This article originally appeared as part of the story Prop Master in the March 2019 issue.
While his brushes with Hollywood’s film history are interesting, Rob Feeney’s account of his involvement in the investigation of the missing pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939), which were stolen in 2005 from the Judy Garland Museum, Grand Rapids, elicits another level of interest.
Through his connection with Jon Miner (founder of the Judy Garland Museum), Feeney says he suggested a search of the Tioga Mine pit, which could reignite interest in the case. Rumor had it that the ruby slippers had been dumped in the pits after the theft.
A plan was put in place, and volunteer drivers for the Itasca County Sheriff’s Dive Team suited up for the dive.
Twin Cities news stations were contacted, but few indicated interest—at first, according to Feeney. Thankfully, a slow news day struck, and the dive scene ended up with about 10 media outlets in attendance. “We would have been happy with it being the top Minnesota story. That was our goal,” he says. The second day, it went national.
While the slippers weren’t located in the mine pit, it did clear up that rumor and pumped up the public’s interest in the case. Six weeks after the dive, Feeney says he received a call from a self-proclaimed Wizard of Oz fan from Arizona. The man was willing to put up $1 million for the return of the slippers, an explanation of how the caper was executed and the identity of the thieves.
Once the offer was legitimized, it was announced during a July 2015 press conference in Grand Rapids, says Feeney. Then the real fun began. “I’m in the hotel room, I kid you not, I’m watching CNN. My wife and daughter are in the next bed over. [The news crawl] comes on ‘One million dollar reward for ruby slippers.’ “I’m like, oh, my, god.” Now, the story’s gone international.
Feeney was inundated with calls. “Literally, for two months—non-stop calls,” he says, noting he was getting tips from all over the world. One day, a woman from Oklahoma rang up Feeney, claiming she found the ruby slippers at a garage sale, he recalls, adding, people would also claim that they stole them just to be a part of the story. “There were a lot of people calling me with tips. Fake tips. People making fake slippers to collect a reward, good information, journalists, stalkers, crazy psychics, from all over the world,” he says.
Fast forward—a tip came to the Grand Rapids Police Department, says Sergeant Robert Stein, and the ruby slippers were recovered in 2018. “Our investigator, Brian Mattson, investigated the lead,” he says, adding that the FBI is conducting its own investigation. “We don’t want to hinder their part of the investigation because it did go beyond state lines.”
While retrieving the ruby slippers was the ultimate goal, there hasn’t been an explanation of who stole them or how the crime unfolded—not exactly a complete Hollywood ending.
“…The truth will come out, but I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow,” Stein says. “The FBI is doing a great job trying to get more answers, and we’re doing what we can on our end, locally.” Once it does unfold, Stein suspects the complete story will be “stranger than fiction.”
Did You Know This? The pair of ruby slippers owned by the Judy Garland Museum is a mismatched pair with ruby slippers that are at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.