Wizard of Oz slippers: How a small Minnesota town grappled with their theft
For more than a decade, the mystery of who stole the treasured Wizard of Oz ruby red slippers from Judy Garland's childhood home in 2005 consumed the town of Grand Rapids and spawned speculation.
Editor's note: This archival Vault story was first published Aug. 26, 2021, and describes the theft and return of the Wizard of Oz slippers, and the ongoing mystery about who stole the shoes. On May 17, 2023, authorities announced they had arrested and charged a Minnesota man, Terry Jon Martin, in the theft of the slippers.
GRAND RAPIDS, Minnesota — Situated among the dense woods of northern Minnesota, Grand Rapids is a small town of about 11,000, most famous for being the birthplace of beloved movie star Judy Garland (born Frances Ethel Gumm).
Grand Rapids also was home to one of the most notorious thefts in recent memory — and it happened right where Garland grew up.
In August 2005, a burglar snatched the pair of ruby slippers that Garland wore as Dorothy during the filming of 1939's "The Wizard of Oz." There are only four sparkly pairs from the set left in existence, and the stolen pair was housed at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, located where Garland herself lived as a child.
The theft drew national attention and news coverage, with spectators from far-flung places desperate to see the slippers returned home. Major news outlets have swarmed to cover the story, and there's even an eight-part podcast series about the crime.
Meanwhile, a replica pair of the ruby slippers was put on display in the Judy Garland Museum.
But the years ticked by with no sign of the slippers. Police leads dried up. The 10th anniversary of the theft came and went in 2015 — along with a $1 million reward for anyone who unearthed the famed shoes.
Until 2018, when the Grand Rapids Police Department received a tip that Chief Scott Johnson said was more credible than others they had received over the years.
“Our police department followed up on each and every lead that we received over the years,” he would eventually tell a crowd of reporters once the slippers were recovered. “Everything from, ‘They are nailed to a wall in a roadside diner in Missouri,’ to, ‘They're at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.’ (well, we know that; that’s another pair), to, ‘I was with my boyfriend when he threw them into a water-filled iron ore pit.’”
But it was that consequential lead received in 2018 that led the police department and the FBI out of Minnesota to investigate and eventually find the treasure. Using one of the alternate pairs used for filming, now housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the museum assisted authorities in authenticating the recovered pair.
When the FBI and Grand Rapids department called a news conference on Sept. 4, 2018 , to reveal the recovered slippers to the media and American public, they were vague on details, with it still being an active investigation. They did say that they found the slippers via an attempted extortion plot — but who was attempting to commit it, they didn’t say.
It was atypical for investigators to give the public even a view of the slippers with an active investigation still ongoing, FBI special agent Jill Sanborn told reporters that day. But she said the development was an “important milestone,” and the slippers are a piece of treasure to the public.
“Now, under the rainbow,” she said as she lifted the velvet cloth concealing the slippers, stored behind a glass case. In recordings of the news conference, they glistened as the sound of camera shutters filled the room.
But back in Grand Rapids, questions swirled. The mystery had consumed the small town for more than a decade, and as the hometown of the slipper-wearer herself, they wanted answers.
Jody Hane, a writer and researcher with the Itasca County Historical Society, told the Washington Post in 2019 that she and other staffers huddled around a live-stream of the news conference, eager to see this chapter come to a close. But with no named suspect or motive, there was no tidy conclusion for them.
"A press conference without facts," Hane reflected to the Post. "Well, that's odd."
Still, there’s a sense of relief from knowing the sparkling slippers aren’t abandoned at the bottom of some iron ore pit.
“You know, they're more than just a pair of shoes, these slippers,” Johnson said at the 2018 news conference. “They’re an enduring symbol of the power of belief.”