In the city of Minneapolis, the FBI is closing in on the perpetrators of a bizarre crime. Some 13 years earlier, a museum raid robbed the state of an irreplaceable piece of American history. But what really happened to Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz? And can this crack team of investigators finally track them down?
When L. Frank Baum first put pen to paper and wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, few could have predicted the cultural phenomenon that his work would become. Then, almost 40 years after the book’s publication, MGM released a movie adaptation of the book that remains beloved around the world.
A groundbreaking production for the time, The Wizard of Oz is notable for its use of the emerging Technicolor technology as well as its catchy and popular songs. Moreover, the movie cemented the fame of 16-year-old Judy Garland, the up-and-coming young actress who played the starring role of Dorothy Gale.
Today, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most widely watched movies ever made. And to the millions who have witnessed Dorothy’s journey from Kansas to the mysterious world of Oz, few images are as iconic as that of the heroine dressed in blue-and-white gingham with a pair of glittering ruby slippers on her feet.
Interestingly, the book version of the famous slippers were silver in color; it was decided, however, that red would look far more impressive in Technicolor. And the swap turned out to be a sound one; even 80 years after the movie was first released, Dorothy’s slippers remain highly distinctive pieces of film memorabilia.
However, in the movie industry, it is common for multiple copies of certain props to be produced. And during production of The Wizard of Oz, this meant that several pairs of ruby slippers were made. While the exact number remains unknown, it’s believed that six or more pairs of the stunning footwear were once in existence.
Then, more than 30 years after The Wizard of Oz’s premiere, Kent Warner, a costume worker for MGM, was tasked with picking out a single pair of slippers to be sold off at auction. Apparently, the others were to be destroyed as part of a clean-up effort at the company’s lot in Culver City; Warner did not follow his instructions, however, and he chose instead to pilfer the remaining shoes.
Over the years, Warner’s collection dwindled as he sold off the slippers in a series of clandestine auctions. And, eventually, one pair made it into the hands of private collector Michael Shaw. Shaw elected not to keep the famous shoes hidden away, though. Indeed, in 2015 he agreed to loan them to Grand Rapids, Minnesota’s Judy Garland Museum.
In Grand Rapids, the slippers were a key attraction at the town’s Wizard of Oz Festival. But even though officials offered to keep the valuable footwear in a vault overnight, Shaw declined. The owner of the shoes believed that the building’s own security would be sufficient; sadly, he was mistaken.
On August 28, 2005, staff arrived at the museum to a horrifying sight. At some point in the night, the glass case containing the slippers had been broken into. And, somehow, the exhibit’s alarm had not been triggered to alert the police. Meanwhile, the famous shoes were nowhere to be seen, nor were the perpetrators of the break-in.
Naturally, staff at the property – which had once been Garland’s childhood home – were heartbroken. “The biggest thing that ever happened to our museum was getting the slippers stolen,” Jon Miner, the institution’s co-founder, told KQDS in 2005. “We were literally crying.” And even though some suspected an inside job, Miner and his colleagues rejected any suggestion of involvement in the crime.
Desperate to secure the slippers’ return, local police offered $250,000 to anyone who could help them solve the mystery. But although a donor later topped up the fund to a staggering $1.25 million, the shoes – which had been insured to the tune of $1 million – still weren’t handed in.
Over the years, volunteers and professionals searched for the slippers in a number of places – including in a nearby lake. According to one officer, there were even reports that the National Museum of American History was harboring the stolen shoes – although that pair was legitimately obtained, of course. And despite there having been multiple tip-offs, the investigation into the missing footwear seemed destined to end in disappointment.
Meanwhile, in 2016 Canadian filmmaker Morgan White released The Slippers – a documentary all about Garland’s famous shoes and the fate of the different pairs through the ages. In the film, it was pointed out that such recognizable items would have been difficult to shift. “One way or another, over the course of time, the shoes will out you,” claimed Rhys Thomas, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.
In 2017, however, someone got in touch with the insurance company that had dealt with Shaw’s claim. Apparently, they said that they had vital information on the whereabouts of the shoes. But when the local police were notified, they became suspicious of the individual in question’s assertions.
Suspecting extortion, police in Grand Rapids contacted the FBI. And for the next 12 months, a number of different bureau departments and field offices across the country worked together to uncover more about this new lead. Finally, though, on September 4, 2018, the FBI revealed some good news: the slippers had been found.
Somehow, the shoes had made it 170 miles south of Grand Rapids to Minneapolis, where they were finally retrieved as part of an undercover operation. However, authorities have yet to draw a line under this puzzling case. “We are still working to ensure that we have identified all parties involved in both the initial theft and the more recent extortion attempt for their return,” the FBI’s Christopher Dudley explained in a statement. “This is very much an active investigation.”
In an attempt to vet the find, agents also took the slippers to the National Museum of American History. There, the footwear was examined by specialist Dawn Wallace, a conservator who has been working to restore the institution’s own pair. And, happily, Wallace was able to determine that the shoes found in Minneapolis were a close match to those the museum owned.
In fact, on closer inspection, experts realized that the National Museum of American History’s slippers and the ones recovered from Minneapolis had been mixed up somehow over the years, meaning each shoe actually matched with one from the opposing pair. However, there appear to be no current plans to put the slippers back in proper order.
Currently, the slippers remain the property of Shaw’s insurance agency, who reimbursed the collector after the crime. And Dudley himself is satisfied with a job well done. “Recovering a cultural item of this significance is important,” he said. “So many people of all ages around the world have seen The Wizard of Oz and in that way have some connection to the slippers. That’s one of the things that makes this case resonate with so many.”