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Ongoing trial may uncover mystery of stolen 'Wizard of Oz' slippers

The case of the missing ruby red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" highlights the difficulty of finding such treasured items when they're stolen.
Ongoing trial may uncover mystery of stolen 'Wizard of Oz' slippers
Posted at 5:46 PM, Jun 01, 2023

For 13 years, a pair of the famous ruby red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" was missing.

Valued today at $3.5 million, the shoes were stolen in 2005 from the Judy Garland Museum in the actress's hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Over the past two decades, the theft launched an investigation from the FBI and inspired a podcast, documentary and several true crime sleuths to speculate on the mystery of the red shoes.

They were recovered by the FBI in 2018, but the bureau's remained tightlipped on the circumstances.

The mystery of the thief — or thieves — still stands, but a federal case in Minnesota may soon reveal what happened.

On Thursday, 76-year-old Terry Jon Martin, accused of stealing the iconic red slippers, pleaded not guilty to major art theft. Martin lives just 12 miles from the museum, and it's unclear what the feds think his exact involvement in the theft was.

"The true art in an art heist isn't the stealing," said Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent. "It's the selling." 

Wittman is the author of "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures" and a retired special agent from the FBI, where he founded and led the Bureau's National Art Crime Team. He and other experts say it's not surprising that it took 13 years to recover the lost shoes.

SEE MORE: Man charged with stealing ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz'

"I've had investigations that took 20 years. I recovered a group of Norman Rockwells that were stolen from Minnesota in the 1970s and got them back in 2001, so that was almost 22 years later," Wittman said. "In fact, my oldest piece was an original copy of the Bill of Rights. Believe it or not, it was sent to North Carolina in 1789, stolen in 1865, and we recovered that in 2003."

"Investigating these sorts of crimes is very difficult because when people steal large value items like a masterpiece painting or something like Judy Garland's ruby slippers, these things are highly recognizable and highly valuable," said Anthony Amore, an art theft investigator. "Those two factors combined make it difficult for thieves to fence them, to sell them, even on the black market."

Amore is a fellow art theft expert and the author of "The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist." He says the biggest difficulty of cases like this is the fact that stolen art can easily stay hidden for years before being sold on the black market.

The global annual revenue from the illegal trade of stolen artifacts is estimated to be between $1.2 to $1.6 billion.

"Because of this person's age, because of the situation where it took this long, I wouldn't be surprised if in the end, he gets charged with the possession and the attempted sale or the brokering of the museum artifacts," Wittman said.

"If it took them this long to even arrest him, then that means there's been an investigation for this long, and that means there's gotta be mounds and mounds of documentation and leg work that's been happening that needs to be reviewed," said CourtTV legal correspondent Julia Jenae. 

Jenae says there's no rush for the case, despite the high-profile nature of the theft.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for July, but prosecutors indicated that the trial will include evidence of co-conspirators and confidential informants.

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