The Curious Case of the Fly-Fishing Feather Thief
In an excerpt from Kirk Wallace Johnson's new book 'The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century,' Edwin Rist, a 20-year-old champion flytier, pulls off a very strange burglary at the British Museum of Natural History.
By the time Edwin Rist stepped off the train onto the platform at Tring, 40 miles north of London, it was already quite late. The residents of the sleepy town had finished their suppers; the little ones were in bed. As he began the long walk into town, the Midland line glided off into darkness.
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A few hours earlier Edwin had performed in the Royal Academy of Music’s “London Soundscapes,” a celebration of Haydn, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Before the concert, he’d packed a pair of latex gloves, a miniature LED flashlight, a wire cutter, and a diamond-blade glass cutter in a large rolling suitcase, and stowed it in his concert hall locker. He bore a passing resemblance to a lanky Pete Townshend: intense eyes, prominent nose, and a mop of hair, although instead of shredding a Fender, Edwin played the flute.
There was a new moon that evening, making the already-gloomy stretch of road even darker. For nearly an hour, he dragged his suitcase through the mud and gravel skirting the road, under gnarly old trees strangled with ivy. Turlhanger’s Wood slept to the north, Chestnut Wood to the south, fallow fields and the occasional copse in between.
A car blasted by, its headlights blinding. Adrenaline coursing, he knew he was getting close.
The entrance to the market town of Tring is guarded by a 16th-century pub called the Robin Hood. A few roads beyond, nestled between the old Tring Brewery and an HSBC branch, lies the entrance to Public Footpath 37. Known to locals as Bank Alley, the footpath isn’t more than eight feet wide and is framed by seven-foot-high brick walls.
Edwin slipped into the alley, into total darkness. He groped his way along until he was standing directly behind the building he’d spent months casing.
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All that separated him from it was the wall. Capped with three rusted strands of barbed wire, it might have thwarted his plans were it not for the wire cutter. After clearing an opening, he lifted the suitcase to the ledge, hoisted himself up, and glanced anxiously about. No sign of the guard. There was a space of several feet between his perch on the wall and the building’s nearest window, forming a small ravine. If he fell, he could injure himself—or worse, make a clamor that would summon security. But he’d known this part wouldn’t be easy.
Crouched on top of the wall, he reached toward the window with the glass cutter and began to grind it along the pane. Cutting glass was harder than he had anticipated, though, and as he struggled to carve an opening, the glass cutter slipped from his hand and fell into the ravine. His mind raced. Was this a sign? He was thinking about bailing on the whole crazy scheme when that voice, the one that had urged him onward these past months, shouted Wait a minute! You can’t give up now. You’ve come all this way!
He crawled back down and picked up a rock. Steadying himself atop the wall, he peered around in search of guards before bashing the window out, wedging his suitcase through the shard-strewn opening, and climbing into the British Natural History Museum.
Unaware that he had just tripped an alarm, Edwin pulled out the LED light, which cast a faint glow in front of him as he made his way down the hallways toward the vault, just as he’d rehearsed in his mind.
He wheeled his suitcase quietly through corridor after corridor, drawing ever closer to the most beautiful things he had ever seen. If he pulled this off, they would bring him fame, wealth, and prestige. They would solve his problems. He deserved them.
He entered the vault, its hundreds of large white steel cabinets standing in rows like sentries, and got to work. He pulled out the first drawer, catching a waft of mothballs. Quivering beneath his fingertips were a dozen Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, gathered by naturalists and biologists over hundreds of years from the forests and jungles of South America and fastidiously preserved by generations of curators for the benefit of future research. Their coppery orange feathers glimmered despite the faint light. Each bird, maybe a foot and a half from beak to tail, lay on its back in funerary repose, eye sockets filled with cotton, feet folded close against the body. Tied around their legs were specimen labels: faded, handwritten records of the date, altitude, latitude, and longitude of their capture, along with other vital details.
He unzipped the suitcase and began filling it with the birds, emptying one drawer after another. The occidentalis subspecies that he snatched by the handful had been gathered a century earlier from the Quindío Andes region of western Colombia. He didn’t know exactly how many he’d be able to fit into his suitcase, but he managed forty-seven of the museum’s 48 male specimens before wheeling his bag on to the next cabinet.
Down in the security office, the guard hadn’t yet noticed the alarm, which was triggered in another section of the museum.
Edwin opened the next cabinet to reveal dozens of Resplendent Quetzal skins gathered in the 1880s from the Chiriquí cloud forests of western Panama, a species now threatened by widespread deforestation and protected by international treaties. At nearly four feet in length, the birds were particularly difficult to stuff into his suitcase, but he maneuvered thirty-nine of them inside by gently curling their sweeping tails into tight coils.
Moving down the corridor, he swung open the doors of another cabinet, this one housing subspecies of the Cotinga birds of South and Central America. He swiped 14 100-year-old skins of the Lovely Cotinga, a small turquoise bird with a reddish-purple breast endemic to Central America, before relieving the museum of 37 specimens of the Purple-Breasted Cotinga, 21 skins of the Spangled Cotinga, and another 10 skins of the endangered Banded Cotinga, of which as few as 250 mature individuals are estimated to be alive today.
The Galápagos island finches and mockingbirds gathered by Charles Darwin in 1835 during the voyage of the HMS Beagle—which had been instrumental in developing his theory of evolution through natural selection—were resting in nearby drawers. Among the museum’s most valuable holdings were skeletons and skins of extinct birds, including the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon, along with an elephant-folio edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Overall, the Tring houses one of the world’s largest collection of ornithological specimens: 750,000 bird skins, 15,000 skeletons, 17,000 birds preserved in spirit, 4,000 nests, and 400,000 sets of eggs, gathered over the centuries from the world’s most remote forests, mountainsides, jungles, and swamps.
But Edwin hadn’t broken into the museum for a drab-colored finch. He was there to gather the most exotic species in the world, to feed the insatiable demands of a cultish community of men who practice the art of Victorian salmon fly-tying. To them, only the finest feathers—often from species that are now protected—will do in their pursuit of the perfect fly, which must adhere to 150-year-old ‘recipes.’ Ever since he tied his first fly, a decade earlier, he’d shown a preternatural ability—to such an extent that he was hailed in Fly Tyer magazine as the “future of fly-tying.” The men in this community, scattered around the globe but bound by a shared obsession with rare plumes, were his friends, his mentors, and, soon, his customers.
He had lost track of how long he’d been in the vault when he finally wheeled his suitcase to a stop before a large cabinet. A small plaque indicated its contents: paradisaeidae. Thirty-seven King Birds of Paradise, swiped in seconds. Twenty-four Magnificent Riflebirds. Twelve Superb Birds of Paradise. Four Blue Birds of Paradise. Seventeen Flame Bowerbirds. These flawless specimens, gathered against almost impossible odds from virgin forests of the Malay Archipelago 150 years earlier, went into Edwin’s bag, their tags bearing the name of a self-taught naturalist whose breakthrough had given Darwin the scare of his life: alfred russel wallace.
The guard glanced at the CCTV feed, an array of shots of the parking lot and the museum campus. He began his round, pacing the hallways, checking the doors, scanning for anything awry.
Edwin had long since lost count of the number of birds that passed through his hands. He had originally planned to choose only the best of each species, but in the excitement of the plunder, he grabbed and stuffed until his suitcase could hold no more. It now held close about a million dollars’ worth of birds.
The guard stepped outside to begin a perimeter check, glancing up at the windows and beaming his flashlight on the section abutting the brick wall of Bank Alley.
Edwin stood before the broken window, now framed with shards of glass. So far everything had gone according to plan, with the exception of the missing glass cutter. All that remained was to climb back out of the window without slicing himself open, and melt into the anonymity of the street.
On June 24, 2009, the Natural History Museum’s security guard was halfway through his round when he noticed shards of glass near the base of the building. He scanned the area until his eyes settled on the smashed-out window overhead.
He hurried inside to inform the Tring’s curators that there seemed to have been a break-in.
The police arrived and began searching for evidence, examining the cabinets in the immediate vicinity of the broken window and scanning the ground outside. Asked for an estimate on when the window had been broken out, the security guard could suggest only a 12-hour period.
Mark Adams, the senior curator responsible for the museum’s bird skin collection, raced to the cabinets containing their most precious specimens.
On the museum’s staff since 1990, Adams had recently co-authored a journal article, “Extinct and Endangered Bird Collections: Managing the Risk,” noting that “damage and theft” were increasing concerns.
Now, with an active crime scene, Adams feared the worst as he nervously unlocked the cabinets containing the museum’s treasures: the Galápagos finches collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, skins and skeletons of extinct birds like the Dodo and the Auk, and collection of John James Audubon’s birds. The museum also owned an original bound edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, the most valuable book in the world.
Mercifully, nothing seemed to be missing.
All were puzzled about what the intruder had been after. The police mentioned that there had recently been a rash of smash-and-grabs around town by petty thieves looking for laptops and electronics, but after a search of the staff offices, nothing of value appeared to be missing.
A relieved consensus was forming. It appeared as though their culprit had poked his head in, looked around, and finding nothing of obvious value, left empty-handed. He’d have become a rich man if he’d known how much Darwin’s finches might fetch on the black market, or that Birds of America had recently sold for $11.5 million at auction.
And so no systematic audit of the Tring’s collection was ordered. Even if it had been, with hundreds of thousands of specimens and a small staff, a complete audit would take weeks.
A brief police report was written up, and the case of the broken window was considered closed.
The thrill of Edwin’s successful heist was fleeting. He couldn’t brag about it to his friends, his girlfriend, or his brother, who shared his love of fly-tying. He couldn’t leave the birds out in the open in his apartment. He now had one of the greatest private collections of birds in the world, but he had to keep it a secret—or, eventually, come up with lies about where he had found the specimens.
In the days that followed, he was consumed with paranoia and guilt. When the buzzer on his front door rang unexpectedly, a bolt of fear shot through him. He started sensing that people were following him when he walked through his neighborhood. Were the police already on his trail? What had they found that linked him to the crime? Even the ring of his telephone startled him.
He considered taking them back, or leaving them on a random street corner and calling the police with an anonymous tip. But why go to such lengths to take the birds, just to return them a few days later?
Once his nerves calmed, he carefully placed each specimen on his desk, unfurling the two-foot-long tails of the Resplendent Quetzals and gingerly cradling the King Birds of Paradise as their iridescent jade disc-plumes wobbled back and forth. He opened up a blank file on his computer and made a tally. He was astounded by the numbers. Had he really grabbed forty- seven Indian Crow skins? Thirty-seven King Birds of Paradise? Thirty-nine Resplendent Quetzals?
Edwin now had an unrivaled supply of product in a marketplace not dissimilar from the drug trade—crowded with self-professed feather addicts, white- and blue-collar, young and old, near and far.
Using tweezers, he began the first harvest, plucking the rich orange feathers from the breastplate of an Indian Crow. When he was younger, his dad had shelled out $2,500 for a full Indian Crow skin from a collector on his deathbed in New Jersey—beating the line of eager fly-tiers waiting at the door—but Edwin had never been able to bring himself to pluck all the feathers. Now, with 47 of them on the desk before him, he had no qualms tweezing the bounty from the bird. Before long he had a pile of bagged feathers. With only six feathers not much larger than a pinkie fingernail, a single baggie might fetch a hundred dollars.
With his departure for summer break imminent, Edwin packed the birds and packets of feathers into a large cardboard box, carefully scattered mothballs inside to protect his collection from insects, and stowed it his closet, which he secured with an additional lock. Everything was ready for distribution when he returned. So long as he snipped the tags from the skins before sending them off, no one would ever connect them to the Tring heist.
Over a month after the theft, on the morning of July 28, 2009, when Mark Adams showed up for work, he had no idea how bad his day was going to get. Responding to a research request, he walked down the fluorescent-lit hallway into the bird collection and opened up the cabinet containing the Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, or Indian Crows, just as he’d done countless times before. Only this time, the tray he pulled was empty.
Heart racing, he yanked out another tray. Empty. Another tray. Empty. All that remained was one skin, wedged out of sight in the back corner.
They rang the Hertfordshire police to inform them that the case of the broken window needed to be reopened.
Over the next couple of weeks, as thousands of trays were pulled, the devastated curators took stock of the loss: 299 birds from 16 different species. As their sweep continued, it became clear that whoever did this was after exotic birds with brightly-colored and iridescent plumage.
Who would steal a bunch of dead birds?
At first the question seemed almost comical to Detective Sergeant Adele Hopkin as she headed over to the museum. A single mother with shoulder-length brown hair and a warm yet no-bullshit demeanor, she had been on the force for nearly 20 years, making detective just a few years prior to the break-in. She worked plainclothes units. Did undercover work. Did her time on the drug squad and also worked the safe neighborhoods programs, protecting vulnerable residents from fraud and harassment.
Her investigation was already hampered by the length of time it had taken for the museum to realize it had been burgled. Whoever did this had quite the head start: had it not been for the research request, it’s unclear how much more time might have elapsed before anyone noticed something was missing, given the enormous size of the collection.
CCTV surveillance footage was held for 28 days. It had been 34 days since the break-in. As discouraging as this was, Adele doubted that the footage would’ve solved the crime for them. Tring wasn’t a heavily monitored town, and she knew there weren’t any cameras on the stretch of road between the town and the train station: “It’s about four miles of nothing,” she said.
The thief’s motive wasn’t clear, nor were his methods. Had the birds been taken all in a single night or over several months or even years? After all, it had been more than a decade since the last full inventory of the collection. Was it a single perpetrator or more than one? Did they arrive by car or on foot? Could it have been the work of a crime syndicate? For years, a network known variously as the Irish Travellers, the Rathkeale Rovers, or the Dead Zoo Gang had been involved in a series of thefts of rhino horn and Chinese jade from museums across the globe, including in the UK.
Initially, Adele wondered if it was an inside job, someone sticking the precious specimens down their trousers, a couple of skins at a time, but she quickly ruled out the possibility. Interviews with the museum’s staff revealed how crushed they were by the theft.
She asked the museum to point out the window that had been broken. The beat policeman had inspected it back when it was first reported, but she wanted to take another look.
It was about six feet off the ground. A tall enough person could hoist himself in, she thought, but it wouldn’t be easy. Her eyes swept the area beneath the window and settled upon a gutter meant to catch bits of cladding and debris that might fall from the roof. Crouching down, amid the broken glass, she found a bit of a latex glove and a glass cutter. On one of the shards, she found a drop of blood. She bagged up the evidence her colleagues had missed and sent it off to the national forensics laboratory.
As the tally of missing skins mounted, so did the scale of the Tring staff’s sense of failure as custodians of natural history. Mark Adams was hit hard by the burglary; he saw himself as just one link in the centuries-long chain of curators entrusted with looking after the specimens, and they had failed. Many of these skins were already in museum cabinets before the word ‘scientist’ was even coined. Over hundreds of years, each advance—the discovery of the cell nucleus, viruses, natural selection, the concept of genetic inheritance, and the DNA revolution—ushered in new ways of examining the same bird: a researcher peering at a skin through a simple microscope in the early 19th century couldn’t have comprehended what would be revealed by mass spectrometers in the 20th or by nuclear magnetic resonance and high-performance liquid chromatography in the 21st.
When the collection was still in London, they’d survived bombardment by Zeppelins in the First World War and Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the Blitz, prompting wartime curators to evacuate them in unmarked lorries under cover of darkness to the museum in Tring.
Making the theft public would mean risking their reputation, but the museum’s directors reasoned that it was worth risking embarrassment to try to recover the skins. Plus, Adele needed leads. It would take a while to get forensics results from the national fingerprint database, and if there wasn’t a positive match to a known criminal, she wouldn’t have anything to go on. Their best hope was that a member of the public might come forward with information.
With Adele’s assistance, the museum drafted a press release announcing the theft. “This is a very unusual crime,” Adele’s supervisor, Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie, was quoted as saying. “We are appealing for anyone who may have seen any suspicious activity around the museum.”
If there was one specific moment when Edwin’s plans began to unravel, it was in late May 2010, at the Dutch Fly Fair outside the small city of Zwolle, an hour and a half east of Amsterdam.
The festival, convened every two years, was held in crisp white pagoda tents beneath Swedish, Dutch, and Icelandic flags that flapped over the shores of the Drontermeer Lake west of town. Massive salmon steaks were roasted on cedar planks over medieval coal baskets, and a pair of bagpipers announced the entrance of the king, who strutted about comically with a velvet robe and a scepter- shaped fishing rod.
In the main tent, where dozens of tiers from around the world convened to demonstrate their skills on an elevated stage, a Dutch construction engineer named Andy Boekholt was at work on a salmon fly, using hard-to-get feathers.
Also present was a man from Northern Ireland. “Irish,” two decades into a career in law enforcement, had operated undercover during the worst years of the Troubles, narrowly surviving multiple bombings and shootings. To keep sane in those dark times, he had taught himself to tie, starting with simple shrimp flies used to catch sea trout. Although he had recently begun to dabble in classic salmon flies and had come to Zwolle to see the masters in action, he didn’t share the community’s obsession with rare birds.
Irish wandered through the tent until he arrived at Boekholt’s booth. Next to the bespectacled Dutchman’s vise was an antique cabinet containing twenty slender trays, originally designed to store microscope slides. Boekholt pulled them out one by one, revealing hundreds of flies with thousands of dollars’ worth of rare feathers tied into them.
When Irish and Boekholt started talking about exotic feathers, the Dutchman couldn’t resist showing off one of his latest purchases, a flawless Cotinga skin. To Irish, it didn’t look like the birds that occasionally popped up on eBay after being pried out of a Victorian hat with outstretched wings and legs: its eye-sockets were stuffed with ancient-looking cotton, and the wings and feet were tied closely to the body.
Nearly a year earlier, he had seen reports about the Tring heist, so when he saw the Dutchman’s museum-grade skin, something fired in his mind, and his suspicions flared.
“Where’d you get this?” he asked casually.
“Some kid in England named Edwin Rist.”
When he got home, Irish logged onto ClassicFlyTying.com and began clicking through the items being sold on the Trading Floor. The night before the Dutch Fly Fair, a listing had gone up: “Flame Bowerbird male full skin for sale.” The post had already amassed 1,118 views. He discovered several other links to eBay listings of Birds of Paradise, in which forum members mentioned that the skins were located in England. Irish found that most of the auctions were posted by the same seller.
He rang the Hertfordshire Constabulary and provided them with the eBay username he suspected was linked to the heist. The message made its way to Adele, who petitioned the auction company for the name and address of the person holding the account “Fluteplayer 1988.”
The last online listing of Edwin’s feathers on ClassicFlyTying.com went up on November 11, 2010. “A Mix pack for sale” was posted, along with an image showing nine pairs of feathers neatly arranged on a dark canvas backdrop. Beneath each pair, the subspecies and available quantities were typed in a white bold font.
That night Edwin and his girlfriend went to bed on the earlier side—he had a rehearsal the following morning and wanted to be at his best. His dream of playing for the Berlin Philharmonic wasn’t far from reach: he would soon graduate with a degree from one of the world’s best conservatories, positioning him for auditions with the finest orchestras. He already had an invitation to audition with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He had just turned 22.
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Early in the morning of November 12, 2010, Adele and two of her colleagues drove down in a Vauxhall Astra to London, their GPS set for the address of Fluteplayer 1988. If she had had only his name, she would have been skeptical that Edwin, an American music student without any prior record, was involved. But she had his eBay records, which included listings of exotic birds and purchases of mothballs, Ziploc bags, and a diamond-blade glass cutter. She knew he’d visited the Tring. She was pretty certain she had her man.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Edwin’s doorbell rang. He was awake, trying not to disturb his sleeping girlfriend as he got ready for his rehearsal. At first he ignored it. He wasn’t expecting any packages and was a bit pressed for time. But now someone was banging on the door.
“Who is it?” he asked through the door.
“It’s the police,” Adele said. “Open the door.”
Five hundred and seven days after he broke into the Tring museum, Edwin opened the door, glanced at Adele, and asked, “Is something wrong?”
Want to read more? Pick up The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (Viking; $27). And join the Outside Beyond Books Club, where we’ll be talking about it with author Kirk Wallace Johnson.