Bandits Swipe Potter Book Booty

Days before the new Harry Potter novel was to go on sale around the world, thousands of copies of the book were stolen in Britain, prompting police on Tuesday to threaten the arrest of anyone caught selling them on the black market.

The twists and turns in the plot of the much-anticipated fifth installment of J.K. Rowling's series about a boy wizard, "Order of the Phoenix," have been guarded with great secrecy by publisher Bloomsbury.

The 7,680 copies, with an estimated retail value $220,000, were stolen from a truck parked outside a warehouse in a late night heist Sunday. The novel, scheduled for release Saturday, has a retail cover price of $28.50 and advance copies could be sold for much more.

Merseyside police, who are investigating the theft, issued a statement warning the public that if they "handle the book before Saturday in anything other than a legitimate manner, they could face criminal charges."

Bloomsbury also used the robbery to remind the public that a legal injunction prevents any publication of the contents or summary of the book before it goes on sale this weekend and also requires the return of any missing books to the publisher.

"We hope that nobody will spoil the excitement for all Harry Potter fans who are looking forward to reading the book," Bloomsbury added in a statement.

Merseyside police said the stolen books had been packed into a truck near warehouses in the town of Newtown-le-Willows, northern England, ready for distribution to stores around Britain ahead of the launch early Saturday morning.

The truck was taken at around 10:30 p.m. Sunday and found by police on Monday about 18 miles away in Salford, Greater Manchester — minus its valuable load.

"The van is being forensically examined, and we are appealing for witnesses," said Caroline Foran, a spokeswoman for Merseyside police.

She declined to say how many police officers were involved in the investigation, on the ground that it could jeopardize the inquiry.

The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that the truck was taken by a man posing as its driver. Foran said she could not comment on that report.

Hundreds of devotees are expected to queue up outside British stores, which are staying open especially for the book's release shortly after midnight Friday.

It's been three years since the last Harry Potter book was released leaving children and adults alike spellbound and desperate for more.

In the United States, CBS News reports the release of the fifth book at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday has cast a spell on business.

Even before the book is on display, it's been flying off the shelves with record breaking pre-order sales at bookstores like Barnes and Noble and the Internet bookstore Amazon.com, which said it has received more than 1 million advance orders for the book.

Rowling's four previous Potter novels have sold more than 190 million copies in 55 languages and 200 countries.

Earlier this month, a printing plant worker was sentenced to 180 hours community service for stealing pages from the forthcoming novel he found in a parking lot as he was leaving work.

Donald Parfitt, 44, was arrested after The Sun newspaper told police it received a call from "a shifty-sounding man" offering three chapters of the book for $40,000.

Magistrates in Lowestoft, eastern England, said they considered sending Parfitt to jail because of the "serious breach of trust and the high potential value" of the stolen work.

The Sun also reported last month that two unbound, uncut copies of the novel were found in a field near the printer's offices.

The newspaper said a walker gave the copies to the newspaper, which alerted authorities and returned the books to Bloomsbury.