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Grand theft Garland: Who deserves credit for ruby slipper recovery?

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. - After 13 years in a tornado of mystery, the stolen ruby slippers landed in the hands of the FBI. "We received a new tip and some information that we diligently pursued," Jill Sanborn, Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapol...

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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – After 13 years in a tornado of mystery, the stolen ruby slippers landed in the hands of the FBI.

“We received a new tip and some information that we diligently pursued,” Jill Sanborn, Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis Division of the FBI, said at a news conference in September marking the recovery of the famed footwear stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in 2005.

It was a joyous occasion. But it was the Grand Rapids Police Department that received the tip in the summer of 2017. The cops then reached out to the feds for help closing a case they had pursued for more than a decade, shifting the burden - and the spotlight - of the investigation.

It was Sanborn who took the stage first at the press conference, and it was Sanborn who got to lift the curtain on the cultural icons.

“I want to thank my folks, as well as our state and local partners ... all those that helped us in this case,” she said.

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In their statements after the recovery, Grand Rapids police were quick to thank the FBI for their work and said without the federal agents, “the slippers would not have been recovered.”

The FBI also credited the local police for their work: “The investigation remained a priority for the Grand Rapids Police Department, who requested FBI assistance in 2017 when the extortion plot against the Markel Corporation surfaced.”

Still, a one-time investigator involved in the case says news of the recovery has underplayed the work the police did all along to keep the case alive.

“Last year, but more so during the live press conference, all of a sudden it’s the FBI everything, and that led me to wonder what’s going on there,” said Rob Feeney, a movie prop collector and reseller in Minneapolis who also works in the legal realm. “It’s not about who gets credit, it’s about the honest truth of it.”

In national media coverage, Grand Rapids police often did get mentioned if not praised for past efforts and fielding the case-breaking tip, although some outlets focused only on the FBI’s work.

British newspaper The Guardian wrote “it appears it was the FBI who finally made the breakthrough.”

“That’s not how I remember the last five years,” Feeney said. “Not at all.”

Feeney, 47, helped organize the Tioga Mine Pit dive in 2015. He also represented the anonymous fan who promised $1 million for the return of the slippers that year.

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Amid the increased public awareness that followed the 10th anniversary of the museum theft, police fielded and investigated many dead-end leads before the extortion tip came in over the summer of 2017. Without the resources or authority to investigate across state lines, the department reached out to the FBI.

This summer, federal agents recovered the slippers in a sting operation in Minneapolis, the details of which are still unknown as the search for those responsible continues.

A dozen years of work on this case behind him, Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson took the stage third at September’s press conference and took little credit himself.

“The Grand Rapids Police Department is most grateful to the men and women of the FBI whose hard work led to the recovery,” he said.

The shoes, which would likely fetch millions at auction and are priceless in the eyes of many movie fans, are still in the FBI’s hands. The Judy Garland Museum does not know if or when the ruby slippers will return to Grand Rapids; the Markel Corporation did not respond to a request for comment.

The FBI would not comment on the whereabouts of the slippers and if or when they might return to public display. Spokesman Michael Kulstad said the investigation is still ongoing.

If anyone has information about the theft, they are encouraged to call 1-800-225-5324 or visit www.tips.fbi.gov .

Related Topics: GRAND RAPIDS
Brooks Johnson was an enterprise/investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune from 2016 to 2019.
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