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FBI: Thieves attempted extortion with stolen 'Wizard of Oz' ruby slippers valued in millions

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This is the pair of ruby slippers that were worn in the Wizard of Oz that were stolen in 2005. Forum News Service file photo2 / 2

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — A cacophony of camera shutters echoed through the room as Jill Sanborn slowly lifted the curtain covering a small display box at the end of a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 4.

“And now, under the rainbow,” the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Minneapolis Field Office said as she revealed the famed pair of ruby slippers last seen 13 years ago in Grand Rapids in northeast Minnesota where Judy Garland was born in 1922 and lived the first four years of her life.

The FBI announced that the slippers, enshrined in American culture after the release of the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” and stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in August 2005, were recovered in Minneapolis in July after Grand Rapids police received a breakthrough tip.

The FBI said it uncovered a recent scheme to extort and defraud the insurance company that now owns the slippers. Search warrants have been executed in both Minnesota and Florida, and the FBI said it has identified suspects, but no charges have been brought and the agency is asking the public for assistance in its ongoing investigation.

“This is a significant milestone, so we wanted to share that today,” Sanborn said, noting the typically tight-lipped agency was breaking with its standard procedure by publicizing an ongoing investigation. “While we’ve gathered lots of information on this case, we believe there’s lots more to give. There’s always intelligence that can be gleaned from the actual theft to the motive in helping us piece that puzzle together.”

Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson said his department has received tips over the years ranging from extremely vague (they were thrown into a water-filled iron ore mine pit somewhere on the Iron Range) to bizarre (they’re nailed to the wall at a roadside diner in Missouri).

But he said a new tip received earlier this summer appeared more credible than most. Johnson would not reveal the exact nature of the new information, but said he reached out to the FBI for assistance because it went across state lines and beyond the resources of his small police department.

The FBI would only say that the slippers were seized during a “sting operation” in Minneapolis in July. The agency’s Minneapolis division and Art Crime Team had been involved in the case since last year, when Grand Rapids police first became aware of a extortion plot against the artifact’s owner, the Markel Corporation.

The FBI said the recovered slippers were sent to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where conservators confirmed their authenticity after an extensive examination of the slippers’ construction, materials and wear.

U.S. Attorney Chris Myers of North Dakota was assigned by the U.S. Department of Justice to assist in the investigation and handle any prosecutions. Officials declined to address why Myers was assigned to the case or whether the state had any connection to the investigation.

Myers said the theft of art and other cultural artifacts is “rampant,” with about 8,000 stolen items listed by the FBI.

“There’s a certain romance to these types of schemes, and sometimes sophistication, but at the end of the day, it’s a theft,” Myers said. “These types of offenses not only deprive the owner of the property, but all of us. This type of cultural property is important to us as a society. It reflects on our culture, it holds our memories, it reflects our values.”

There are four pairs of ruby slippers used during filming known to survive today. One is at the Smithsonian — Johnson said that has been a constant source of misguided tips over the years — while one was donated to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the other is privately owned and not on display.

The ruby slippers were nearly at the end of a 10-week loan to the Judy Garland Museum when they were stolen sometime in the overnight hours of Aug. 27-28 in 2005. Shattered glass and a red sequin were all that were left after an emergency exit door window and the slippers’ glass case were broken. It was later discovered that the museum’s alarm system hadn’t been set properly to notify a private security firm.

The brazen theft has continued to captivate Garland’s hometown, the state and the arts community for 13 years. The police department received tips from around the world, a dive team searched Tioga Mine Pit in 2015 and an anonymous fan offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the slippers’ recovery.

Johnson said his investigation has been further complicated by the fact that there have been many reproductions made over the years, requiring that the authenticity of the slippers be verified by experts.

“When the slippers were snatched in the early morning burglary, the thieves not only took the slippers, they took a piece of history that will be forever connected to Grand Rapids and one of our city’s most famous children,” Johnson said. “We were confident this day would come, and we are grateful to the FBI and all those who worked to bring this piece of cinematic treasure out of the shadows and into the light.”

Rhys Thomas, author of the 1989 book “The Ruby Slippers of Oz,” has followed the case and kept in touch with the Grand Rapids Police Department over the years. He flew out from Los Angeles to be one of the first to get a look at the relic.

“It took me by surprise,” he said. “Thirteen years goes by, you don’t expect anything to happen that quickly. And then, all of a sudden, here they are.”

It remains unclear what will happen with the slippers now that they have been found. Michael Shaw, who owned the slippers and had them on loan to the museum, previously accepted an $880,000 payout from the insurance company to compensate for the loss.

The FBI said the slippers would likely now be worth several million dollars if put up for auction.

Anyone with information about the theft or extortion plot is asked to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or online at tips.fbi.gov. Tips can be anonymous.