The FBI press conference regarding the return of the stolen ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz took place at 1 p.m. on a rainy Minneapolis afternoon. It wasn’t exactly prime time, but the event was just as entertaining as a Sunday night lineup on HBO.
Even before the press conference began, its pair of stars sat center-stage, covered by a black, slightly shiny velvet cloth befitting a Wicked Witch of the West Halloween costume.
Like all great divas, the sparkling shoes wouldn’t be revealed without an opening act—Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis Division of the FBI, Chris Myers, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, and Scott Johnson, Grand Rapids police chief.
The team gathered at the podium to confirm that the morning’s most lighthearted news was true: Per the AP, the character shoes had been returned, after being stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, during the early morning of Aug. 28, 2005.
“Today’s announcement is a little bit different than announcements we normally do,” Sanborn said, letting a little smile slip through the opening to her remarks.
Yes, it was heartening to watch an ABC affiliate live stream the official FBI press conference concerning the whereabouts of two bedazzled Mary Janes. However, District Attorney Myers urged the public to take the heist as seriously as Aunt Em viewed Kansas tornado-preparedness.
“There’s a certain romance in [art crimes], but at the end of the day, it’s a theft,” Myers said, adding that there are “around 8,000 items of art or cultural property” currently listed on the FBI’s National Stolen Art File. As Chief Johnson put it, “[The slippers] are more than a pair of shoes. They are an enduring symbol of the power of belief.”
The FBI reported that in 2017, after more than a decade of dead-end leads, Markel Corporation, the insurance company that owned the shoes, was contacted in an attempted extortion plot.
Multiple FBI field offices were enlisted to investigate. Around a year after the initial tip, the shoes were finally recovered and verified as the real deal by analysts at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
The identity of the shoes’ thief or thieves remains unknown, and on Monday the FBI were not taking questions. (Reported sightings of terrifying flying monkeys, and the sound of a distant cackling of “My pretty,” remain unconfirmed.)
There are four known pairs of slippers Judy Garland wore in the 1939 musical. One lives in the Smithsonian, another set is privately owned, and a group of celebrity benefactors led by Leonardo DiCaprio donated one more to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2012.
The missing ones, however, were snatched from perhaps the most poignant location—the white clapboard house where Frances Ethel Gumm lived for the first four years of her life, before moving off to Los Angeles in 1926 and changing her name to Judy Garland.
After years of slugging through vaudeville with her sisters and playing second fiddle to Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy character, a 17-year-old Garland landed the role of Dorothy Gale.
The release of The Wizard of Oz, a musical that took its young heroine to a magical fantasyland only to remind her that there’s “no place like home,” instantly cemented Garland’s status as a darling of the Hollywood star system.
But fate, which worked in tandem with the ruby red slippers to bring the teenager and dear Toto back to her family’s hearth in a tight one hour and 52 minutes, would not sparkle as happily, ultimately, for Garland off-stage.
After years of addiction, the actress, singer, and LGBT icon died in 1969 from a barbiturate overdose.
Now, nearly 50 years later, her most famous prop got a second life in Minneapolis—as reporters strained their necks and photographers flashed their shutters to capture the shoes behind the curtain. And of course, the shoes' magic was undimmed.