ABOUT THIS EPISODE

A flute player breaks into a British museum and makes off with a million dollars worth of dead birds.
English
United States
explicit content

TRANSCRIPT

00:00:00support for this American life comes from square space providing designer crafted template mobile friendly and E. commerce ready for a free trial of your new website visit squarespace dot com slash American and enter American think it dream it make it with square space and from Capital One with
00:00:21instant purchase notifications so you don't miss a purchase small or large offered by Capital One bank USA NA copyright two thousand eighteen not available for some partner cards Capital One what's in your wallet from WBEZ Chicago it's this American life our glasses off this week I'm Sean call
00:00:42so there's this guy who's been on our show a few times now Kirk Johnson is this extraordinary person in his early twenties he went to a rock and rand rebuilding projects in Fallujah for USA ID after the invasion the southern Rockies who worked for the US military were
00:00:57being threatened and killed because of it and we're 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 champion these cases saving thousands of people's lives it was beyond difficult extraordinary stressful
00:01:14job and so to decompress Kirk took up fly fishing which is where today's story actually starts it has nothing to do with the rocker refugees begins on a river in New Mexico fly fishing just in case you don't know you're using the special lower that looks like an
00:01:30insect that's a fly on the water Kirk makes his own flies out of things like rabbit for taking parts of one kind of animal using it to imitate another kind in order to catch a third time to curse on the river with this guy and a guy named
00:01:47Spencer sign this is back in two thousand eleven and at one point Spencer reaches down to fetch something out of his tackle box Kirk and I caught this the colorful of flash really beautiful looking fly and asked him what it was and he he pulls this thing out
00:02:04and it's it's a it's a salmon fly that is it used to catch salmon Kirk it 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
00:02:21of a modest sized peacock like an impressionist version of an insect were dream about an insect and it's got these am rolled then Canary yellow and ruby colored strips from feathers and of these exotic birds maybe eight ten or twelve species in total and they're arranged in this
00:02:40really Courtney pattern where the hook clips in the Barbie wills bill can act to this gets really nerdy yet but I'd never seen anything like it it's a beautiful piece of art and he then said to me goes with you think that's crazy you should hear about this
00:02:59kid 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 tires because he wanted to buy a new golden flute an actual flute musical instrument made of gold and %HESITATION it is
00:03:21soon as he said that I mean I I would I'm not I'm not like over dramatizing a moment like 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 I've
00:03:34heard her extended plying Spencer with questions on the spot you wanted to know everything so they went back to Spencer's place that night and looked up the kids profile on Facebook his name Edwin rest R. I. S. T. and even that didn't seem like a real name to
00:03:50me it seems like some nineteenth century you know he's one of these Victorian boxers Edwin had broken into the museum two years earlier in two thousand nine this is a branch of Britain's natural history museum in a little town called train so starts googling around to read everything
00:04:07he 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 at one rest was from New York originally was in London studying music is exceptionally talented he was only twenty when he stole the birds
00:04:22two hundred ninety nine of them not just any dead birds they were from one of the most important collections and scientific history and also their feathers would fetch about a million dollars if you took them apart and sold them to salmon fly tires which he did some of
00:04:36them and was caught 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 cook wanted to understand how this happened the twenty year old flautist with no particular experience and museum larceny
00:04:55made off with some of the most precious specimens in the world any wonder where the missing birds were Kurtz guide Spencer told him if you really want to find the specimens you should get yourself to the twenty first annual international fly tying symposium was in Somerset New Jersey
00:05:14at the doubletree hotel and conference center but 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 hoax thread feathers and you're my whole birds there too I what I
00:05:28went to into one guy's booth and he had %HESITATION like a pretty large boxes full of parakeet heads and that all of their beaks for kind of like open you know like they were chirping at the moment %HESITATION I won't go to gory there but %HESITATION were you
00:05:45about to say at the moment of their deaths hit them yeah it's it's it's gonna is actually as a at the moment of their decapitation but there are you know bits of birds everywhere the guy with the parakeet heads was busily tying a fly in a hook clamped
00:06:01in a little vice and attach the feathers with thread wrapping it around the shaft all the spectators were gathered around him like it was a sidewalk magician doing a trick Kurt posed as a customer at first but the guy could tell he wasn't serious about buying anything so
00:06:15Kirk finally came clean and said do and that he was thinking of writing something about that museum heist any looks up from his fly and he said I don't think you want to write that story and I I said no like what why and he goes because we're
00:06:29a small tight knit community and you do not want to piss us off I'm I was just let momentarily stunned by the end in my mind I was like holy cow this is awesome this because what would happen if you pissed them off I don't normally like pull
00:06:50this car now but I feel like my time in Fallujah calibrated my threat perception a little bit differently and so I do with a bunch of feathers pains between his fingers does not constitute a threat me that guy's threat had the exact opposite effect on Kirk than intended
00:07:12and something kicked in for Kirk at this point like it sometimes does when he gets an idea to me it was just a very clear you know slayer fired like if he was trying to turn me away from this story it was just it was like you just
00:07:27filled my tank up it was like it was like Hey pay more attention to this this is crazy it is crazy stuff Kirk found out you can't turn away once you start hearing all the details not just about the highest and rest but where the birds came from
00:07:42and the whole surreal sub culture of salmon fly tying what Kerr calls the feather underground sometimes characterized by shady dealings and obsession Kirk interviewed more than fifty flying tires in discover things that the people investigating the case didn't find out and that is our show today the story
00:08:01of what may be the greatest feather keeper in history expect high drama in ornithology stay with us the specimens good morning that this episode contains a few swear words that we've on deep for the podcast version you can find a version with our website This American Life dot
00:08:34org the birds and when still I said they were valuable some of them are collected in the mid eighteen hundreds by one of the greatest scientific explorers of his time a man named Alfred Russel Wallace using another Darwin and the garments offered Wallace spent nearly a decade thrashing
00:08:51through the Malay archipelago capturing preparing animal specimens and shipping them back to England lived in tiny hides his flesh regularly invaded by bugs and about four years and he contracted malaria and figured it would just hunker down in a shack to sweat it out and while he's had
00:09:07in 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 and this is before Darwin came up with that will but this is the kicker he sits down
00:09:24and he writes this paper meant for publication and he puts in an envelope and emails the Charles stark who had never publish anything on this yet Darwin had figured it out to at that point but he had been too scared to put it out there these specimens were
00:09:40as important as Darwin's finches which by the way are also at the train museum there 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
00:09:57each 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
00:10:15and their original habitat and all their beauty and glory because they just plundered them and ruin everything he had no idea how right he would turn out to be not long after there was an industrialized slaughter all over the world and it was in the in the name
00:10:31of women's fashion this was back when women were a lot of hats and anyone who is anyone wear hats with a lot of feathers on them from parents egress sprays designers in the US and Europe couldn't get enough of this stuff whole species were decimated by the fashion
00:10:45industry UT hats decorated with entire birds in the nineteenth 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
00:11:00and a man and sometimes these hats had several different birds mounted on them holy crow Ennis sorry and it's a %HESITATION I mean that's it is punny but it's like it was how they demonstrated their own perch in society someone had so many birds on their hats that
00:11:17they had to squat just in order to fit into their carriages so gaudy and inconvenient meanwhile the gentleman 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
00:11:32popping up on the coast of England and Scotland and each club had its own special patented salmon fly and the flies themselves had all these names there a third there like did exhorting them the jocks got the Durham's ranger %HESITATION can I I just want to Disney can
00:11:49I just yeah just to give people a sense of okay so this is the recipe for the first fly that salmon fly that and whenever tied it's called the Durham ranger this is a recipe from the eighteen forties and a color recipe yes the tale calls for feathers
00:12:10from the Indian crow which is the red rock fruit crow that's all over South America the but requires two turns of black ostrich her role %HESITATION the throat has a light blue hackle usually from the caatinga %HESITATION which is from Central America the wings have a pair of
00:12:30long jungle **** feathers with double Tippett's on both sides it goes on like that the cheeks are from a bird called chatter at the horns of blue macaw parrot back then when you wanted these feathers you went down to the local plume merchant or in Paris a Plymouth
00:12:46CA and you paid real money around the year nineteen hundred certain snowy egret feathers were more expensive than gold for me all I can fixating on was that this is this is all bullshit that there's there's no reason why a salmon should care about any of this they
00:13:08don't I mean you you could tie a chocolate wrapper to a hook and catch salmon %HESITATION so all of these little subtleties of you know which sub species did you use for the Chico feather they don't even see any of that but that didn't matter to Victorian salmon
00:13:28flat tires back then and these days the community telling this kind of flying still tries to do it according to the same classical recipes in these one hundred year old manuals except now they don't even fish with them they're just for show these feathers from the same species
00:13:44arranged the same exact way so the fixation is on historical authenticity like a fly tying version of civil war re enacting 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 are protected there's a
00:14:00species of Katanga that is just completely illegal to to buy and sell its the Katanga macula and they they completely Jones over the stuff I have been struggling to find another hobby whose it here in our soul quickly driven to break international laws to do the art I
00:14:23mean you don't get into the dark side of needing of course not every salmon fly tire is breaking the law but some of them openly flout the rules are just ignore them violators can be fined thousands of dollars was a post on the main web form for this
00:14:38hobby classic fly tying dot com that sums up the 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 the something I'm haunted by it constantly now it's like a drug nothing else matters nothing
00:14:57else compares when it touches my fingers I feel the history and taken back to a time when Fisher is because logs fresh from the sea Reds yellows in shades of blues their texture and color have that power to push you to do your best there is nothing else
00:15:14that compares to that power back to the flautist and then rest he emailed every now and then over the course of three years asking for an interview Edwin always said no it was still too raw and then finally he agreed gave her like a week's notice Kirk and
00:15:45his wife Marie shows a fluted Dusseldorf where Edwin was living playing in an ensemble which is the music you're hearing right now that reaches he was worried didn't know this guy he broke into a museum after all knew what he was capable of views dangerous and they were
00:16:07meeting 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 Mott hall was not imposing even in his black pea coat was friendly Kirk like them though they're very different Kirk's all gosh
00:16:25farm boy midwestern ness and Edwin's living in a rarefied world of flutes and feathers in Europe we ask that when if we get our parts of their interview on the show and he said now so you won't hear his voice but a lot of what we know about
00:16:39how we came to be in the museum that night come straight from him he grew up in a quiet town in New York state south of Albany his cute looks sort of like Harry potter with thick wire rimmed glasses bit of an indoors a kid home schooled along
00:16:51with his younger brother and even back then he was shaping up to be a great musician that one's parents were both journalists and when and when was about ten his dad was researching a story for discover magazine about the physics of fly casting %HESITATION Edwin happened to watch
00:17:07an instructional video on how to tie flies with using the specific kind of feather called a hackle profile but let's try to hack all around the base of the wing so that it floats lower in the surface and perhaps looks like a may fly arrest and the feather
00:17:21is transformed it it suddenly the hook has like a thousand little laying sticking out in every different direction %HESITATION it looks like a like a centipede yes and for whatever reason ten year old Edwin's brain was just frozen by this seen something so ordinary transform into something extraordinary
00:17:45like that was amazing and when told her that he and his brother watch that part of the video maybe eight times and soon he was rummaging through the garage in the basement looking for a hook in thread anything he could find the tried himself the feathers from his
00:18:01mom's down pillow his dad saying all of this finally brought and went to a tackle shop caught in a vice and some hooks and other materials so we could start tying flies for real trap flies to begin with the ugly ones and one brother got into it too
00:18:16they took classes spent hours hunkered over their creations and 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 were Edwin laid eyes on his first salmon fly is at the booth of
00:18:32a prominent fly tyer named Edward mother role or Muzzy for short and once again little Edwin's mine just froze it was the same reaction Kerr cat that day on the water total be dazzled mind and he's kind of %HESITATION in an I. N. and he starts talking to
00:18:47Mozzie and then before you know it he's arranging for private lessons with Muzzy to learn how to do this this new type of flight time new to Edwin and so I think he was fourteen when he went up to Maine one summer and and got lessons I think
00:19:05it was eight or twelve hour days were Muzzy proceeded to walking through not just that the techniques but the history of this art form during that first to Torio with multi though we're Edwin tied the Durham ranger they used substitute feathers or subs meaning no red rough troop
00:19:22grow no black ostrich girl instead these like died chicken feathers or whatever in Muncie been tying flies longer than Edwin had been alive could tell right away that and one was a natural a prodigy and so at the end of that session that first session when was the
00:19:39single by he gives Edwin an envelope and in hushed tones said this is what it's all about when opens the envelope and inside is a hundred and fifty or two hundred dollars worth of exotic bird feathers from there read Dr fruit Crohn's and from getting guys think now
00:19:59my sis stuff was legal and it was a gesture to this young acolyte almost like a like your way up to these things you know like when you get good enough %HESITATION try using one of these retro through crow feathers and that's when Edwin caught the bug all
00:20:17he 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 tire which by the way means an expert mimic her able to consistently
00:20:31and perfectly hue to the same classic recipes again and again but there was always this one limitation as to what he could accomplish as good as Edwin god and I mean he was heralded as the future of fly tying by fly tyer magazine which I subscribe to you
00:20:49do you know he was completely embraced by this community by his sixteenth birthday I think when he was a legend already but as good as he was he was a sixteen year old who wasn't really flush with cash and so whenever there with these occasional eBay auctions of
00:21:08a of the species that he wanted he always got outbid by these wealthier older flight tires who had disposal income and so his devotion to this art form was kind of always defined by a a longing for what he didn't have these other guys would say yeah well
00:21:30it's a good fly but honey now talk to me when you get some real Katanga that's not going to feel that good now especially to a kid that one has the specific way of talking perhaps cultivated from living in Europe for many years and on the topic of
00:21:45using substitute feathers instead of the real thing he told Kirk the knowledge of its falsity eats at you so in a wait and one was a Popper musician gazing through a shop window and a shiny musical instrument which by the way he literally was that too at the
00:22:01same time he was excelling at fly tying he was also excelling at the flute just to give you a sense this is a you tube video Edwin posted of him covering master of puppets by Metallica playing all the parts on different anyway he was finally admitted to the
00:22:19royal academy of music in London but he didn't bring any of his fly tying gear feathers with him he said customs wouldn't have appreciated his birdie bag around the same time of fly tying friend in Canada and something of a mentor to Edwin sentiment email saying basically Hey
00:22:35while you're over there you've gotta check out this place north of London a branch of the natural history museum in a town called training the 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
00:22:50museum that the general public isn't allowed into three the museum the training is this big old brick building from the eighteen eighties on the outside it looks more like a private mansion or boys school in a museum the only we can see that special bird collection is for
00:23:11legitimate research purposes so Edwin came up with the plan the line he email the museum and told him he needed to photograph the birds for friends PhD thesis in on November fifth two thousand eight brought a camera to the museum sign to the visitor log book using his
00:23:26own 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 staff they're referred to as birds scans and importantly the legs
00:23:43have these tags attached to them with the species and date and other bio data and in this case Alford Wallace's signature without that tag the specimen is in a specimen anymore it's just a bird who knows where the hell it came from but research of course was the
00:23:59last thing on at once mind looking at the birds he was just in awe of their arresting beauty he made this analogy is that 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 and then this
00:24:14is the this is what he told me because if you go to Fort Knox if you go into the vault there's a drastically different feeling then just seem like a gold brick quote for a flight tire for someone who understands the feathers and sees the potential in them
00:24:32and really has a passion I guess you call it an obsession I don't like to use it because it sounds like a negative term %HESITATION but that overwhelming wow what have I just seen feeling with all that I had and I remember it to this point because it
00:24:46was just so extraordinary and the sad thing he told me is that many many many will most people have no idea what that feels like and when photographed all sorts of different species of birds that day and he says he wasn't casing the museum that first time you
00:25:07just wanted to look except he also took pictures of the area around the museum those surely were not interesting photographs that they may have proved useful later on Ellen also he opens up Microsoft Word on his computer and creates a file called plan for museum invasion that stuff
00:25:32%HESITATION and it's a little on the no I know but you don't think anyone's ever gonna see your hard drive you know like in some ways it was like it's it's a smart thing to do like to build a list of the things that you're gonna need to
00:25:44pull off a museum heist you don't wanna just wing that wing it okay %HESITATION now but I mean he wrote on there that the I mean he would need a glass cutter and I said was this like one of those things you see in the movie were you
00:25:58know it's some perfect disc shaped glands achalasia again pink pants yeah %HESITATION and it was just like a hand held like almost like an exacto knife and I was like what did you practice and he's like now I don't think it could be that hard the evening of
00:26:15June twenty third two thousand nine and when finished playing a concert at the royal academy of music and boarded a train to training according to him he brought along only one empty suitcase latex gloves he took from his doctor's office some wire clippers a little LED light and
00:26:32the glass cutter act for the hive I came up from the station on foot with a suitcase on the night of sleep in a pitiful the detective on the case Adele Hopkin took her to the crime scene up public footpath thirty seven in training to sort of secluded
00:26:59area outside the museum came along and he's saying he showed up at school which is durable and up here once the total eclipse some strands of barbed wire in order to get to a window this window here which is not go to balls and was the reason he
00:27:18brought the glass cutter which it turns out he dropped along the way somewhere he had a moment of doubt where he started saying to himself maybe that some kind of sign that I'm not supposed to do this like maybe I should just bail on this whole thing but
00:27:36then this other voice in his head said no you've been planning this for ever like just figure it out so he used a different kind of glass cutter giant rock and then %HESITATION just smashed one of the windows %HESITATION and then went to Edwin says he's not sure
00:27:52how we didn't cut himself up on the glass an alarm is triggered in the museum 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 near
00:28:11you lately denies this and they told me the security that particular security guard doesn't even like soccer but one thing that we're certain of is that an alarm was triggered security guard did not notice it in Edwin had the run of the place he was in there undetected
00:28:31for 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 as little LED pinch light he couldn't see which were the best ones so
00:28:45we just started grabbing whatever he could fit in his hands the Katanga's were small bag about a hundred of those the resplendent quetzal is there were trickier into carefully coil there long tails in order to make them fit he moved from cabinet to cap that sometimes emptying whole
00:29:01drawers or nearly you took forty seven of the museum's forty eight red rough for Crowe only left the last one is he didn't see it wedged in the back of the train because he's been here before knew exactly where to go if we wanted to food of suitcase
00:29:18complete which is just what to the train station %HESITATION trying to get at when 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 that score he told her it wasn't like other
00:29:33mine now jojo 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
00:29:49from the natural history museum even as I think about it and I thought about this myself it's absurd and then he went out the way he came in check the suitcase back out of the window first and climbed out after it at which point this total exhaustion fell
00:30:04over 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 any was there for hours yet missed the last train back
00:30:20to London that night and had to sit on the platform with a million dollars worth of birds until four in the morning I got back to his room had this kind of euphoric moment where he laid out all the birds and kind of route realized that the success
00:30:38of his hall on the floor where I'd I'd think the laid him out on his bed %HESITATION do you like roll around and it hurts I can't that I don't know but %HESITATION there was nobody else on planet earth that had this many flawless specimens of the species
00:30:57the now these sitting with this hall like he would just he would punch through to the highest level of flight time because he wouldn't want for anything any we just have this kind of heat if you could just you totally in a different game now and no one
00:31:16else is able to play with it you know and if they wanted to play they have to pay through the nose again at one had stolen two hundred ninety nine per it's for the museum would never have to wonder again where his next feather was coming from the
00:31:30broken window wasn't discovered until the following morning the cops were called and they look around and the museum and the cops together conclude that nothing seems to have been stolen wait what yeah they went looking for the things that they knew had a huge market value like Darwin's
00:31:48birds Darwin's birds the famous finches which were still safely cuddled in their drawer once again offered Wallace was second best to Darwin yeah I went through all that's to me was like one of the final blows to him is that if they had cared about Wallace as much
00:32:07as they should they would have gone and check 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
00:32:18as it happened it took them almost like it was well over a month before they even found out that they were robbed thirty five days in fact the closed circuit surveillance cameras in the town of training reset after twenty eight days in a statement to us the museum
00:32:32said paraphrasing here that there's nothing more important than the security and welfare of the collection and after the th that they changed how the grant access to the collections and also beefed up their security measures the investigation it was only when someone wrote to the museum with a
00:32:59question about one of the species that a curator went to that cabinet open the drawer and saw that it was empty it was a huge blow the curators at the training are part of a long lineage caring for and protecting this collection during the blitz of London in
00:33:16World War two bombs raining down everywhere it was their predecessors who bundled up the museum's bird specimens and secretive them out of the city up to their new location in training that's why they're there said they'd be safe and now under the watch of collections manager Robert priest
00:33:33Jones this happened there is a missing junk from the record %HESITATION ending kit something not flame bothered it is a missing chunk that you know a really substantial possibly other half of the world's results of that species is now missing the whole thing was a complete kick in
00:33:51the guts it with desperately deeply depressing offer Wallace's birds survived Hitler but not Edwin rest the investigators didn't have a lot of obvious clues to go on there's almost no physical evidence but had the police or the museum looked in the visitor's log they would've found Edwin's full
00:34:16name which if someone had googled it they would have found Edwin wrist dot 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
00:34:31or the fly tying forms they would've found birds for sale from someone with the handle flute player nineteen eighty eight one of the post was titled Indian crow feathers for sale buying new flute if any of the buyers asked and we made up stories as to where the
00:34:46birds came from but mostly no one asked they didn't want to now the way and when 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
00:35:01it might have come from the training and the guy traced it back to flute player nineteen eighty eight on eBay it took some doing but the police finally tracked it went down and showed up at his apartment with a warrant one year after the break in he confessed
00:35:15immediately brought the officers into his bedroom where his girlfriend was still sleeping and showed them the birds since you can fast and pled guilty case went right to sentencing Edwin was looking at ten years for burglary and fourteen years for selling stolen goods but during the sentencing process
00:35:34Edwin's lawyers brought in a psychologist who diagnosed him with Asperger's syndrome that changed everything a judge in his statement said that it went crime holy merited a lengthy prison sentence he said the crime amounted to quote a natural history disaster of world proportions but he said because of
00:35:52the diagnosis and a legal precedent in the U. K. involving Asperger's a long prison sentence would probably be overturned on appeal so we sent instead went to one year suspended there is a financial penalty to but no time behind bars of the two hundred ninety nine birds a
00:36:15third of them came back to the training on skates another third have been plucked at or dismantled or in some way compromised chiefly their bio data tax had been removed with the date and species and Alford Wallace's signature which meant those specimens were now useless to science and
00:36:33the 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 when Edwin was caught he pleaded his guilt which meant that the the investigation stopped and there was no search for them
00:36:49for anything else the museum wasn't looking for the British police was looking for it and I as I was starting to dig around in these forums and I would see occasions of guys cracking jokes about the heist and like that that wasn't like there was a a reformed
00:37:03community I was like this is not like what like someone's gonna find these things 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 that when Justin
00:37:21seem like someone with Asperger's and after six of their eight hours together he told him so at one 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
00:37:37to be if I'm being honest I was pissed off like this is 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
00:37:58a lot of them were still missing then I took on a more serious you know valence that were suddenly I was like okay this isn't just like a funny thing like there's you can't go back and get another bird from eighteen sixty anymore that that birds gone what
00:38:17I meant 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 your via the anger level at this point like probably a approaching there
00:38:35on is now it's as if this is the case closed and no one is looking for these birds and I'm still on these forums scene people trading and selling things that looks suspiciously like Edwin's birds Edwin him the bunch away and was still selling them with someone else
00:38:55selling them Kerr could let it go many how to kind of break through became certain that he knew where all of the missing specimens were coming up goes and confronts his prime suspect and he learns that ornithologist can have serious potty mouths that's in a minute from Chicago
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00:40:14NA copyright two thousand eighteen Capital One what's in your wallet it's this American life I'm Sean Colin for IRA glass today show the feather highest the true story of one of the weirdest capers in recent history which is also a tragic loss to natural history and it's the
00:40:32story of Kirk Johnson he took it upon himself to re investigate the theft of two hundred ninety nine bird specimens from the train museum north of London Rorem six the suspect moreover Kirk of course estate when rest about the missing bird scans when they were together in Dusseldorf
00:40:53Edwin 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 of the training had
00:41:06given Kirk this document a meticulous accounting of what it come back to them and what was still unaccounted for and Kirk had it with him misses him reading it to add when in the hotel room I mean this is like a pretty thorough like this the number specimens
00:41:22missing July or nine in Texas was label without label approximate numbers resident represented by feathers and skin fragments and then a total estimate of concert consolidate I know this is weird this I said this doesn't seem haphazard and Edwin said no it doesn't seem haphazard I would agree
00:41:42it 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
00:41:58it parceled out over time and I 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 and I looked and I was like with your the one that took them and %HESITATION after kind
00:42:20of a long winded %HESITATION response he said I don't have them fundamentally is the word fundamentally yes now a number of it when customers return the feathers and bird parts and whole birds that they bought from him to the museum in some cases Edwin's dad reimburse them spending
00:42:37thousands of dollars the museum was now faced with the bizarre task of having to calculate how many feathers gold one red ruffed fruit crow in fact during all of that in the number of outstanding birds on the spreadsheet shrank down to sixty four Dennis Kirk waited through all
00:42:54of the past sales of birds online doing way back machine searches and stuff like that this sort of pattern started to emerge that seemed odd there was another user would clearly posted specimens that came from Edwin stash this different user name to Goku G. okay you either %HESITATION
00:43:11is Edwin under another name or someone who is working with him to sell the birds an accomplice I really did not know the answer for a long time but this go cool guys suddenly became like a big person of interest to me Kirk started mapping all of Edwin's
00:43:27closest associates in the fly tying world and he developed a short list as to who go who might be if it wasn't at one and then one day Kirk happen to be visiting with an ornithologist at Yale name direct problem one of the head curators at the Peabody
00:43:40museum macarthur genius a Guggenheim recipient and you walk in and he's just like dropping the F. bomb right and left I mean I love this guy and I wrote these notes because I was trying to get fish and Wildlife Service to bust these factors Rick prom had taken
00:43:57an enraged interest in the train case himself like Kirk here taking 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 you just as
00:44:12passionately the same band he worshipped in high school I mean did you get did you ever see restaurant defined as website at the day like when he was busted what was on his website his websites down then would you ever know what it I have I got his
00:44:28whole website screenshot if it and looking at winds website definitively narrowed the short list of who go who might be down to one guy that's okay one there right there long when long when another top notch fly tire was exactly at one stage their friends long when lives
00:44:51in Norway food so you have no idea hopeful that is this is why it is and Kirk had other evidence implicating along some Facebook exchanges Edwin saying did your box Orion pictures of the two of them on a trip to Japan after which all kinds of new birds
00:45:09were posted for sale buy coke not only that other members of the community were openly accusing long of working with and when telling and we know it's you your days are numbered now Edwin has insisted all along that long was not involved in the hive he's defended long
00:45:25against accusations on the internet any told Kirk that long was not involved in any put Kirk in touch with long and long the only other person Kirk new love clearly seem to be selling the Stillman birds agreed to talk X. seven Oslo Kirk thought maybe long had been
00:45:52at the museum with that with that there's always a question as to how and when pulled this off on his own maybe long had put him up to in the first place depiction ending wealthy and manipulative using and when as a pawn in the cracks plane landed in
00:46:05Oslo he was just about jumping out of his skin and 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 use a teenage looking twenty something with a big smile and Chuck Taylors
00:46:18I had Raqi Leslie 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 you know find some partially exposed winning under the couch or something and %HESITATION like a box of dead birds would
00:46:41come tumbling out of okay yeah when he was trying to reach for some sugar packets or something %HESITATION so we walk into the apartment and out of the corner of my eye there's like this green flash Jews bombing towards my face and it it's his parrot that just
00:46:57was loose in the apartment and and flipped over and and landed on my shoulder and and and spent most of the think that was like a seven hour interview the first day %HESITATION sh sh and it was it like an uncomfortable interviewer I mean I'm learning all of
00:47:16these things about his life but also confronting him with stuff and his bird is meanwhile like kind of nibbling on my ear lobes and I'm not being like a jerk %HESITATION like I feel worse for you all these questions but I'm now that those are questions died in
00:47:35something else happened when Kirk walked into the apartment all notions of long being the rich conniving mastermind of the train heist fell away long was from a family of Vietnamese refugees who had fled the war to Norway in the seventies he started tying flies in a boys home
00:47:49when he was a kid basically is an escape because the things where it's all done in our family I'm in yeah I don't think about that now because it's like house but %HESITATION thanks very bad %HESITATION we have to do our best to just go through it with
00:48:10the %HESITATION parents %HESITATION being in Vietnam and all that and that after the war and stuff in long city never really had what he called true friends around that same time after it started tying flies he was reading about other fly tires online any heard about this one
00:48:27kid in America who is exactly his age I think us start caring about at the end when I was fifteen or sixteen because he was really a %HESITATION fame inspect them long looked up to add when they met online first just writing back and forth that a ton
00:48:45in common so they decided to me 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 had been caught yet and you know he's telling me that Edwin reached out
00:48:59to him to ask him to help sell these things but just as a friend he said Hey I've 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 gonna help Edwin make
00:49:16enough money to buy his new flute Danny also felt really flattered and honored that Edwin wrist was paying attention to him one told Kerr he mostly just reposted some of Edwin's ads including pictures of birds but it is true that Edwin sent him a bunch of resorted packets
00:49:38of feathers and three or four hole bird scans to sell them long did sell some of them long says he didn't know any of it was stolen at the time which Edwin confirms and when made up stories about where the birds came from and long never stop to
00:49:51think how impossible 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 my assumption is just like he wanted to
00:50:08erase his traces but the traces all older there so I I don't know why he's using you as a friend like has these here like it's not it's not a nice thing now it's it's absolutely not I'm not have like at tufts like decision about how to deal
00:50:27this friendship at that time I think went when he get exposed %HESITATION I was really shocked %HESITATION I was frozen from the forum because people there assume that I was the one responsible for and everything and I was like %HESITATION considering if I should turn my back because
00:50:50it's reasonable for me to to erase this friendship %HESITATION you know like %HESITATION you can do these two friends it made me really upset with Edwin I don't know how you look at this chain of events %HESITATION and see them as equals %HESITATION I don't know how you
00:51:13look at the chain of events and see this as anything other than and when using him as a fence to tension Lee take the fall for and if things can you know Harry sitting with long ultimately turns to the question of where the missing birds were that instead
00:51:37of just asking him out right used in to the subject with that kind of Colombo just one more question gentle persistence meanwhile long sometimes sounded like a disgrace to banker at a congressional hearing singing couldn't remember things that seem basic for instance Kirk asked him whether the customers
00:51:54paid Edwin directly or if long it handled any of the money and I don't remember if I received the money or if the money went to him but you are never right I mean I'm not gonna be an **** we can't remember if people think these things are
00:52:09selling for thousands of dollars like yeah like you don't you think you would remember I don't think I saw things for thousands of dollars %HESITATION what I remember most is %HESITATION selling small amounts like %HESITATION packages of feathers I want to be rude but like this yeah another
00:52:29point where I'm like I'm really just yeah I I understand because I spent like four years to try to forget all this yeah yeah so what are you doing like try to being up all in the surface %HESITATION saw that the details is quite an care to my
00:52:43myself because I I trying to close this case yeah Kirk thought to himself you and me both buddy there are still a lot of skin are missing now like a lot now and I don't have in the skins many people would probably think that I possess those against
00:53:05why because I was so close to related to advance that would be a natural thing to assume it would be very logical like yeah reasonable for them to think that now yeah so I guess that's what I'm saying yeah if that's not true then a now how can
00:53:28we prove that that's not true I can I can prove it you can't you can't can't where do you think that the question be is where are they I don't know how is that possible how do you know I know like you know like I mean you and
00:53:44I I know what to add like I don't know where because tiny part was sold through me like you can't like Oscar for a receipt for me not not not having scans %HESITATION cliff once apartment feeling bad for him but also frustrated it still seems like maybe he
00:54:12was holding something back and he didn't know if he would ever see long again then the next morning long was waiting for Kirk in the lobby of his hotel he told her he had been thinking and decided to quit time flies with exotic bird feathers he was afraid
00:54:27though that he lose the few friends he still had he said the only like him because he tied beautiful flies Kirk and long spent the next two days hanging out they walked around the city together mostly sites in the one point they met up on the steps of
00:54:40the National Gallery or monks painting the scream was stolen in nineteen ninety four by thieves who broke through a window and I just decided like screw it I'm just gonna I'm gonna just do one more attack on his defenses here and see if I can get him to
00:54:58admit anything hired for like two separate people that like in the last year you've told them that you have so much Indian crow and you don't you don't have any need for it and and so like what am I supposed to do with that like when I it
00:55:17you do whatever you but is it true yeah that you have a lot of Indian crow no I have like %HESITATION to have a have you still have some of the packages %HESITATION the ones I was so okay %HESITATION long kept those packages he was supposed to sell
00:55:36for himself after and when was arrested he sent back the bird skins but he kept the feathers and I suddenly I was like okay like this is now we're getting somewhere like how many and he was just miserable under this line of questioning of but he finally estimated
00:55:53that he had between six and eight hundred of these feathers from from Edwin by eight hundred is a lot of factors yeah I know 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
00:56:08he had been tying with ever since he was now down to about a hundred feathers Kirk says long also admitted that the number of birds Edwin sent him was more like ten or twenty rather than just a few we check this with long and refutes it in any
00:56:23case Kirk finally felt like he was closing in on what he can after obviously he had no real standing to be asking any of these questions are making demands he wasn't the police didn't work for the exam but he had been on this case so doggedly for so
00:56:43long as like long you know you have to show me these things right any kind of very quietly said yes then %HESITATION he started crying any sort of crime yeah and he you know he told me he's never told anyone about this that he'd not even his family
00:57:01knows about this like that that he's never admitted this to anyone and I saw someone who is really struggling with his actions and in a way that I hadn't seen with ed when you know that %HESITATION there was no we were no tears in the end to an
00:57:19interview you know I mean there was a kind of a you know he thought it was just as crazy as I did this whole story attitude you know so not only are you getting a better accounting there in in %HESITATION co involvement and the number of birds that
00:57:36were involved but also there's something else that you've been looking for which is like Russian yeah yeah cooking long took the train back to Long department were long dipped in and fetched his binder of feathers sort of like a stamp book with little pockets they brought it to
00:57:53a local bar ordered a couple of beers and opened up though so can I take pictures I want to ask you like the just like what's what kind of and four years after it first heard about the highest Kirk had them in his hands feathers that no one
00:58:08else knew about it and when rested stolen from the train museum it was the first time he had seen stolen train museum feathers in the wild fugitive feathers Kirk says holding that binder felt a straight line back to Wallace Wallace who wrote all living things were not made
00:58:24for man I got still well it's probably never pictured two guys poring over the detached feathers of his birds in a bar in suburban Oslo services like %HESITATION these are trying in this is it this is training this is not being okay this is trained and these are
00:58:41okay so there's like should talk just count only the train first and %HESITATION tell about every yeah that be great again one two three four five six ten I just remember very clearly having two thoughts one was six here they are I found them and how can you
00:59:01tell so quickly which will certainly with okay %HESITATION you're forty there forty one ten and at the same time recognizing just how pathetic it all was and how small it all was there weren't there wasn't a box of missing birds there were no labels these things I knew
00:59:22what happened there they're dressed locked harvested feathers from hundred fifty year old birds that will never be returned to their for if you can't retention to a bird you can't do anything with them and so who is this complicated moment where I was really kind of like for
00:59:44how did but also a little embarrassed because I was like this is not there's nothing really triumph and about this moment 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 long
01:00:10agreed it took a few months but he finally stuff the mall into an envelope with no return address Kirkland of two other full bird scans that definitively came from the training the buyer lives in South Africa and has no interest in sending back about twenty others belonging to
01:00:26a guy in Montreal like possible trying to be sold in already and say long sold ten more of them that would bring the total number of birds unaccounted for down to thirty two which means a there's just no way to find out what happened to all of them
01:00:41anymore and be Edwin is not the only fighter in the world who felt okay about knowingly owning stolen property anyone who bought anything from him should send it back to the museum in whatever shape it's in but what would come of them sending back parts of birds are
01:01:02feathers or whatever you know no scientific value I mean maybe in a you know someone will figure out down the line how to figure figure out which feather came from which bird but it would just be a a moral victory honestly a moral victory yeah I mean it's
01:01:19not there and I I am fully aware of that like they're not gonna be used but they don't belong to this to this community they belong to that museum and and the end of this should be everyone just return things that they know are stolen even if it's
01:01:35two feathers and they can walk around with their head a little bit higher and maybe it's just so stupid of me for suggesting this but if the choice is between them returning it and then getting to keep it that seems easy to me but Kirk finally decided to
01:01:50let go of this case you realize that he had become just as obsessive as Edwin about and as obsessive as well as 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
01:02:08wanted knowledge and win a lot of beautiful colors guest dollar signs and courage no 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 train was
01:02:24ready to accept any anonymous returns no questions asked said as much as I would personally like to know who might be in possession of any of the missing scans it is much more important that they be returned and I have included the museum's address below for anyone who
01:02:39is selling fine I don't mean to lecture and 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 training doesn't seem like the best
01:02:53way of coming to terms with it and then more than forty members of the fly tying community asked the moderator of the forum to delete her exposed and like so many other things in the story it disappeared %HESITATION Johnson wrote an excellent book about the museum heist which
01:03:19was the basis for the story that 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 %HESITATION our program is produced today by making me the people who helped make
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01:04:09Merion Bentley our website is this American life dot org we can listen to our archive of over six hundred episodes totally free this American life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX the public radio exchange support for this American life comes from log in is brewing company
01:04:24%HESITATION is a fine ales and as they say mystery and romance and committed to keeping the pub in public radio find out more at log %HESITATION need us dot com thanks as always to my boss Eric last you know I haven't seen in the park last weekend with
01:04:38his two dogs a labradoodle and a Pomeranian just the three of them walking along and he got really hostile when I approached them we're a small tight knit community and you do not want to piss us off I'm Chanchal iris back next week with more stories of this
01:04:53American life where the cold winter when the stone boom that's another podcast of this American life let's say you had a super power maybe the five would you fight crime work for world peace if I if I the first thing I would do is fly into the bar
01:05:19check out what's going on there fly back home to touch My Baby to me and fly to a doctor's appointment at eleven thirty but I think I fly with leading city super powers this week

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