On a rainy afternoon in September 2018, the FBI gathered national media in its Minnesota headquarters for an important announcement. Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division, stood in front of a packed room and said, “We’re here today to share with you the recovery of one of the most significant and cherished pieces of movie memorabilia in American history: Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.”
When the ruby slippers were stolen in August 2005 from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minn., it made international news. Someone had broken in, smashed a Plexiglas case and escaped with the shoes. David Letterman joked that week that “a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz have been stolen. The thief is described as being armed and fabulous.”
The crime, though, was no joke to this northern timber and mining community of about 10,000 people with a yellow brick sidewalk winding through its historic downtown. Judy Garland was born here in 1922, and “the theft devastated us,” says John Kelsch, senior director of the museum.
Off to the side of the FBI news conference, away from the crush of curious reporters, stood three of the police officers from Grand Rapids who had worked the case: investigator Brian Mattson, patrol Sgt. Andy Morgan and Sgt. of Investigations Bob Stein. Missing was Gene Bennett, the investigator who first handled the case in 2005. Bennett retired in 2009.
The shoes, Sanborn told reporters, had been recovered during a sting in Minneapolis that summer involving the bureau’s art crime team. The Grand Rapids officers couldn’t see the slippers through the crowd, but they’d already spent a quiet moment with them before the media arrived.
The news conference had been announced only hours before, so in Grand Rapids there had been no time to plan proper viewing parties. At the Itasca County Historical Society downtown, the small staff huddled around a computer screen and live-streamed it.
The staff watched as Sanborn revealed a clear case with the slippers inside. The red shoes were cushioned on a bed of blue velvet with the American flag.
Jody Hane, a writer and researcher at the historical society, says her colleagues were impressed — at first. But as the event unfolded, another sentiment soon seeped in. “They didn’t say who took them,” Hane marvelled.
Joining Sanford that day was Christopher Myers, a U.S. attorney who was introduced as the federal prosecutor in charge of the case. “This is an ongoing investigation, so we will not talk about the facts,” he told the reporters.
“A press conference without facts,” Hane thought. “Well, that’s odd.” The event ended with the FBI calling upon the public to help identify those involved in the theft. “We were left with a lot of questions,” Hane says. Such as: Where had the shoes been all these years, and who had been caught with them during the FBI sting?
More than the return of the shoes, residents wanted answers for a crime that had haunted the town for 13 years. In that time, thousands of tips from across the country and Europe had flooded the Grand Rapids Police Department — from psychics claiming the shoes were buried in a house mere blocks from their station, to countless people believing they’d stumbled onto them at a flea market or in the home of a “Wizard of Oz” fan.
But it was the rumour and innuendo swirling through town that garnered the most attention. “Everyone was a suspect,” Stein says. The burglary stirred up accusations among residents and captivated some to the point of obsession.
Andy Morgan — who took over the case in 2009 and spent the next seven years chasing leads all over town and the country — was not at all surprised that questions remained even after the shoes’ recovery. “The ruby slippers are an absolute mystery,” he says. “There’s just something mystical about them.”
At least five sets of ruby slippers are known to have survived the original film production, yet instead of detracting from their value, the existence of multiple pairs “only enhances the magic,” says John Fricke, a historian of The Wizard of Oz who co-wrote Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s official 50th anniversary history of the film. “For the small handful of people who have the financial wherewithal to own a pair of slippers, there are hundreds of others who are sitting at home with their glue guns and their sequins and their beads creating duplicates of the shoes.”
The Wizard of Oz has taken many forms over the years following the 1900 book by L. Frank Baum, but it was always about a search: a winding journey toward figuring out something about yourself. Like Dorothy, the investigators — and even the average citizens — of Grand Rapids had been taken down an unlikely, meandering path.
From conception, The Wizard of Oz “was planned to feature the fantasy of Oz in color and the reality of Kansas in black and white,” Fricke wrote in The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History. The drabness of real life vs. the sparkle of Oz was highlighted the moment Dorothy landed among the Munchkins.
The Wizard of Oz endures, Fricke says, despite the fact “it doesn’t have car chases or guns or sexual allusion. It doesn’t have CGI effects. It is a great story, performed by great people in a state-of-the-art 1939 fashion that is still pretty astounding. Even more so when you consider that there were no computers and everything you’re seeing had to be made out of whole cloth.” Including the ruby slippers.
Initial versions of the script kept Dorothy’s slippers the colour they had been in Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: silver. In the spring of 1938 on Page 26, Scene 113, someone scratched out “silver” and wrote “ruby.” The shoes, the script read, “appear on Dorothy’s feet, glittering and sparkling in the sun.”
On the movie set, numerous pairs were required. (Pairs were also made for Garland’s body double, who stood in for marking purposes on set when Garland, 16, had to leave for activities like tutoring.)
Several pairs of white pumps were bought from the Innes Shoe Co. in Los Angeles and painted or dyed red. Hundreds of small sequins were then hand-sewn with silk thread onto netting that was overlaid onto the shoes. The bows were made of stiff cotton and adorned with three types of red faux gems: thin, tubular bugle beads; rectangular beads; and rhinestones. In real life, the ruby slippers are darker than in the movie, more of a burgundy. A few of the shoes also had pieces of felt glued to the bottom to minimize the noise of Garland’s dancing.
The Wizard of Oz got rave reviews when it premiered in August 1939. Gone With the Wind won that year’s Academy Award for best film, but it would be The Wizard of Oz that went on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time.
While the movie lives on, the studio system that created it does not. By the mid-1960s the golden era of Hollywood — built by tycoons such as Louis B. Mayer at MGM through stars like Garland — was fading, and a new generation of cutthroat executives were in charge. In 1969, a wealthy businessman named Kirk Kerkorian took over at MGM. He was more interested in the land that MGM owned in Culver City, Calif., than the history of Hollywood.
Kerkorian put the land up for sale, but first he had to liquidate decades of props, costumes, furniture and sets. A viable market for Hollywood memorabilia “had yet to emerge,” wrote Rhys Thomas in his book The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later, “and it wasn’t a concept about which Kerkorian cared.”
The financier sold the contents of MGM for $1.5 million (all figures U.S.) to an auctioneer named David Weisz, and a young costumer named Kent Warner was one of the people who helped sort the vast ephemera for an auction in 1970.
Still, a black market for memorabilia was developing. In the 1960s, Warner and others made money finding and selling costumes and props. Yet Warner, who died in 1984, was seen less as a thief than a Robin Hood type, salvaging the history of Hollywood.
“Kent Warner was not a collector or dealer of Hollywood memorabilia so much as he was a fan of an era, a style of living,” Thomas wrote.
Before the MGM auction, Warner had one goal: to find anything he could from his favourite film, The Wizard of Oz. As the legend goes, Warner climbed into the dusty rafters of an out-of-the-way women’s costume warehouse, and there, among the darkness and the dust, a sliver of light through a hole in the ceiling illuminated something. It glittered and sparkled in the sun. He’d found the slippers. Multiple pairs.
The discovery created a problem. Weisz, who died in 1981, was not a Hollywood insider; he was an antiques guy. He assumed there would be only one pair of slippers, and he thought “it was more valuable that way,” says Joe Maddalena, owner of the L.A.-based auction house Profiles in History. Maddalena knew Warner in the 1970s, and over the years he has sold pairs of original ruby slippers to wealthy collectors. Warner gave just one pair to Weisz and squirrelled away the rest, saving the most pristine for his personal collection.
On May 17, 1970, Warner displayed what many believed to be the only pair of ruby slippers. They sold for $15,000, a price so high that it shocked the crowd.
Many now credit the MGM auction of 1970 — and the slippers specifically — with launching the market for movie memorabilia. Maddalena says if the recovered slippers hit the auction block today, they’d be valued at $2 million to $5 million.
The anonymous bidders at the MGM auction — now known to be three California businessmen — were chagrined when Roberta Bauman of Tennessee soon declared that she, too, had a pair. Bauman had won hers in a 1939 MGM promotion. But for years, “the greatest pinch in Hollywood remained Hollywood’s best kept secret,” Thomas wrote, referring to the shoes taken by Warner. It wasn’t until Thomas published a newspaper story in 1988 (which became his book The Ruby Slippers of Oz in 1989) that the full story of the multiple pairs emerged.
Today, we know the whereabouts of five. One pair has been at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History since the men who bought them at the MGM auction donated them in 1979. On the rare occasions that the slippers have been taken off display for conservation, the museum receives angry and desperate calls.
Two California collectors bought the Bauman pair in 2000 for $666,000 at auction. The shoes haven’t been seen since. Actress Debbie Reynolds came to own the Arabian test slippers — an ornate design that never made it onto the screen — and those last auctioned in 2011 for $627,300. Kent Warner’s pair are known as the Witch’s Shoes, because it is believed they were used for the close-up shots of the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet after she was crushed by Dorothy’s house. Maddalena sold these in 2012 to a group of Hollywood investors including Leonardo DiCaprio, and they’re to be displayed this year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opens its museum in L.A.
And then there were the shoes that would eventually be stolen from Grand Rapids. One of the beneficiaries of Warner’s side hustle was an L.A.-based acting coach and amateur collector named Michael Shaw. Shaw was friends with Warner in the late 1960s; he remembers a call from him after a studio where Warner worked had instructed him to incinerate old costumes to make room for new ones. “He said, ‘Michael, get over here, you can’t believe what I’ve been told to get rid of,’ and when I got there Kent told me that 10 minutes earlier someone had pulled a complete Errol Flynn Robin Hood costume out of the trash,” Shaw recalls.
Shaw bought a pair of ruby slippers and some other items from Warner for $2,500. Years later, Shaw began taking them to malls and “Wizard of Oz” festivals across the country for a fee; they became known as the Travelling Shoes.
The Travelling Shoes first came to the Judy Garland Museum in 1989 for the movie’s 50th anniversary.
Judy Garland (born Frances Gumm) and her family left Grand Rapids for California when she was 4. Her life was often an unhappy one. At the Judy Garland Museum, the curated tour of her life ends with a panel about her problems: drug addiction and divorces, suicide attempts, her early death at 47 from what was ruled an accidental overdose of barbiturates. “Visitors are astonished that she was fed all these pills by doctors over the years,” says Kelsch, who became executive director in 1994.
The Travelling Shoes were put on a wooden pedestal topped by a Plexiglas case and placed behind a simple silk-rope barrier. The museum brought them back over the years, and in 2005 it paid Shaw a discounted rate of about $5,500 to display them for two months, flying him in to deliver them.
Shaw stopped in Minneapolis. Kelsch contacted a bank to procure an on-site safe so the shoes could be locked up each night, but Shaw balked. He didn’t want staff handling the slippers because of their age and fragility. He also alleges the museum lied to him about having cameras, motion sensors and police patrols. (Kelsch denies any misleading, adding the contract makes “no mention of any specific security measures.”)
Bauman’s pair went on display at Disney World in 1989, with a guard and cameras. The Smithsonian’s slippers are in a guarded museum, with cameras and behind an alarmed case, among other measures. Michael Shaw’s shoes coming to a small Minnesota museum with minimal security must have seemed an easy mark.
On Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, according to police records, Kathe Johnson staffed the museum alone. It was a normal day, with people mostly interested in seeing Shaw’s ruby slippers. She closed up that evening, set the alarm and left. The next morning, she returned a little before 10 to open. The code on the alarm system read “auxiliary,” a setting that Johnson told police she’d never seen. She turned the system on and off a few times until the screen reset.
Johnson didn’t think much more about it as she walked through the museum, turning on displays and lights. Then, in the south corridor connecting the galleries, she saw a shattered emergency-door window. The interior door to the gallery where the slippers were being displayed was only a few feet away. Johnson found the Plexiglas cover smashed, the wooden pedestal empty.
Nothing else had been taken.
Gene Bennett was called to the scene. Bennett was the only investigator for the Grand Rapids police; he tended to spend his days on people passing off bad cheques, other petty thefts and the rare homicide.
Steve Schaar, now assistant chief of the department, was a patrolman on duty. Because it was a Saturday, most officers were keeping an eye out for drunk drivers. “It was just an average, normal evening,” Schaar says.
At the museum, Bennett and other officers took statements and photos. Bennett had the broken Plexiglas dusted for prints, but “we didn’t get anything,” he says. Kelsch was surprised the police didn’t dust for more prints in the museum, a decision that some would later criticize. Schaar says the number of people in the museum would have made that a real longshot.
Most of the police scrutiny that day focused on the emergency door. It was alarmed, but somehow the alarm system had not sent a dispatch to 911. “We had been having a lot of problems with kids opening emergency-exit doors and alarms going off and police coming,” Kelsch says. “So we de-armed the doors during the day. We mistakenly believed that when we armed the building at night that the contacts would all be armed again, but this was not the case.”
A single closed-circuit TV camera had been placed on a bookshelf, trained on the slippers. It fed into a small monitor at the front desk, but after hours the camera was turned off. It didn’t record, so there was no opportunity to scrutinize visitors from the weeks leading up to the theft. A motion detector above the emergency-exit door also failed to go off that night (there were no motion detectors in the gallery with the slippers), and it had a blind spot: a person could break into the emergency door, which opened to the outside, and slide along the wall leading to the interior gallery door without engaging the alarm.
Also strange: the inside door to the gallery with the shoes had been left unlocked. Kelsch has modified his story about this, and he gave me two different answers during our hours of interviews, first saying he couldn’t understand why, and later saying it had been deliberate, as the gallery was too hot.
As the police and museum staff walked around that day, Kelsch says he looked on the floor, about three metres from the now-empty pedestal, and saw something glitter. One red sequin. He gave it to Bennett, who put it in an envelope, where it remained in a safe at the Grand Rapids police station, for the better part of 13 years.
At 1:44 p.m., Bennett sent out an alert across the region, asking law enforcement to watch for shoes that are “dark ruby red in color . . . and valued at $1 million.”
Kelsch called Michael Shaw in L.A. “I felt I had been kicked in the stomach,” Shaw told me. Papers and TV stations reported the theft in breathless headlines, but the story soon slipped from the news as Hurricane Katrina captured the nation’s attention.
But back at the police station, it was all anyone could talk about.
Gossip soon spread through town. No alarm? No cameras? No witnesses or strong evidence? The whole caper reeked of an inside job.
One of the things I learned while in Grand Rapids is that if you want to get rid of something quickly, you have thousands of bodies of water to choose from. Lakes and rivers are two options — the Mississippi River wends through downtown — but the ideal location is an abandoned mine pit. Deep gouges in the earth have filled with rain and groundwater over the years, and at 100 metres deep in places, the pit lakes are said to house proof of untold crimes.
“There’s rumours that all kinds of things are down there,” Andy Morgan says. Stolen cars, guns, “even bones,” says Bob Stein.
The rumour that the slippers had been thrown into the water began almost as soon as they were stolen. Word on the street was that “some local dirtbags did it,” says Schaar, and the names being floated by Bennett were well-known troublemakers.
The other prevailing theory after the theft was that misguided teenagers had snatched them without realizing the attention it would attract. Some kids whispered that the slippers were already gone, in a bonfire. Others claimed they’d been sealed inside a paint can or Tupperware container weighted with rocks and then dropped into the Mississippi.
Gossip in a small town often contains a kernel of truth, Morgan told me, and part of the challenge for an investigator is deciphering what might be real vs. mere rumour. When someone steals “a piece of American history,” Morgan says, “even rumours were thoroughly chased down.”
A prevailing early theory was that someone at the museum had planned the heist. Many thought Kelsch must be in on it. “I mean, if I had a museum in town and I had a pair of ruby slippers worth a lot of money,” Schaar says, “I’m going to make doggone sure my alarm is working. I might even put a 24-hour guard there, because why not?”
Bennett spent hours interviewing museum employees, as did an investigator from the Essex Insurance Co., part of the Markel Corp., which had insured the slippers. The company sued the museum for the theft, saying its lack of security breached the contract, but that was eventually dropped.
In 2007, the insurance company finally paid Shaw $800,000 for the shoes. The same year it offered a $200,000 reward for information, but nothing came of it. The payout to Shaw raised another theory: theft as insurance fraud. Shaw had required the museum to carry a policy for the shoes, so he wasn’t even out the premium. Why else would he refuse to have them placed in a safe at night? Shaw vehemently denied it. “The insurance company investigated me 10 times till Sunday” before paying out, he said.
In our brief conversation, Gene Bennett raised a question fundamental to this case. Unless you’re a crazed collector hell-bent on secretly owning the slippers (as some have suggested to me), then whoever nicked them had a serious problem: how do you monetize the most recognizable pair of stolen shoes in the world?
Early on, Bennett had locked in on the theory that someone in town, or someone close to the shoes, must have been involved, and therefore he didn’t cast a wider net or call on federal agencies. “I always thought it was someone local,” Bennett told me. “And I thought, what are they going to do with the slippers?”
I recognized in Bennett’s voice the same weary bafflement that I had heard from others. Over the months I spent reporting this story, tips started coming my way, solicited and otherwise. People wanted to talk about the shoes. It wasn’t easy to make sense of the myriad theories I was hearing. “Now which way do we go?” Dorothy had asked Toto when the Yellow Brick Road forked, but unlike in Oz, there was no Scarecrow to lend directions.
In 2009, Bennett retired and Andy Morgan inherited the case with help, at times, from Bob Stein. Morgan was left with a slim case file and a list of locals still rumoured to have done it. He began by researching the defining characteristics of the original shoes, and most weeks he got a few calls or emails about the theft as he went about his other work. But then a magazine article or TV show would revisit the story, and tips would flood in again from as far away as England. Some months he took 100 calls.
There are innumerable copies of Dorothy’s famous shoes but globally, about five or six people are able to hand-make copies so exact that they command thousands of dollars and can easily be mistaken for the real shoes. Some have even been passed off to buyers as originals.
Replica makers go to great lengths to hunt down vintage 1930s pumps in a size 5 and to re-create the Innes Shoe Co. label. Randy Struthers, who works in an Illinois library, re-creates the slippers in his spare time, and he has supplied pairs to the Smithsonian. Struthers has spent years researching the shoes and amassing an archive of historical photos and facts. He sources vintage sequins from France. The shoes take hundreds of hours to make.
In 2010, the Grand Rapids police received a letter asserting that Shaw had commissioned a high-end pair to look like his real pair. The writer claimed to have sequins “identical to those used to make a pair of replica ruby slippers” for Shaw, which he enclosed. Perhaps, the letter said, Shaw had never sent the real slippers to the museum at all. The writer suggested the police’s crime lab compare to see if “these sequins match the sequin found at the crime scene.” But the department didn’t have a crime lab capable of such a forensic test, and the replica sequins joined the real one in the safe. (Shaw says that he does have a pair of replica slippers, but “I would never, ever put them on display as the real McCoy.”)
Years passed, and on the 10th anniversary of the theft in 2015, with no new leads, the Judy Garland Museum sent divers into the Tioga Mine Pit to test the rumour that the shoes were in a Tupperware container at the bottom. The Grand Rapids police didn’t participate; nothing came of the dive.
In 2016, Morgan was promoted to patrol sergeant, and Mattson “inherited the curse,” as Morgan put it. Mattson later asked for the case file and was handed a cardboard box filled with loose papers and old VHS and Dictaphone tapes.
Mattson set about organizing the papers into a white three-ring binder. He transcribed old tapes into the online database. He dug the sequin out of the back of the department safe and went through the old interview transcripts and rumours one by one. Something about the case hooked him. Mattson went home and told his wife, Stephanie, “I’m going to find the slippers. I’m going to get them back.”
Like his predecessors, Mattson spent months chasing dead-end leads. Over the years, Stein says, even routine traffic stops became opportunities, with officers half-jokingly asking: “Is there anything in this car you don’t want us to find? Fruits from Canada, Al Qaeda, weapons, the red ruby slippers?”
It eventually became evident that the locals didn’t know much. If it had been an inside job, if someone in town had gotten paid to make sure the museum’s alarm wasn’t connecting to dispatch, for instance, “everybody would know about it,” the historical society’s Jody Hane says. “If you got even an extra $500 in your pocket, everybody knows. It’s a small town, and people around here don’t keep their mouths shut.”
Twelve years and not a viable lead. As the years ticked by, though, another theory began to surface. Maybe no one was talking about what had really happened to the slippers because whoever was behind the theft was too dangerous to cross.
For decades, a different burglary had stood as the largest cultural theft in Minnesota history. In 1978, a small family-run gallery in a suburb outside Minneapolis hosted the then-largest private exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings. Eight paintings by the artist hung alongside signed, limited-edition lithographs. Enhancing the show was a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, on loan from a Minneapolis man who had recently bought it from a dealer in Miami.
On Feb. 16, hundreds of guests arrived at the gallery. The owners had taken security measures. They’d hired someone to install a “theft-proof” lock and paid a guard to watch the gallery overnight. But after the opening that night, someone punched through the lock, and the guard was temporarily missing as thieves made off with seven of the Rockwell paintings and the Renoir.
For 20 years the case baffled authorities. Robert Wittman had begun chasing cultural crimes around the globe as an FBI agent in the 1990s, and in 2002, he helped recover three of the missing Rockwells from an art collector in Brazil.
The mystery of who took the Rockwell paintings and how they made their way to places like Brazil intrigued Bruce Rubenstein, a crime reporter in the Twin Cities. Around 2010 he started researching a story. One day he received a call from a retired prosecutor in Minnesota proposing a deal: if Rubenstein could find out anything about the slippers theft, he would in return put him in touch with someone who knew about the Rockwell crime. “My understanding was that it was an avocation, the ruby slippers case,” Rubenstein told me. “I think he was, like most people, just curious.”
Rubenstein did find out something about the slippers, he says, from a detective he knew in L.A. The detective told him a big-time Hollywood producer had made it known he wanted to buy real ruby slippers, and that he’d been contacted by someone claiming to have them. The producer went to a garage in Brentwood and saw slippers he believed were authentic, but when haggling over the exorbitant price went awry, the producer got angry and went to the police instead. The garage was empty by the time police got there.
When Rubenstein relayed that to the retired prosecutor, the man fulfilled his promise. Rubenstein soon got a call from a source “with a distinctive gravelly voice, a film noir criminal voice,” and that man told him everything about the Rockwell burglary.
In 2013, Rubenstein published what he learned in his book The Rockwell Heist. Four Minnesota-based thieves, three of whom had Mob ties, had targeted Elayne Galleries that night. They weren’t after the Rockwells, at least at first. They needed the Renoir. The painting was a fake, part of a scam run by a ring of mobsters in Miami who were alarmed when the mark they’d sold it to decided to include it in a gallery show. If people learned the Renoir wasn’t real, the art scam might be exposed. “They hired the thieves to get the Renoir,” Rubenstein says. “The Rockwells were a bonus.”
As Wittman likes to say, “The real art in an art heist isn’t the stealing, it’s the selling,” and most thieves are caught when they try to unload the artwork. One method is to wait until the statute of limitations has run out on the theft and then attempt to extort the owners or insurers for the safe return of the property using a middle man, sometimes a lawyer. A top Minneapolis defence attorney named Joe Friedberg told Rubenstein he was approached about just such a deal regarding the Rockwell paintings a few years after the heist; according to Rubenstein, a man asked Friedberg to help facilitate the paintings’ return. That man wanted Friedberg to negotiate with the insurance company on his behalf for the reward money.
“Friedberg asked the State Professional Responsibility Board if it was ethical to do what the caller proposed,” Rubenstein wrote. Friedberg told the board that the art might be destroyed, a common threat in art crime extortion: give me the money or the painting gets it. Friedberg was counselled that it could be a felony to aid in the return of the Rockwells. “I passed,” he told Rubenstein.
The Rockwell thieves were never arrested. Rubenstein says it wouldn’t surprise him to learn that one or more were connected to the slippers theft 27 years later. “The easy conclusion to draw, at least to me,” he says, “is that the people who stole those ruby slippers stole them for the Mob, and that scares people.”
Mattson was at his desk in July 2017 when the officer working reception buzzed him and said, with a touch of irony, that a guy on the phone claimed he knew about the slippers. Mattson sighed and picked up. As soon as the guy started talking, some instinct told him to record the call.
The man got right to the point. He had information on the slippers. The man was calling from “a Southern state,” says Mattson (the FBI would later say it executed search warrants in Florida as a part of the 2018 sting), and he claimed to be an innocent participant — a middle man — who had been brought in to help get the slippers back to the rightful owners.
The Middle Man said he’d called the Judy Garland Museum and they had blown him off. He said he’d tried the insurance company and got nothing. The man asked if the police cared about getting the slippers back.
The Middle Man wanted to know if the case was still open, and if there was a reward. Mattson said the case was open but he wasn’t sure about a reward. “I explained to him that the Grand Rapids police never offered a reward. That was always an outside party. I told him I would look into it.”
Mattson called Markel, the insurance company that had settled with Shaw. Markel had become the shoes’ owner when they paid Shaw. (Now that they have been recovered, Shaw says he has the right of first refusal to buy back the shoes from Markel and that he is negotiating with the insurer.) According to Mattson, Markel had heard from the same man, and eventually, through a lawyer representing the company, agreed to pay the remainder of the original policy — $200,000 — if the police could arrange for the safe return of the shoes.
Over the next few weeks, Mattson worked to determine the validity of the Middle Man’s claims. He was able to confirm his identity, but did he really know who had the slippers? Or, Mattson wondered, was he talking to the man in possession of the shoes all along? Over several calls, Mattson got the Middle Man to admit he’d been promised a percentage of any reward.
The statute of limitations on the theft had expired, but authorities could get someone for possession of stolen property. More than anything, though, the police wanted the shoes back.
In August 2017, Mattson asked the Middle Man for proof-of-life photos of the slippers. The man emailed that the people holding the shoes would send him photos and he’d send them on. The photos arrived in Mattson’s inbox about a week later. They were camera-phone images of prints. Mattson figured the Middle Man was smart enough not to leave the GPS co-ordinates on when he had snapped those images, but to his surprise, the metadata with the man’s location was there. Mattson kept these developments mostly to himself.
Around this time, another complication arose. Producers from the Travel Channel show Expedition Unknown contacted Mattson. Host Josh Gates travelled the world exploring legendary mysteries, and he and auction house owner Joe Maddalena wanted to come to town to film a story about the slippers.
Mattson thought it could be good to shine a light on the town, and the case. The show filmed in town that winter. Mattson let Gates and Maddalena see the photos of the shoes sent by the Middle Man, without divulging their origin. On camera, Maddalena, one of the few people who had seen multiple pairs of slippers up close, said they looked legitimate.
In September 2017, Mattson got another interesting call, this time from a Minnesota-based lawyer. The lawyer said the Middle Man had retained his services because the holders of the shoes didn’t like that he was talking to police.
Mattson continued to negotiate a safe return of the shoes with the lawyer, but by October, weeks had gone by without a word. “These people went dark on me,” he says.
Mattson called Christopher “Sean” Dudley, a Minnesota-based agent for the FBI he’d met in the past and trusted. (The FBI declined to comment for this story because the case is ongoing.)
Nine months later, on July 9, 2018, Mattson prepared to drive south to the Twin Cities. After Mattson’s call to Dudley, the FBI had taken charge of the case. The bureau had re-established contact with the people who’d contacted the Grand Rapids police, without alerting them that they were talking to the FBI. The feds arranged a meeting in Minneapolis with the lawyer who had been speaking to Mattson; the lawyer was planning to bring the shoes.
The morning of July 10, Mattson met FBI agents in Minneapolis for a 6 a.m. briefing. The meeting with the lawyer — still unaware he was dealing with law enforcement — was set for 11 a.m. About 100 agents were involved, Mattson estimates. Watching the meeting site; forming a secondary perimeter; others in Florida ready to serve a search warrant, presumably to the Middle Man.
With several agents, Mattson drove to the city’s arts district. He sat in a car and watched as the lawyer arrived early and stopped in a coffee shop near the meeting site. The lawyer ordered, then he did something Mattson couldn’t believe: He left the bag with the slippers on a table while he walked 10 metres down a hall to the bathroom. “I said, ‘Should we go in and just get them now?’ ” But the FBI held tight and waited for the planned meeting. In the end, the FBI walked out with the shoes.
They returned to FBI headquarters, and a hush came over the room when agents brought out the slippers. Mattson felt overwhelmed. There was no doubt in his mind that they were real. “You just felt it,” he says. Everyone I talked to who has had direct contact with the original ruby slippers says the same thing: they truly emit a special aura.
He called Stein and Morgan. “We got them.”
In a spectacular coincidence, the Expedition Unknown episode about the hunt for the ruby slippers was airing that night. Across Grand Rapids, people watched the show — unaware they’d been recovered that morning.
In Oz, the origin story of the slippers is never disclosed; the shoes simply transfer to Dorothy’s feet already imbued with magical powers. In real life, Dawn Wallace — an objects conservator with the Smithsonian — has become the world’s leading expert on the science and construction of the slippers through spending over 200 hours studying and cleaning the museum’s pair.
Just as a specialized art expert could tell a clever fake from a real Renoir, Wallace can peer into a stereo microscope to date and determine the validity of a ruby sequin.
In July 2018, she had been in her office in the lower level of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History when a call came in. The man on the line said he was with the FBI and that they’d just recovered what they believed to be the stolen ruby slippers. He wanted to know if the Smithsonian could help confirm they were real.
The legitimacy of the slippers stolen from Grand Rapids had always been a question for investigators. When the FBI took the case in the fall of 2017, Mattson says, the department had handed over the single sequin found at the scene along with the envelope of sequins that had been sent there in 2010 and had reportedly been used in Shaw’s replica pair. Wallace says the FBI had contacted the Smithsonian back then to ask if its experts could share some of what they had learned about the sequins from their own research.
The conservators wondered if all the light from flash photography might be damaging the shoes, which were fading. “What makes them the ruby slippers are those sequins on the exterior,” Wallace says, “but those are also the most sensitive part of the shoes because of how they are constructed.”
To better protect the shoes, the Smithsonian first needed to understand their composition. Wallace’s graduate research had been in early plastics, and when the Smithsonian determined it was time to study and clean its pair in 2016, she jumped at the chance.
This meant taking the shoes off display indefinitely. Because the museum received angry calls and sobbing guests each time the shoes went to storage, the Smithsonian decided to make their conservation public through a Kickstarter fundraiser. Within days more than 5,300 people from around the world had donated, meeting the museum’s $300,000 goal.
Wallace worked with a team of 12, including scientists at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, an off-site lab. In the 1920s, sequins were made of gelatin, and by the 1940s sequins were made of plastic. The sequins used in the slippers “are a transition between the two,” she says. “They have a gelatin centre, but there is a beautiful lead cellulose nitrate coating on the outside.” She learned the shoes got their burgundy hue from a dye called Rhodamine B. It would be nearly impossible to fake the sequins, unless someone reverted to century-old chemical processing.
The morning the FBI arrived with the shoes, Wallace escorted the agents to the conservation lab, and there, in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, her boss, Richard Barden, was waiting to assist. Wallace opened the box, and the first thing she thought was, “It’s them.” She was surprised at how well they had held up. “Whoever had them all these years has taken care of them,” she says. (Shaw, who has yet to be reunited with the shoes and has only seen photos, says they don’t appear to be as pristine as when he cared for them.)
But she remained calm until she had proof. Wallace knew of several telltale details — details so infinitesimal that a replica maker wouldn’t know to include them. For instance, several of the rhinestones on the bows of the shoes had to be replaced during production with glass ones painted red. Sure enough, Wallace saw the painted rhinestones. She and Barden also found that the shoes had sequins and threading consistent with an original pair.
Having the stolen shoes next to the Smithsonian’s pair confirmed another rumour, one that Thomas had noted in his book on the slippers: the Smithsonian’s shoes and Michael Shaw’s shoes were actually two mismatched pairs. They believe the swap happened back in the production of the movie and Warner never realized it when he found them in MGM storage. MGM had numbered all of the shoes on the inside heel. “We have one shoe from No. 1 and one shoe from No. 6,” Barden explains. Shaw had the other two. The conservators also noted that the identifying numbers on the inside heel of Shaw’s shoes had been scraped clean.
The numbering of the shoes offers another clue to their history. Barden says it’s safe to assume MGM made at least seven pairs for Garland — even though seven pairs haven’t been found — because “the Academy Museum has the No. 7 pair,” and “we assume MGM wouldn’t skip numbers.”
In addition to the seven, it’s also presumed that pairs were made for Garland’s body double, plus there’s the Arabian test pair that had been owned by Debbie Reynolds. “We believe there could be as many as 10 pairs total,” Wallace says.
Conspiracy theories abound that people are sitting on the other numbered pairs of slippers and waiting for the right time to admit they exist.
Lilah Crowe of the historical society says Garland briefly returned to Grand Rapids after the filming, and it didn’t go well. “She had lots of makeup on, and the guys just loved her because she was beautiful,” Crowe explains, “but the girls kind of stayed away from her because she was all dolled up. In this town, back then, you didn’t do that.”
It seemed incredible that two of the biggest thefts of Americana — the Rockwell and ruby slippers burglaries — had both taken place in Minnesota. And as it turns out, Bruce Rubenstein told me that, in December 2018, several months after the shoes were recovered, Chris Dudley — the FBI agent in charge of the slippers case — showed up unannounced at his condo building outside Minneapolis wanting to discuss the identity of the thieves behind the Rockwell heist. Rubenstein says he later continued the conversation at FBI offices.
Rubenstein identified one of the four Rockwell burglars in his book because that man had died: Kent Anderson, brother of comedian Louie Anderson. Rubenstein told me Anderson had been the lookout. The other three thieves “are still living,” Rubenstein wrote in 2013, and “enjoying quiet retirements.” Rubenstein also told me he knew at least one of the alleged Rockwell burglars from around town. When pressed, he said, “I’d rather not go into details.”
There was another connection between the Rockwell heist and the slippers case: a source close to the investigation says Joe Friedberg was the lawyer who negotiated the return of the slippers and had them in his possession. In addition, Rubenstein told me the FBI had asked him about Friedberg. My attempts to reach Friedberg for comment were unsuccessful.
If a prominent Minnesota defence attorney was the one returning the slippers, it suggests a whole category of theories about the theft — that it was simply the work of local miscreants — was always going to be a dead end. Mattson says he now understands “that this was not just a stupid prank. The slippers were targeted because of their value and because of their notoriety.” He adds, “I think the people responsible have done other things similar to this in the past.”
Of course, there is much we don’t know: who took the shoes, where they were all those years, how many hands they passed through. While the FBI undoubtedly knows more than has been made public, Andy Morgan believes the slippers may not, in the end, surrender all their secrets.
As for the slippers, they aren’t home yet — wherever home winds up being. They remain in evidence with the FBI. For the Grand Rapids police, though, it feels like a conclusion. “Our goal was to get the shoes back,” Mattson says. “And we did that.”
After all these years, Jody Hane of the historical society told me, it was time for the town of Grand Rapids to come back to reality. I couldn’t help making the obvious analogy. “You mean like Dorothy waking up back in Kansas?” I asked. Happy to be home, but with the wonder of a vivid dream still lingering? Yes, Hane said, and “it’s bittersweet. We were famous while the slippers were missing, and people came here just to see the town where they were stolen, just to see if they could figure it out for themselves. It’s a little disappointing that, well, people aren’t going to do much speculating here anymore.”
It was quite a journey while it lasted, Mattson says. “There were so many interesting people along the way.”