them to The Sun newspaper.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Kevin Bocquet
"Police fear they may already be selling on the black market"



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