'Wizard of Oz' Ruby Slipper Heist Tarnished the Judy Garland Museum's Reputation. Now It's Making a Comeback.

Janie Heitz, the museum’s executive director, tells Inside Edition Digital it was a shock someone from the community of under 10,000 people stole the slippers.

An elderly career criminal was sentenced last month in the theft of a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale in the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz." The sentencing served as the end of a years-long mystery that left many wondering, who would steal such a treasured piece of Hollywood history, and how did they pull it off? But for the people behind the museum from which the ruby slippers were stolen, it also served as concrete vindication that they had nothing to do with the heist after years of uncertainty that they could survive the pileup of misguided suspicion.

Dorothy's ruby slippers were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum, located in Garland's birthplace of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in the same year that they were loaned to the museum by their owner, Michael Shaw. The 2005 theft of the sequined candy apple red heels broke the hearts of legions of fans who hoped to one day see such a poignant symbol of their childhood in person and it launched an international investigation to find the shoes and whoever was responsible for stealing them. The ruby slippers were recovered in a sting operation in Minneapolis in 2018. And then last year, Terry Jon Martin, 76, pleaded guilty to stealing the shoes. 

Martin, a career criminal who lived just 12 miles from the museum, said it was his last big score after a life of crime. He is reportedly in his final days in hospice care and expected to die within the next few months. Last month, Martin was sentenced to just one year probation and ordered to pay $23,500 in restitution to the museum at $300 a month until he dies.

"When we found out that someone local was the person that did it, I think that was a little jolting," Janie Heitz, the museum’s executive director, tells Inside Edition Digital. "Just kind of sad that one of our neighbors (did it)."

Martin's arrest stunned many in the town of just 10,000, but it wasn't because of Martin's standing within the community, Heitz says. 

"We're a small town and It seems like a lot of people, most of the time in small towns, it's like everybody kind of knows everybody. But that was not the case. A lot of people didn't know who this person was. It was hard to find anybody that knew who it was,” she says. “Clearly, he was pretty laying low."

While the case is now closed, the museum is still recovering from the caper, Heitz says. 

“[The slippers] were here for three months,” she said. “The Judy Garland Museum has been around for a long time. We had really great collections at that time and great connections to people that had Judy Garland collections. Things were really going well. Then the slipper heist happened." 

"We looked back on our financials and it's just, things stopped," she continues. "Not that people stopped coming here, but just we didn't have the slippers to sort of help generate that extra traffic. So financially things got pretty tough, and ... there was bills we had to pay and things that needed to happen. And I think the reality of operating a museum in our rural community became real.”

The museum's reputation was also damaged because of the theft. 

“Our credibility in the industry was pretty much gone because of the ruby slipper stealing," she says. "So you kind of look back and it's like, imagine what could have been. It was the perfect time to sort of capitalize on that ruby slipper opportunity and other opportunities. And now a lot of those people that have those collections almost 20 years later are old and dying and can't travel. And so that is the part that kind of got taken away from the museum."

Rumors swirled through the museum world and small community about who could have been responsible for the heist. Many theorized that it mostly likely was someone on the inside of the museum and staffers including former executive director John Kelsch were forced to defend their good names. 

“I'm glad that they found the person that actually broke into the museum and stole the slippers. I think that part of it, there's some closure there for us on the who done it," Heitz says.

"When we spoke to the FBI agent, he said, ‘Oftentimes with these kind of cases, it is an inside job.’ ... and there was just a lot of rumors around here locally, and it really tarnished our reputation,” she says.

Martin, the man actually responsible for the heist, is remorseful for what the museum and its staffers went through in the wake of his actions, Martin's attorney Dane DeKrey tells Inside Edition Digital. His client, who has COPD and is reliant on oxygen, has only two months to live, DeKrey says. 

“After the hearing, the only thing he told me about the hearing was how bad he felt for what those people said. Because there's two victims who gave statements, the former director and the current director, and they're right,” DeKrey says. “The judge ordered $23,500 restitution. That's never going to make them whole. No amount of money makes them whole. You can't go back in time.

"That's the problem in this business," DeKrey continues. "When crimes happen, there's nothing in our society that we can do other than to say sorry, to punish people, and to try to monetarily compensate them. Here, they probably won't be satisfied with any of this, but this is a unique case. And so I'm still pleased with the result, but I do think both (Martin) and myself understand what he did to Grand Rapids is going to be probably the final stain on his conscience.”

Though the rumors swirled, Heitz says she and the museum staff took comfort in knowing that they all had nothing to do with it. But that confidence extended to the people in the community as well, and the news that the man responsible for the theft was a local rocked the museum. 

“For all these years, I don't think (former executive director) John (Kelsch) really ever thought it was a local or hoped it wasn't a local person. He thought it was some major collector,” she says. “If he lived in the area, he had to have driven by the museum to go to the grocery store. We're in the middle of town. There's no way you can get from one side of town to the other without driving by the museum... how could you do that and kept it secret for so many years? That part is just a little unsettling to me.”

Security has since been beefed up at the museum in the years since. Surveillance cameras stand to deter would-be thieves. The theft served as a wake-up call to the museum, Heitz says.

“I think there was just, everything was going to be fine. And we had a safe and we had a security, a bank, a local bank loaned us a huge safe that we could put the slippers in, and it sat there the whole summer. But the owner (of the museum) didn't want the staff of the museum or John to be handling them that much," she says. "So they stayed out of the safe on a pedestal…there's tons of things you could have changed, but it happened and there's nothing we can do about it at this point."

"We just have to be better going forward,” she says.

The pair of slippers was one of four from the legendary film that Garland wore. FBI agents were able to confirm that they had the right pair of slippers by matching a single sequin that had fallen off the shoes at the scene when they were stolen to the pair in Martin's possession. The FBI will return the slippers to their owner, Heitz says.

And now, the slippers, which were previously valued at $3.5 million, might be worth even more now because of the heist.

“I'm certainly not the expert on the value of items, but I believe I've heard that they are worth more now," Heitz says. "And that's coming from people in the industry [like] auction houses…I mean they're going to be worth more because of the intrigue of it." 

And moving forward, the Judy Garland Museum wants to capitalize on that intrigue as well. 

“I think this story is just part of our museum's history now, and we have to commemorate that and own up to our mistakes. But embrace, to be honest, publicity is publicity, whether it's good or bad,” Heitz says. “Unfortunately we'll always be known infamously of the museum of where the ruby slippers were stolen. We have to find that fine line of sharing that story, but also remembering that we are the Judy Garland Museum, and we're here just to share her life and legacy, which is very fascinating in and of itself.”

Related Stories