Rhys Thomas at first thought the call from the FBI was a joke. The author and documentary filmmaker listened to the phone message again and jotted down the return number. “Could this be a crank call?” he wondered. “Am I a person of interest in some investigation I know nothing about?”
But it was no joke. The FBI wanted him to come back to Minnesota. He wasn’t a person of interest, but he’s definitely an interesting person – more knowledgeable about the pair of stolen shoes the FBI had just recovered than anyone else in the country.
Calling the number in Minneapolis, he got FBI public affairs officer Michael Kulstad on the phone. “May I ask what this is about?” Thomas asked, still a bit wary.
“May we speak confidentially?” the FBI official asked.
“Yes,” Thomas replied.
“Mr. Thomas, this is about the ruby slippers.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. Thomas, the author of The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later, had written the definitive, and definitely wacky, history of what have been called “the Holy Grail of all Hollywood memorabilia”: the four pairs of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland known to have survived the 80 years since the making of The Wizard of Oz.
One of those pairs – known as The People’s Shoes – is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Another pair (the Witch’s Shoes) soon will become the centerpiece of the Film Academy’s Museum of Motion Pictures. Another pair (Dorothy’s Shoes) is privately owned, and the fourth, called the Traveling Shoes, now is in the hands of the FBI after having been stolen in 2005 while on loan to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, MN.
“We’d like to invite you to a press conference,” the FBI official told Thomas over the Labor Day weekend. “Do you think you could attend?”
“Can you tell me anything more about this?” Thomas asked. “What about the shoes?”
After a long pause, Kulstad said: “I can tell you that we have recovered the ruby slippers.”
Thomas booked a flight and was on hand to brief reporters about the history of the shoes four days later, when the FBI revealed to the world that the stolen slippers had been recovered. The news made international headlines. And now, three months later, Thomas’ 1989 The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later, has been updated and reissued
The book reveals for the first time that the FBI authenticated the stolen pair against the pair at the Smithsonian. It was the first time the two pairs had been together since the 1970 MGM auction. And in one of many odd quirks uncovered by Thomas, the Smithsonian’s pair and the stolen pair actually were mismatched twins: The right shoe of the Smithsonian pair matched the left shoe of the stolen pair and vice versa.
“The shoes never fail to surprise me,” Thomas told Deadline. “I didn’t even know the FBI was involved. But once I got there, the two FBI agents on the case were kind enough to give me a private briefing. It remains an ongoing investigation, and the FBI is keen to find the individuals who stole the shoes and attempted to extort the insurance company that had paid a claim on the shoes.
“Because of the notoriety, I estimate the stolen pair to be worth $5 million-$7 million,” he said. The last pair sold at auction – the Witches’ Shoes – were bought in 2012 for $2 million by Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Terry Semel, who then generously donated them to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.