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654: The Feather Heist

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Prologue

Sean Cole

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Ira Glass is off this week, I'm Sean Cole.

So there's this guy who's been on our show a few times now, Kirk Johnson. He's this extraordinary person. In his early 20s, he went to Iraq and ran rebuilding projects in Fallujah for USAID after the invasion. He saw that Iraqis who worked for the US military were being threatened and killed because of it and weren't getting asylum in the US. And he was outraged.

So he single-handedly launched a campaign which changed US law on this. And for years after, he championed these cases, saving thousands of people's lives. It was beyond difficult, an extraordinary stressful job.

And so to decompress, Kirk took up fly fishing, which is where today's story actually starts. It has nothing to do with Iraq or refugees. It begins on a river in New Mexico.

Fly fishing, just in case you don't know, you're using this special lure that looks like an insect. That's the fly. It floats on the water. Kirk makes his own flies out of things like rabbit fur-- so taking parts of one kind of animal, using it to imitate another kind, in order to catch a third kind.

So Kirk's on the river with this guide, a guy named Spencer Seim. This is back in 2011. And at one point, Spencer reaches down to fetch something out of his tackle box. Here's Kirk.

Kirk Johnson

And I caught this really colorful flash-- really beautiful looking fly. And I asked him what it was. And he pulls this thing out, and it's a salmon fly.

Sean Cole

That is, it's used to catch salmon. Kirk had only ever seen trout flies, which are kind of brown or gray. But this thing was intricately tied together with bird feathers and silvery thread, maybe an inch and a half long, kind of a moth-sized peacock, like an Impressionist version of an insect or a dream about an insect.

Kirk Johnson

And it's got these emerald, and canary yellow, and ruby-colored strips from feathers of these exotic birds, maybe 10 or 12 species in total. And they're arranged in this really ornate pattern where the hooklets and the barbules will connect to this. It's really nerdy, yes.

But I'd never seen anything like it. It's a beautiful piece of art. And he then said to me-- he goes, well, if you think that's crazy, you should hear about this kid who just broke into the British Museum of Natural History to steal hundreds of these exotic birds for their feathers, which he sold to Victorian salmon fly tyers, because he wanted to buy a new golden flute.

Sean Cole

An actual flute, a musical instrument made of gold.

Kirk Johnson

And as soon as he said that-- I mean, I'm not over-dramatizing the moment. I was in the middle of a cast when he was telling me this, and I just kind of froze. I was like, this is the craziest sentence I've heard.

Sean Cole

Kirk started plying Spencer with questions on the spot. He wanted to know everything. So they went back to Spencer's place that night and looked up the kid's profile on Facebook. His name? Edwin Rist, R-I-S-T.

Kirk Johnson

And even that didn't seem like a real name to me. It seemed like some 19th century-- you know, he's one of these Victorian boxers.

Sean Cole

Edwin had broken into the museum two years earlier in 2009. This was a branch of Britain's Natural History Museum in a little town called Tring. So Kirk starts Googling around to read everything he can find out about the case.

But there wasn't much, just a few articles in the British press that covered the basics, which were-- Edwin Rist was from New York originally. He was in London studying music. He was exceptionally talented on the flute.

He was only 20 when he stole the birds, 299 of them. And not just any dead birds, they were from one of the most important collections in scientific history. And also, their feathers would fetch about a million dollars if he took them apart and sold them to salmon fly tyers-- which he did, some of them.

And he was caught. The police arrested him. And yet, somehow, he was now walking around free auditioning for orchestras in Europe. And a huge number of the birds were still unaccounted for.

Kirk wanted to understand how this happened, that a 20-year-old flutist with no particular experience in museum larceny made off with some of the most precious specimens in the world. And he wondered where the missing birds were.

Kirk's guide, Spencer, told him, if you really want to find those specimens, you should get yourself to the 21st annual International Fly Tying Symposium. It was in Somerset, New Jersey at the Doubletree Hotel and Conference Center. About a hundred people were there.

If you've been to any trade show, you can picture it, sort of a maze of booths selling all kinds of fly tying supplies, hooks, thread, feathers. And you can buy whole birds there, too.

Kirk Johnson

I went into one guy's booth, and he had a pretty large box just full of parakeet heads. And all of their beaks were kind of open, like they were chirping at the moment of--

Sean Cole

Oh, my god.

Kirk Johnson

I won't go too gory there, but--

Sean Cole

Were you about to say, at the moment of their death?

Kirk Johnson

[LAUGHS] Yes, I was. I was actually going to say, at the moment of their decapitation. But there are bits of birds everywhere.

Sean Cole

And the guy with the parakeet heads was busily tying a fly in a hook clamped in a little vise, and attached the feathers with thread, wrapping it around the shaft. All of these spectators were gathered around him like he was a sidewalk magician doing a trick. Kirk posed as a customer at first, but the guy could tell he wasn't serious about buying anything. So Kirk finally came clean and said to him that he was thinking of writing something about that museum heist.

Kirk Johnson

And he looks up from his fly, and he said, I don't think you want to write that story. And I said, no? Why? And he goes, because we're a small, tight-knit community. And you do not want to piss us off.

[LAUGHTER]

I was just like momentarily stunned. But in my mind, I was like, holy cow, this is awesome. This is so--

[LAUGHTER]

Sean Cole

Because what would happen if you pissed them off?

Kirk Johnson

I don't normally pull this card out, but I feel like my time in Fallujah has calibrated my threat perception a little bit differently.

Sean Cole

I would imagine.

Kirk Johnson

And so a dude with a bunch of feathers pinched between his fingers does not constitute a threat to me.

Sean Cole

That guy's threat had the exact opposite effect on Kirk than he intended. And something kicked in for Kirk at this point, like it sometimes does when he gets an idea in his head.

Kirk Johnson

To me, it was just a very clear-- you know, a flare fired. Like, if he was trying to turn me away from this story, it was like he had just filled my tank up. It was like, hey, pay more attention to this. This is crazy.

Sean Cole

It is crazy, the stuff Kirk found out. You can't turn away once you start hearing all the details, not just about the heist and risk, but where the birds came from and the whole surreal subculture of salmon fly tying, what Kirk calls the feather underground, sometimes characterized by shady dealings and obsession. Kirk interviewed more than 50 fly tyers and discovered things that the people investigating the case didn't find out. And that is our show today, the story of what may be the greatest feather caper in history. Expect high drama and ornithology. And stay with us.

Act One: The Specimens

Sean Cole

Act One, The Specimens. A quick warning that this episode contains a few swear words that we've un-beeped for the podcast version. You can find a version with beeps at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

The birds Edwin stole, I said they were valuable. Some of them were collected in the mid 1800s by one of the greatest scientific explorers of his time, a man named Alfred Russel Wallace. He was like another Darwin and a peer of Darwin's.

Alfred Wallace spent nearly a decade thrashing through the Malay archipelago, capturing and preparing animal specimens, and shipping them back to England. He lived in tiny huts, his flesh regularly invaded by bugs. And about four years in, he contracted malaria and figured he would just hunker down in his shack to sweat it out.

Kirk Johnson

And while he's in the middle of this fever, he has a eureka moment and figures out evolution through natural selection completely on his own. He's like, I've got it. Like, I figured it out.

Sean Cole

And this is before Darwin came up with it?

Kirk Johnson

Well, but this is the kicker. He sits down, and he writes this paper meant for publication. And he puts it in an envelope, and emails it to Charles Darwin--

[LAUGHING]

--who had never published anything on this yet.

Sean Cole

Darwin had figured it out, too, at that point, but he had been too scared to put it out there. These specimens were as important as Darwin's finches-- which, by the way, are also at the Tring Museum. They're early evidence of evolutionary theory. And specimens like these can inform scientists about everything from climate change to the way we perceive color. Scientists are still using them.

Alfred Wallace himself once wrote that each species, each bird, is an individual letter building the words and sentences that describe the deep history of our planet. If we allow these letters to disappear, that history disappears with them. He also wrote that it's probably best if people from the West never see birds like these in their original habitat in all their beauty and glory because they'd just plunder them and ruin everything. He had no idea how right he would turn out to be.

Kirk Johnson

Not long after, there was an industrialized slaughter all over the world. And it was in the name of women's fashion.

Sean Cole

This was back when women wore a lot of hats. And anyone who was anyone wore hats with a lot of feathers on them, from parrots, egrets, ospreys. Designers in the US and Europe couldn't get enough of this stuff. Whole species were decimated by the fashion industry. You'd see hats decorated with entire birds.

Kirk Johnson

In the 19th century, this was like the Gucci bag. If you could only afford a robin, that was one thing. But if you could afford a bird of paradise-- and we're talking about the whole bird being mounted with outstretched wings. And sometimes, these hats had several different birds mounted on them.

Sean Cole

Holy crow. [LAUGHS] Sorry.

Kirk Johnson

And it's-- I mean, it is punny, but it was how they demonstrated their own perch in society.

Sean Cole

Some women had so many birds on their hats that they had to squat just in order to fit into their carriages-- so gaudy and inconvenient. Meanwhile, the gentlemen of the era were also sort of using feathers as accessories. Salmon flies were like hats for guys.

This was also around the time that all these exclusive fishing clubs were popping up on the coasts of England and Scotland. And each club had its own special patented salmon fly. And the flies themselves had all these names.

Kirk Johnson

They're absurd. They're like the Exordium, the Jock Scott, the Durham's Ranger. Can I-- I just wanted to--

Sean Cole

Please.

Kirk Johnson

Can I just--

Sean Cole

Yeah, yeah.

Kirk Johnson

Just to give people a sense of-- OK, so this is the recipe for the first salmon fly that Edwin ever tied. It's called the Durham Ranger. This is a recipe from the 1840s.

Sean Cole

And they call it a recipe?

Kirk Johnson

Yes. The tail calls for feathers from the Indian crow, which is the red rough fruit crow that's all over South America. The butt requires two turns of black ostrich hurl. The throat has light blue hackle, usually from the cotinga, which is from Central America. The wings have a pair of long jungle cock feathers with double tibbetts on both sides.

Sean Cole

And it goes on like that. The cheeks are from a bird called a chatterer. The horns are blue macaw, which is a parrot.

Of course, back then, when you wanted these feathers, you went down to the local plume merchant-- or in Paris a plumassier-- and you paid real money. Around the year 1900, certain snowy egret feathers were more expensive than gold.

Kirk Johnson

But for me, all I kept fixating on was that this is all bullshit.

[LAUGHTER]

There's no reason why a salmon should care about any of this. They don't. I mean, you could tie a chocolate wrapper to a hook and catch salmon.

Sean Cole

Oh.

Kirk Johnson

So all of these little subtleties of which subspecies did you use for the cheek of the feather, they don't even see any of that.

Sean Cole

But that didn't matter to Victorian salmon fly tyers back then. And these days, the community tying this kind of fly still tries to do it according to the same classical recipes in these 100-year-old manuals. Except now, they don't even fish with them. They're just for show.

They use feathers from the same species arranged the same exact way. So the fixation is on historical authenticity, like a fly tying version of civil war reenacting. But because we've murdered so many birds for so many reasons over the years, a lot of the most coveted species are now endangered or protected.

Kirk Johnson

There's a species of cotinga that is just completely illegal to buy and sell. It's the Cotinga maculata. And they completely jones over this stuff. I have been struggling to find another hobby whose adherents are so quickly driven to break international laws to do the art. I mean, you don't get into the dark side of knitting.

Sean Cole

Of course, not every salmon fly tyer is breaking the law, but some of them openly flout the rules or just ignore them. Violators can be fined thousands of dollars.

There was a post on the main web forum for this hobby, classicflytying.com, that sums up this slavish addiction to certain feathers. One guy said, there's something to a fly tied with the old materials.

And someone else responded, I've met this something. I'm haunted by it constantly now. It's like a drug. Nothing else matters. Nothing else compares. When it touches my fingers, I feel the history. I'm taken back to a time when fish were as big as logs, fresh from the sea, reds, yellows, and shades of blues. Their texture and color have that power to push you to do your best. There is nothing else that compares to that power.

Act Two: The Flautist

Sean Cole

Act Two, The Flutist.

[FLUTE MUSIC PLAYING]

Kirk wanted to talk to the bird thief, Edwin Rist. He emailed him every now and then over the course of three years, asking for an interview. Edwin always said, no, that it was still too raw. And then finally, he agreed, gave Kirk like a week's notice. Kirk and his wife Marie-Josée flew to Dusseldorf where Edwin was living playing in an ensemble, which is the music you're hearing right now.

[ENSEMBLE MUSIC PLAYING]

But Marie-Josée was worried. They didn't know this guy. He had broken into a museum, after all. Who knew what he was capable of, if he was dangerous? And they were meeting him at their hotel room.

So they hired a German bodyguard who sat out in the hallway during the eight-hour interview. They needn't have bothered. Edwin, while tall, was not imposing, even in his black pea coat.

He was friendly. Kirk liked him, though they're very different, Kirk's, oh, gosh farm boy Midwestern-ness and Edwin's living in a rarefied world of flutes and feathers in Europe. We asked Edwin if we could air parts of their interview on the show, and he said, no. So you won't hear his voice.

But a lot of what we know about how he came to be in the museum that night comes straight from him. He grew up in a quiet town in New York State south of Albany. He was cute, looked sort of like Harry Potter with thick, wire-rim glasses, a bit of an indoors-y kid, home schooled along with his younger brother.

And even back then, he was shaping up to be a great musician. Edwin's parents were both journalists. And when Edwin was about 10, his dad was researching a story for Discover Magazine about the physics of fly casting. So Edwin happened to watch an instructional video on how to tie flies using this specific kind of feather called a hackle.

Man

--but let's tie the hackle around the base of the wing so that it floats lower in the surface and perhaps looks like a mayfly at rest.

Kirk Johnson

And the feather is transformed. It's suddenly, the hook has like a thousand little legs sticking out in every different direction.

Sean Cole

Oh, it looks like a centipede, kind of.

Kirk Johnson

Yes. And for whatever reason, 10-year-old Edwin's brain was just frozen by this. Seeing something so ordinary transform into something extraordinary like that was amazing to him.

Sean Cole

Edwin told Kirk that he and his brother watched that part of the video maybe eight times. And soon, he was rummaging through the garage and the basement looking for a hook and thread, anything he could find to try it himself. He plucked the feathers from his mom's down pillow.

His dad, seeing all of this, finally brought Edwin to a tackle shop, got him a vise, and some hooks, and other materials, so he could start tying flies for real-- trout flies to begin with, the ugly ones. Edwin's brother got into it, too. They took classes, spent hours hunkered over their creations in this kind of fuzzy trance.

Before too long, they were winning fly tying competitions and going to conventions. And it was at one of those conventions where Edwin laid eyes on his first salmon fly. It was at the booth of a prominent fly tyer named Edward Muzeroll, or Muzzy for short. And once again, little Edwin's mind just froze. It was the same reaction Kirk had that day on the water, total bedazzlement.

Kirk Johnson

And he's kind of oohing and aahing. And he starts talking to Muzzy. And then, before you know it, he's arranging for private lessons with Muzzy to learn how to do this new type of fly tying-- new to Edwin. And so I think he was 14 when he went up to Maine one summer and got lessons. I think it was eight or 12 hour days where Muzzy proceeded to walk him through not just the techniques but the history of this art form.

Sean Cole

During that first tutorial with Muzzy, though, where Edwin tied the Durham Ranger, they used substitute feathers or subs, meaning no red-ruffed fruitcrow, no black ostrich herl. Instead, they used, like, dyed chicken feathers or whatever. And Muzzy, who'd been tying flies longer than Edwin had been alive, could tell right away that Edwin was a natural, a prodigy.

Kirk Johnson

And so at the end of that first session, when Muzzy's saying goodbye, he gives Edwin an envelope and kind of in hushed tones said, this is what it's all about.

Sean Cole

Edwin opens the envelope. And inside is $150 or $200 worth of exotic bird feathers.

Kirk Johnson

From the red-ruffed fruitcrow and from cotinga, I think. Now Muzzy's stuff was legal. And it was a gesture to this young acolyte, almost like, work your way up to these things. You know? Like, when you get good enough, try using one of these red-ruffed fruitcrow feathers.

Sean Cole

And that's when Edwin caught the bug. All he wanted to use in his flies were exotic bird feathers from then on. He started doing chores for his neighbors, gathering firewood, just for a little extra feather money. He soon grew into a master fly tyer-- which, by the way, means an expert mimmicker-- able to consistently and perfectly hew to the same classic recipes again and again. But there was always this one limitation as to what he could accomplish.

Kirk Johnson

As good as Edwin got-- and I mean, he was heralded as the future of fly tying by Fly Tyer Magazine, which I subscribe to.

Sean Cole

Of course, you do.

Kirk Johnson

You know, he was completely embraced by this community by his 16th birthday, I think. I mean, he was a legend already. But as good as he was, he was a 16-year-old who wasn't really flush with cash.

And so whenever there were these occasional eBay auctions of the species that he wanted, he always got outbid by these wealthier, older fly tyers who had disposable income. And so his devotion to this art form was kind of always defined by a longing for what he didn't have. These other guys would say, yeah, well, it's a good fly, but talk to me when you get some real cotinga.

Sean Cole

That's not going to feel that good.

Kirk Johnson

No.

Sean Cole

Especially to a kid. Edwin has this specific way of talking, perhaps cultivated from living in Europe for many years. And on the topic of using substitute feathers instead of the real thing, he told Kirk, the knowledge of its falsity eats at you.

So in a way, Edwin was a pauper musician gazing through a shop window at a shiny musical instrument-- which, by the way, he literally was that, too. At the same time he was excelling at fly tying, he was also excelling at the flute. Just to give you a sense, this is a YouTube video Edwin posted of him covering "Master of Puppets" by Metallica, playing all the parts on different flutes.

[MUSIC - "MASTER OF PUPPETS" BY METALLICA]

Anyway, he was finally admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in London, but he didn't bring any of his fly tying gear or feathers with him. He said, Customs wouldn't have appreciated his birdy bag.

Around the same time, a fly tying friend in Canada-- and something of a mentor to Edwin-- sent him an email saying basically, hey, while you're over there, you've got to check out this place north of London, a branch of the Natural History Museum in a town called Tring. He attached pictures of drawers filled with brilliantly colorful bird specimens. They weren't on display. They were stored away in a special wing of the museum that the general public isn't allowed into.

Act Three: The Museum

Sean Cole

Act Three, The Museum. The Tring is this big, old brick Tudor building from the 1880s. On the outside, it looks more like a private mansion or a boy's school than a museum. The only way you can see that special bird collection is for legitimate research purposes.

So Edwin came up with a plan, a lie. He emailed the museum and told them he needed to photograph the birds for a friend's PhD thesis. And on November 5, 2008, he brought a camera to the museum, signed the visitor logbook using his own name, and was escorted to the Birds of Paradise Collection.

You can tell a research specimen of a bird from a mile away. Their eye sockets are stuffed with cotton, their wings folded down at their sides, legs stiff. They're referred to as bird skins. And importantly, the legs have these tags attached to them with the species, and date, and other bio-data, and, in this case, Alfred Wallace's signature.

Without that tag, the specimen isn't a specimen anymore. It's just a bird. Who knows where the hell it came from? But research, of course, was the last thing on Edwin's mind, looking at the birds. He was just in awe of their arresting beauty.

He made this analogy. He said, if I put a gold brick on the table, it's really impressive. There's a shock value of understanding, wow, that's really valuable.

Kirk Johnson

And then this is what he told me. He goes, if you go to Fort Knox, if you go into the vault, there's a drastically different feeling than just seeing a gold brick. Quote, "For a fly tyer, for someone who understands the feathers, and sees the potential in them, and who really has a passion-- I guess you could call it an obsession. I don't like to use it, because it sounds like a negative term-- "but that overwhelming, wow, what have I just seen feeling was all that I had. And I remember it to this point, because it was just so extraordinary. And the sad thing," he told me, "is that many, many, many-- well, most people have no idea what that feels like."

Sean Cole

Edwin photographed all sorts of different species of birds that day. And he says he wasn't casing the museum that first time. He just wanted to look. Except he also took pictures of the area around the museum. Those surely were not interesting photographs, but they may have proved useful later on. Oh, and also--

Kirk Johnson

He opens up Microsoft Word on his computer and creates a file called PlanforMuseumInvasion.doc.

[LAUGHTER]

Sean Cole

No, he doesn't.

Kirk Johnson

I swear to god.

Sean Cole

That's a little on the nose.

Kirk Johnson

I know. But you don't think anyone's ever going to see your hard drive, you know? In some ways, it's a smart thing to do, to build a list of the things that you're going to need to pull off a museum heist. You don't want to just wing that.

Sean Cole

Wing it? Hey-o!

Kirk Johnson

No, but I mean, he wrote on there that he would need a glass cutter. And I said, was this like one of those things you see in the movie where it's some perfect, disk-shaped glass that's cut?

Sean Cole

Exactly, like in Pink Panther.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. And it was just like a handheld-- almost like an X-ACTO knife. And I was like, well, did you practice? And he's like, no. I didn't think is going to be that hard.

Sean Cole

The evening of June 23, 2009, Edwin finished playing a concert at the Royal Academy of Music and boarded a train to Tring. According to him, he brought along only one empty suitcase, a pair of latex gloves he took from his doctor's office, some wire clippers, a little LED light, and the glass cutter.

Act Four: The Heist

Sean Cole

Act Four, The Heist.

Adele Hopkin

So Edwin came up from the station, he's saying on foot, with his suitcase on the night. Obviously, he'd been up here before.

Sean Cole

The detective on the case, Adele Hopkin, took Kirk to the crime scene, up public footpath 37 in Tring, to a secluded area outside the museum.

Adele Hopkin

--and then came along here. And then he's saying he shimmied up this wall-- which is doable-- up here onto the top.

Sean Cole

He clips some strands of barbed wire in order to get to a window.

Adele Hopkin

This window here, which has now got the bars.

Sean Cole

And was the reason he brought the glass cutter, which, it turns out, he dropped along the way somewhere.

Kirk Johnson

He had a moment of doubt where he started saying to himself, maybe that's some kind of sign that I'm not supposed to do this. Like, maybe I should just bail on this whole thing. But then this other voice in his head said, no, you've been planning this forever. Just figure it out.

Sean Cole

So he used a different kind of glass cutter, a giant rock.

Adele Hopkin

--and then just smashed one of the windows and then went in.

Sean Cole

Edwin says he's not sure how he didn't cut himself up on the glass.

Kirk Johnson

And an alarm is triggered in the museum. And there is a security guard there that night. This is a very contentious point, but Edwin told me that he thinks that the security guard was engrossed in a soccer match. The museum virulently denies this.

And they told me, that particular security guard doesn't even like soccer. But one thing that we're certain of is that an alarm was triggered. The security guard did not notice it. And Edwin had the run of the place.

Sean Cole

And he was in there undetected for at least an hour. It was a weirdly easy thing to pull off. His plan had just been to take a couple of the best specimens of each species. But in the dark, with just his little LED pinch light, he couldn't see which were the best ones. So he just started grabbing whatever he could fit in his hands.

The cotingas were small. He bagged about 100 of those. The resplendent quetzals, though, were trickier. He had to carefully coil their long tails in order to make them fit.

He moved from cabinet to cabinet, sometimes emptying whole drawers-- or nearly. He took 47 of the museum's 48 red-ruffed fruitcrow. He only left the last one because he didn't see it wedged in the back of the tray.

Adele Hopkin

Because he's been here before, he knew exactly where to go for what he wanted, filled up his suitcase-- you wouldn't believe it, would you-- and just walked back to the train station.

Sean Cole

Kirk tried to get Edwin to describe the feeling that he had loading the birds into the suitcase. But sitting together in the hotel in Dusseldorf, Edwin was strangely devoid on this score. He told Kirk, it wasn't like, ah, they're mine now, ho, ho, ho. It was surprisingly unexciting and technical. Like, how do I make them fit?

Though, he did admit that even he was amazed he managed to pull it off. Edwin said, quote, "the fact that essentially an idiot with a rock could steal a suitcase full of birds from the Natural History Museum, even as I think about it-- and I've thought about this myself-- it's absurd."

And then he went out the way he came in, shoved the suitcase back out of the window first, and climbed out after it. At which point, this total exhaustion fell over him, dragging one foot after the other back to town. And mixed in with the fatigue was paranoia.

When he got to the train platform, every set of footfalls on the walkway above him was a potential threat. And he was there for hours. He had missed the last train back to London that night and had to sit on the platform with a million dollars worth of birds until 4:00 in the morning.

Kirk Johnson

He got back to his room, had this kind of euphoric moment where he laid out all the birds and realized the success of his haul.

Sean Cole

On the floor, or where?

Kirk Johnson

I think he laid them out on his bed.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh. Did he like roll around in the dead birds?

Kirk Johnson

[LAUGHS] That, I don't know. But there was nobody else on planet Earth that had this many flawless specimens of these species. To now be sitting with this haul, like, he would punch through to the highest level of fly tying because he wouldn't want for anything. And he would just have this kind of-- you're totally in a different game now, and no one else is able to play with it, you know?

Sean Cole

And if they wanted to play, they'd have to pay through the nose. Again, Edwin had stolen 299 birds from the museum. He would never have to wonder again where his next feather was coming from. The broken window wasn't discovered until the following morning. The cops were called in.

Kirk Johnson

They look around, and the museum and the cops together conclude that nothing seems to have been stolen.

Sean Cole

Wait. What?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. They went looking for the things that they knew had a huge market value, like Darwin's birds.

Sean Cole

Darwin's birds, the famous finches, which were still safely cuddled in their drawer. Once again, Alfred Wallace was second best to Darwin.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah.

Sean Cole

I went through all that.

Kirk Johnson

To me, it was like one of the final blows to him is that, if they had cared about Wallace as much as they should, they would have gone and checked to make sure that Wallace's birds were still there. But they didn't. And if they had done that, they would have found out right away that they had been robbed. They would have had a big head start on things. But as it happened, it took them almost-- it was well over a month before they even found out that they were robbed.

Sean Cole

35 days, in fact. The closed circuit surveillance cameras in the town of Tring reset after 28 days. In a statement to us, the museum said-- I'm paraphrasing here-- that there's nothing more important than the security and welfare of the collection. And after the theft, they changed how they grant access to the collections and also beefed up their security measures.

Act Five: The Investigation

Sean Cole

Act Five, The Investigation. It was only when someone wrote to the museum with a question about one of the species that a curator went to that cabinet, opened the drawer, and saw that it was empty. It was a huge blow.

The curators at the Tring are part of a long lineage caring for and protecting this collection. During the Blitz of London in World War II, bombs raining down everywhere, it was their predecessors who bundled up the museum's bird specimens and secreted them out of the city up to their new location in Tring. That's why they're there, so they'd be safe. And now, under the watch of collections manager Robert Prys-Jones, this happened.

Robert Prys-Jones

There is a missing chunk from the record. And in something like [INAUDIBLE] bird, it is a missing chunk that-- you know, a really substantial-- possibly over the half of the world's resource of that species is now missing. The whole thing was a complete kick in the guts. It was desperately, deeply depressing.

Sean Cole

Alfred Wallace's birds survived Hitler, but not Edwin Rist. The investigators didn't have a lot of obvious clues to go on. There was almost no physical evidence. But had the police or the museum looked in the visitors log, they would have found Edwin's full name, which, if someone had Googled it, they would have found edwinrist.com, on which he was selling some of their specimens, using their Latin names.

They also would have quickly discovered that he played the flute. And if they had gone looking for the birds on eBay or the fly tying forums, they would have found birds for sale from someone with the handle FlutePlayer1988. One of the posts was titled, "Indian crow feathers for sale-- buying new flute." If any of the buyers asked, Edwin made up stories as to where the birds came from. But mostly, no one asked. They didn't want to know.

The way Edwin finally got caught was sort of random. A tip came in from a fly tyer who had seen a bird skin at a festival-- in the Netherlands of all places-- that looked like it might have come from the Tring. And the guy traced it back to FlutePlayer1988 on eBay.

It took some doing, but the police finally tracked Edwin down and showed up at his apartment with a warrant, one year after the break-in. He confessed immediately. Brought the officers into his bedroom where his girlfriend was still sleeping and showed them the birds.

Since he confessed and plead guilty, the case went right to sentencing. Edwin was looking at 10 years for burglary and 14 years for selling stolen goods. But during the sentencing process, Edwin's lawyers brought in a psychologist who diagnosed him with Asperger's syndrome. That changed everything.

The judge in his statement said that Edwin's crime wholly merited a lengthy prison sentence. He said the crime amounted to, quote, "a natural history disaster of world proportions." But he said, because of the diagnosis and a legal precedent in the UK involving Asperger's, a long prison sentence would probably be overturned on appeal. So he sentenced Edwin to one year, suspended. There was a financial penalty, too, but no time behind bars.

Of the 299 birds, a third of them came back to the Tring unscathed. Another third had been plucked at, or dismantled, or in some way compromised. Chiefly, their bio-data tags had been removed with the date, and species, and Alfred Wallace's signature, which meant those specimens were now useless to science.

And the last third did not come back to the museum. They were gone, missing. Some of them were sold, but certainly not all of them. Where were they?

Kirk Johnson

When Edwin was caught, he pleaded his guilt, which meant that the investigation stopped, and there was no search for anything else. The museum wasn't looking for it. The British police wasn't looking for it.

And as I was starting to dig around in these forums-- and I would see occasions of guys cracking jokes about the heist, and it wasn't like it was a reformed community-- I was like, this is nuts. Someone's got to find these things.

Sean Cole

And Kirk is someone who can't stop himself when he comes across an injustice that he might actually be able to fix. Also, this unsettling thing happened during the interview. Kirk says Edwin just didn't seem like someone with Asperger's. And after six of their eight hours together, he told him so. Edwin responded that he hadn't exhibited any obvious symptoms of the disorder until he was in the evaluation room, not long before sentencing. He said, I became exactly what I was supposed to be.

Kirk Johnson

If I'm being honest, I was pissed off. Like, this started out as just a quirky, funny story to me. But when I learned about Wallace, when I learned about the debt that we have to these specimen collections and that they were still out there-- a lot of them were still missing-- then it took on a more serious valence where suddenly I was like, OK, this isn't just like a funny thing. You can't go back and get another bird from 1860 anymore. That bird's gone.

And what I met was a kid who was not remorseful, who kind of grimaced when I referred to him as a thief at one point. And he told me that he doesn't think of himself as a thief. Are we at the anger level at this point? Like, probably approaching there. Because now it's as if this is a case closed. And no one's looking for these birds. And I'm still on these forums seeing people trading and selling things that look suspiciously like Edwin's birds.

Sean Cole

Had Edwin hidden a bunch away and was still selling them? Was someone else selling them? Kirk couldn't let it go. And then he had a kind of breakthrough and became certain that he knew where all of the missing specimens were.

Coming up, Kirk goes and confronts his prime suspect. And he learns that ornithologists can have serious potty mouths. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole in for Ira Glass. Today's show, the Feather Heist, the true story of one of the weirdest capers in recent history, which was also a tragic loss to natural history. And it's the story of Kirk Johnson, who took it upon himself to re-investigate the theft of 299 bird specimens from the Tring Museum north of London.

Act Six: The Suspect

Sean Cole

Act Six, The Suspect. Kirk, of course, asked Edwin Rist about the missing bird skins when they were together in Dusseldorf. Edwin told him the police took everything from him. They had everything.

He also, in the interview, called into question whether the museum knew how many were still missing and suggested they never really knew how many they had in the first place. But the people at the Tring had given Kirk this document, a meticulous accounting of what had come back to them and what was still unaccounted for. And Kirk had it with him. This is him reading it to Edwin in the hotel room.

Kirk Johnson

I mean, this is like a pretty thorough-- like the number of specimens missing July '09, intact specimen was labelled-- without label. Approximate number of specimens represented by feathers and skin fragments, and then a total estimate sort of consolidated. I know this is weird.

Kirk Johnson

I said, this doesn't seem haphazard. And Edwin said, no, it doesn't seem haphazard. I would agree. It looks very, very thorough. And it looks very calculated, I guess.

And so I said, well, so then, if that's accurate, where are they? And he goes, if someone has them, I really don't know about it. And the question then is, does one individual have them? Or is it parceled out over time?

And I look up at him. And I said, but aren't you the person most uniquely positioned to answer that? And he says, in what sense?

[LAUGHTER]

And I looked at him. I was like, but you're the one that took them. And after kind of a long-winded response, he said, I don't have them, fundamentally.

Sean Cole

He used the word fundamentally?

Kirk Johnson

Yes.

Sean Cole

Now, a number of Edwin's customers returned the feathers, and bird parts, and whole birds that they'd bought from him to the museum. In some cases, Edwin's dad reimbursed them, spending thousands of dollars. The museum was now faced with the bizarre task of having to calculate how many feathers equaled one red-ruffed fruitcrow.

And factoring all of that in, the number of outstanding birds on the spreadsheet shrank down to 64. And as Kirk waded through all of the past sales of birds online, doing Wayback Machine searches and stuff like that, this sort of pattern started to emerge that seemed odd. There was another user who had clearly posted specimens that came from Edwin's stash.

Kirk Johnson

This different user named Goku, G-O-K-U.

Sean Cole

Either it was Edwin under another name, or someone who was working with him to sell the birds, an accomplice.

Kirk Johnson

And I really did not know the answer for a long time. But this Goku guy suddenly became like a big person of interest to me.

Sean Cole

Kirk started mapping all of Edwin's closest associates in the fly tying world. And he developed a short list as to who Goku might be, if it wasn't Edwin. And then one day, Kirk happened to be visiting with an ornithologist at Yale named Rick Prum, one of the head curators at the Peabody Museum.

Kirk Johnson

MacArthur Genius Guggenheim recipient. And you walk in, and he's just like dropping the F-bomb right and left.

[LAUGHTER]

And he's just-- I mean, I love this guy.

Rick Prum

And I wrote these notes, because I was trying to get Fish and Wildlife Service to bust these fuckers.

Sean Cole

Rick Prum had taken an enraged interest in the Tring case himself. Like Kirk, he had taken copious notes, kept track of the sales online. And listening to the two of them talk, it's like they've each met the only other person in the world who's not only heard of but loves just as passionately the same band he worshipped in high school.

Kirk Johnson

I mean, did you ever see Rist-- you never saw his website at the day? Like, when he was busted, what was on his website?

Rick Prum

His website's down now.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, but did you ever record it?

Rick Prum

No.

Kirk Johnson

I have. I've got his whole website,

Rick Prum

All those screenshots?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah.

Rick Prum

No way.

Sean Cole

And looking at Edwin's website definitively narrowed the short list of who Goku who might be down to one guy.

Rick Prum

OK, right there, Long Nguyen.

Sean Cole

Long Nguyen, another top-notch fly tyer who is exactly Edwin's age. They're friends. Long Nguyen lives in Norway.

Kirk Johnson

Oh yes, it's so perfect. You have no idea how helpful that is.

Rick Prum

Wow. I mean, this is why I did it.

Sean Cole

And Kirk had other evidence implicating Long, some Facebook exchanges, Edwin saying, did your box arrive, pictures of the two of them on a trip to Japan after which all kinds of new birds were posted for sale by Goku. Not only that, other members of the community were openly accusing Long of working with Edwin, telling him, we know it's you. Your days are numbered.

Now, Edwin has insisted all along that Long was not involved in the heist. He's defended Long against accusations on the internet. And he told Kirk that Long was not involved. And then he put Kirk in touch with Long. And Long, the only other person Kirk knew of who clearly seemed to be selling the stolen birds, agreed to talk.

Act Seven: Oslo

Sean Cole

Act Seven, Oslo. Kirk thought maybe Long had been at the museum with Edwin that night. There was always a question as to how Edwin pulled this off on his own. Maybe Long had put him up to it in the first place. He pictured him being wealthy and manipulative, using Edwin as a pawn.

And when Kirk's plane landed in Oslo, he was just about jumping out of his skin he was so eager to talk with Long. He took a train out to a little suburb of the city. Long met him at the station. He was a teenage-looking 20-something with a big smile and Chuck Taylors.

Kirk Johnson

I had miraculously convinced him to do the interview at his home because I had this kind of fantastical notion that he would slip up, and I would find some partially-exposed wing under the couch or something like that, you know?

[LAUGHTER]

Sean Cole

Like a box of dead birds would come tumbling out of a closet.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, when he was trying to reach for some sugar packets or something. So we walk into the apartment, and out of the corner of my eye there's like this green flash just bombing towards my face. And it's his parrot that just was loose in the apartment and flapped over and landed on my shoulder and spent most of the-- I think that was like a seven-hour interview the first day.

And it was an uncomfortable interview where I'm learning all of these things about his life, but also confronting him with stuff. And his bird is, meanwhile, kind of nibbling on my earlobe.

[LAUGHTER]

Kirk Johnson

I hope I'm not being like [PARROT SQUAWKS] a jerk or like-- I feel like the worst [PARROT SQUAWKS] guest ever asking all these questions.

Long Nguyen

No, but those are questions I--

Sean Cole

And something else happened when Kirk walked into the apartment. All notions of Long being the rich, conniving mastermind of the Tring heist fell away. Long was from a family of Vietnamese refugees who had fled the war to Norway in the '70s. He started tying flies in a boys home when he was a kid, basically as an escape.

Long Nguyen

--because things were turbulent in our family. I mean, yeah, I don't think about that now because it's past. But things were bad. We had our best to just go through it with parents being in Vietnam and all, and after the war and stuff.

Sean Cole

And Long said he never really had what he called true friends. And around that same time after he had started tying flies, he was reading about other fly tyers online. And he heard about this one kid in America who was exactly his age.

Long Nguyen

I think I start hearing about Edwin when I was 15 or 16, because he was really famous back then.

Sean Cole

Long looked up to Edwin. They met online first, just writing back and forth. They had a ton in common, so they decided to meet. And that Japan trip was the first time they saw each other in person. They tied flies together there. Edwin had already stolen the birds at that point, but he hadn't been caught yet.

Kirk Johnson

And he's telling me that Edwin reached out to him to ask him to help sell these things, but just as a friend. He just said, hey, I found these things. Can you post these things online for me?

And Long thought that that was what being a friend was. He thought he was going to help Edwin make enough money to buy his new flute. And he also felt really flattered and honored that Edwin Rist was paying attention to him.

Sean Cole

Long told Kirk he mostly just re-posted some of Edwin's ads, including pictures of birds. But it is true that Edwin sent him a bunch of presorted packets of feathers and three or four whole bird skins to sell. And Long did sell some of them, but Long says he didn't know any of it was stolen at the time, which Edwin confirms.

Edwin made up stories about where the birds came from. And Long never stopped to think how implausible they were, partly because he was blinded by his love of the birds. But also, probably he was blinded by his infatuation for Edwin. Looking back, Long says Edwin was probably just trying to attract less attention to himself.

Long Nguyen

My assumption is just like he wanted to erase his traces. But the traces were already there, so I don't know why.

Kirk Johnson

But he's using you as a friend.

Long Nguyen

Yeah.

Kirk Johnson

Like he's-- do you see what-- it's not a nice thing to do.

Long Nguyen

No, it's absolutely not. And I had like a tough decision about how to deal with this friendship. At the time, I think, when he get exposed, I was really shocked. I was frozen from the forum because people-- they assumed that I was the one responsible for everything. I was considering if I should turn my back, because it's reasonable for me to erase this friendship. And you can't do this to friends.

Kirk Johnson

It made me really upset with Edwin. I don't know how you look at this chain of events and see them as equals. I don't know how you look at the chain of events and see this as anything other than Edwin using him as a fence to potentially take the fall for him if things got hairy.

Sean Cole

Sitting with Long, Kirk ultimately turned to the question of where the missing birds were. But instead of just asking him outright, he eased into the subject with a kind of Colombo, just-one-more-question gentle persistence.

Meanwhile, Long sometimes sounded like a disgraced banker at a congressional hearing, saying he couldn't remember things that seemed basic. For instance, Kirk asked him whether the customers paid Edwin directly, or if Long had handled any of the money.

Long Nguyen

I don't remember if I received the money, or if the money went to him.

Kirk Johnson

You remember, right? I mean, I'm not trying to be an asshole, but you would remember if people-- like, these things were selling for thousands of dollars.

Long Nguyen

Yeah--

Kirk Johnson

Don't you think you would remember?

Long Nguyen

I don't think I sold things for thousands of dollars. What I remember most is selling small amounts, like packages of feathers.

Kirk Johnson

I don't want to be rude, but this is another point where I'm really just--

Long Nguyen

Yeah, I understand. Because I spent like four years to try to forget all this.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah.

Long Nguyen

Yeah. So what are you doing, it's like try to bring up all in the surface. So the details is quite unclear to myself, because I trying to close this case.

Sean Cole

Yeah, Kirk thought to himself, you and me both, buddy.

Kirk Johnson

There are still a lot of skins that are missing.

Long Nguyen

Yeah.

Kirk Johnson

Like a lot.

Long Nguyen

Yeah.

[PARROT SQUAWKS]

I don't have any skins. Many people would probably think that I possess those skins.

Kirk Johnson

Why?

Long Nguyen

Because I was so close related to Edwin. That would be a natural thing to assume.

Kirk Johnson

It would be very logical.

Long Nguyen

Yeah.

Kirk Johnson

Like pretty reasonable for them to think that, no?

Long Nguyen

Yeah. That's what I'm saying.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. If that's not true, than, A, how can we prove that that's not true?

Long Nguyen

I can't prove it.

Kirk Johnson

You can or you can't?

Long Nguyen

Can't.

Kirk Johnson

Then the question, B, is, where are they?

Long Nguyen

Where? I don't know.

Kirk Johnson

How is that possible? How do you not know? Like, you know-- like, I mean, you and Edwin--

Long Nguyen

I know what Ed-- like, I don't know where because a tiny part was sold through me. You can't ask for a receipt for me not having skins.

Sean Cole

Kirk left Long's apartment feeling bad for him, but also frustrated. It still seemed like maybe he was holding something back. And he didn't know if he would ever see Long again.

But then, the next morning, Long was waiting for Kirk in the lobby of his hotel. He told Kirk he had been thinking and decided to quit tying flies with exotic bird feathers. He was afraid, though, that he'd lose the few friends he still had. He said they only liked him because he tied beautiful flies.

Kirk and Long spent the next two days hanging out. They walked around the city together, mostly sightseeing. And at one point, they met up on the steps of the National Gallery where Munch's painting, The Scream, was stolen in 1994 by thieves who broke through a window.

Kirk Johnson

And I just decided like, ah, screw it. I'm going to just do one more attack on his defenses here and see if I can get him to admit anything.

Kirk Johnson

I heard from two separate people that, in the last year, you've told them that you have so much Indian crow, and you don't have any need for it. And so, what am I supposed to do with that?

Long Nguyen

You do whatever you--

Kirk Johnson

But is it true?

Long Nguyen

Yeah.

Kirk Johnson

That you have a lot of Indian crow?

Long Nguyen

No. I have, like-- I still have some of the packages of the ones I was supposed to sell.

Kirk Johnson

OK.

Sean Cole

Long kept those packages he was supposed to sell for himself, after Edwin was arrested. He sent back the bird skins, but he kept the feathers.

Kirk Johnson

And suddenly, I was like, OK, now we're getting somewhere.

Kirk Johnson

Like, how many?

Kirk Johnson

And he was just miserable under this line of questioning, but he finally estimated that he had between 600 and 800 of these feathers from Edwin.

Kirk Johnson

But 800 is a lot of feathers.

Long Nguyen

Yeah, I know.

Sean Cole

And he didn't have that many anymore. He had sold half of them-- again, back before he knew they were stolen-- and kept the rest, which he had been tying with ever since. He was now down to about 100 feathers.

Kirk says Long also admitted that the number of birds Edwin sent him was more like 10 or 20, rather than just a few. We checked this with Long, and he refutes it. In any case, Kirk finally felt like he was closing in on what he'd been after.

Obviously, he had no real standing to be asking any of these questions or making demands. He wasn't the police. He didn't work for the museum. But he had been on this case so doggedly for so long.

Kirk Johnson

I was like, Long, you know you have to show me these things, right? And he kind of very quietly said, yes. And then he started crying. And he--

Sean Cole

He started crying?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, and he told me he's never told anyone about this, that not even his family knows about this, that he's never admitted this to anyone. And I saw someone who was really struggling with his actions in a way that I hadn't seen with Edwin. There were no tears in the Edwin interview.

Sean Cole

Right.

Kirk Johnson

I mean, there was a kind of a-- he thought it was just as crazy as I did-- this whole story-- attitude, you know?

Sean Cole

So not only are you getting a better accounting of their co-involvement and the number of birds that were involved, but also there's something else that you've been looking for, which is like contrition, kind of.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. Yeah.

Sean Cole

Kirk and Long took the train back to Long's apartment where Long dipped in and fetched his binder of feathers, sort of like a stamp book with little pockets. They brought it to a local bar, ordered a couple of beers, and opened it.

Kirk Johnson

Can I take pictures?

Long Nguyen

Sure.

Kirk Johnson

I want to ask you just like, what's what, kind of.

Sean Cole

And four years after he had first heard about the heist, Kirk had them in his hands, feathers that no one else knew about, that Edwin Rist had stolen from the Tring Museum. It was the first time he had seen stolen Tring Museum feathers in the wild, fugitive feathers. Kirk says holding that binder, he felt a straight line back to Wallace, Wallace who wrote, "All living things were not made for man." Still, Wallace probably never pictured two guys poring over the detached feathers of his birds in a bar in suburban Oslo.

Kirk Johnson

So this is like-- these are Tring, and this is--

Long Nguyen

This is Tring, this is not Tring.

Kirk Johnson

OK.

Long Nguyen

This is Tring.

Kirk Johnson

OK, so there's like--

Long Nguyen

Should we just count only the Tring first?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah.

Long Nguyen

And then I'll tell about every feather.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, that'd be great.

Long Nguyen

OK. 1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6, 7--

Kirk Johnson

And I just remember very clearly having two thoughts. One was, here they are. I found them.

Kirk Johnson

And how can you tell so quickly which ones are Tring?

Long Nguyen

Wait. Wait.

Kirk Johnson

OK, sorry. You're at 40 there.

Long Nguyen

40?

Kirk Johnson

Mm-hm.

Long Nguyen

One.

Kirk Johnson

And then, at the same time, recognizing just how pathetic it all was and how small it all was. There wasn't a box of missing birds. There were no labels. These things, I knew what happened. They're just plucked, harvested feathers from 150-year-old birds that will never be returned to their-- you can't reattach them to a bird. You can't do anything with them. And so it was this complicated moment where I was really kind of proud, but also a little embarrassed. Because I was like, this is not-- there's nothing really triumphant about this moment.

Sean Cole

Kirk told Long he thought Long should send the feathers back to the museum, partly because it might help Long put the whole ugly business behind him. And Long agreed. It took him a few months, but he finally stuffed them all into an envelope with no return address.

Kirk learned of two other full bird skins that definitively came from the Tring. The buyer lives in South Africa and has no interest in sending them back. About 20 others belonging to a guy in Montreal looked like possible Tring birds, but he's resold them already.

And say Long sold 10 more of them. That would bring the total number of birds unaccounted for down to 32, which means, A, there's just no way to find out what happened to all of them anymore. And B, Edwin is not the only fly tyer in the world who felt OK about knowingly owning stolen property.

Kirk Johnson

Anyone who bought anything from him should send it back to the museum in whatever shape it's in.

Sean Cole

But what would come of them sending back parts of birds, or feathers, or whatever?

Kirk Johnson

Nothing.

Sean Cole

Nothing.

Kirk Johnson

No scientific value. I mean, maybe someone will figure out down the line how to figure out which feather came from which bird, but it would just be a moral victory, honestly.

Sean Cole

A moral victory?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. I mean, it's not-- and I'm fully aware of that. Like, they're not going to be used, but they don't belong to this community. They belong to that museum. And the end of this should be everyone just return things that they know are stolen, even if it's two feathers. And they can walk around with their head a little bit higher. And maybe that's just so stupid of me for suggesting this. But if the choice is between them returning it and them getting to keep it, that seems easy to me.

Sean Cole

But Kirk finally decided to let go of this case. He realized that he had become just as obsessive as Edwin about the birds and as obsessive as Wallace, for that matter. All three men, for completely different reasons, spent years fixating over the very same birds-- not the same species, the same physical animals.

Wallace wanted knowledge. Edwin saw a lot of beautiful colors and guessed dollar signs. And Kirk, though he knows how loony this sounds, wanted to avenge the birds.

As a last-ditch effort, and with the museum's knowledge, he went on the main fly tying forum and said that the Tring was ready to accept any anonymous returns, no questions asked. He said, as much as I would personally like to know who might be in possession of any of the missing skins, it is much more important that they be returned. And I have included the museum's address below for anyone who is so inclined.

I don't mean to lecture-- and I imagine that some of you might be annoyed by this point-- but I am challenging you to help remove this cloud that hangs over your hobby. Simply deleting any reference to what happened at the Tring doesn't seem like the best way of coming to terms with it. And then, more than 40 members of the fly tying community asked the moderator of the forum to delete Kirk's post. And like so many other things in this story, it disappeared.

Kirk Johnson wrote an excellent book about the museum heist, which was the basis for this story. It has lots of details that we weren't able to get into on the radio. It's called The Feather Thief-- Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century.

Credits

Sean Cole

Our program is produced today by Miki Meek. The people who help make our show-- Dana Chivvis, Neil Drumming, Damian Gray, Hannah Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Anna Martin, Robin Simeon, Christopher Switala, Stowe Nelson, Julia Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed, managing editor, Susan Burton, research help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks today to Ellen Paul, James Costa, and Marion Bentley.

Our website is thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes, totally free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to my boss, Ira Glass.

You know, I happened to see him in the park last weekend with his two dogs, a labradoodle and a Pomeranian. It was just the three of them walking along. And he got really hostile when I approached them.

Kirk Johnson

We're a small, tight-knit community. And you do not want to piss us off.

Sean Cole

I'm Sean Cole. Ira's back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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