Stolen ruby slippers story grabs headlines again with federal indictment
Morning Show co-hosts Heidi Holtan and Kari Hedlund reflected on the saga of the stolen slippers the day the U.S. Justice Department announced the grand jury indictment of a Grand Rapids area man for the theft.
GRAND RAPIDS — The day Dorothy’s ruby slippers went missing in 2005, Heidi Holtan didn’t recognize how far the news traveled until “Late Show With David Letterman" came on.
"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 late night host joked during his monologue.
Holtan, early in her career at KAXE at the time, said the staff spent hours meeting about station-related business — a membership drive, perhaps. It was before the introduction of the iPhone, and meeting ground rules didn’t allow cellphones anyway.
“We heard about it, and we didn't really realize the worldwide significance of something happening in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. And so we, you know, as you do — we scoffed a bit, right?” Holtan said on the Thursday, May 18, KAXE Morning Show. “We just didn't understand the magnitude of this thing.”
Morning Show host Holtan and KAXE Music Director Kari Hedlund reflected on the saga of the stolen slippers the day after the U.S. Justice Department announced the grand jury indictment of a Grand Rapids area man for the theft.
According to a news release, Terry John Martin is accused of the theft of an object of cultural heritage from the care, custody or control of a museum. Martin is charged with one count of theft of major artwork. The indictment was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
At the time of theft, the slippers were insured for $1 million, but current fair market appraisal value the slippers at $3.5 million. The slippers are one of the four remaining pairs left from The Wizard of Oz, one of the most well-known Hollywood movies of all time.
The slippers were on loan for a return visit to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. The actress at the center was born Frances Gumm and spent the first four years of her life here.
Once again, the news is making worldwide headlines, just as it did in 2018, when the FBI and the Grand Rapids Police Department announced they’d found the stolen artifacts in Minneapolis. Eighteen years later, the next chapter of the saga that's been exhaustively covered by a variety of outlets is unfolding.
John Kelsch, the curator of the museum who’s long advocated for the city to capitalize on its Garland connection, appeared on Thursday’s As It Happens from the CBC. He was there the morning the slippers were discovered missing and said a single sequin was all that remained. Kelsch told host Nil Köksal he plans to write a book about the tale and intends to advocate for the slippers’ eventual return to the state.
He also spoke of the “inside job” suspicion cast upon him in the years before this week’s announcement.
“They (locals) mistakenly believed that the museum collected the insurance money, which was not true. The owner Michael Shaw received the payment from the insurance company,” Kelsch said.
“We heard about it, and we didn't really realize the worldwide significance of something happening in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. And so we, you know, as you do — we scoffed a bit, right?”Heidi Holtan
Listen to Kelsch’s segment on the May 18, 2023, As It Happens, starting at 40:45.
Holtan and Hedlund, meanwhile, have had their fill of the ruby slipper story.
“I have heard from at least, over the years, five to six different people somehow finding me, calling me because they're making a podcast about this,” Holtan said. “ … They're very excited: ‘We're doing this thing about Grand Rapids.’ And I’m like, ‘Uh huh.’
“‘Oh, I bet you don't know what it's about.’ I'm like, ‘Uh huh, yeah … is it the ruby slippers?’
“‘Oh yes! Oh my God,’ (they respond).”
Hedlund added, “Eighteen years later, still coming around.”
Holtan did participate in the production of one podcast on the heist — an episode of the Spotify Original podcast Crime Show, released in April 2021. KAXE listeners will recognize some familiar names interviewed for the episode. Producers profiled the crime itself, but also explored the complicated relationship between Grand Rapids residents, Garland and the slippers.
KAXE played a fleeting role in the story when then-Development Director John Bauer posted a satirical claim that the station was responsible for the slippers’ disappearance. And national media outlets like The New York Times and the BBC took notice.
“At the time we had a much less professional website It was more along the lines of The Onion. We would make up stories,” Holtan said. “ … There was a joke put there about the slippers because again, we did not realize the magnitude of it. So we kind of got in some trouble — a little bit of heat.”
The post was immediately removed from the website when the gravity was understood, and Bauer also wrote a letter of apology to Kelsch in the aftermath.
Listen to the full conversation from the Thursday Morning Show above.