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On the Hunt for Hundreds of Rare Birds Stolen From a Museum

Writer Kirk Johnson accidentally becomes part of the search for the pilfered specimens in this excerpt from the “The Feather Thief."

No one appreciates a luxurious, ornate feather more than a birder. No one, except maybe a fly fisher. The fascinating, obsessive practice of tying high-end flies can consume not just individuals, but entire institutions. That's the crux of Kirk Wallace Johnson's true story about Edwin Rist, a young prodigy in both the orchestral and fly-tying communities whose greed got the best of him.

In 2009, the 20-year-old American stole into the British Natural History Museum at Tring, which contains almost 750,000 specimens representing about 95 percent of the world's bird species. He took off with millions of dollars in bird skins in what he claims was a single suitcase. Many of the scientific specimens he lifted were part of Alfred Russel Wallace's seminal birds-of-paradise collection.

After Rist was caught, he received a suspended sentence, and was ordered to pay a small portion of a £125,150 fine ($158,000 in 2011 dollars). Soon, a scramble ensued to recover the skins and feathers he'd sold online on fly-fishing forums. Johnson visited the museum—and its scientists, namely Robert Prys-Jones, head of birds, and Mark Adams, the senior curator responsible for the museum's bird collection—to figure out which birds were still lost in the world. Before long, he found himself becoming part of the story.

Excerpted from THE FEATHER THIEF by Kirk Wallace Johnson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by MJ + KJ, Inc.

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I

ntact, the Resplendent Quetzal is nearly four feet long, from beak to tail. In early press accounts of the theft, police had speculated that the birds might have filled up to six garbage bags. But Edwin's lawyer later claimed that a single suitcase was used.

“Have you ever thought about how he managed to get all these birds out logistically?” I asked.

“I’ve thought a huge amount,” exclaimed Prys-​­Jones, momentarily letting his emotions show before he caught himself and fell silent.

“We’ve got no evidence or knowledge of how he did it, other than what he told the police,” Adams said. The press officer shifted in her seat.

“But do you think he had an accomplice?”

“As you will be aware,” Prys-​­Jones volunteered, “Rist pleaded guilty. This meant there may not have been a level of investigation that might otherwise have been.”

In doing so, Edwin had, in effect, halted the search for the Tring’s missing skins. While the museum’s curators were relieved that a third of the birds had been recovered with their tags attached, they no longer had Adele to help them search for the skins that were still missing.

Or possibly missing.

What if McLain was right—that all the detectives in the world wouldn’t have found the missing skins because the Tring didn’t know how many birds were stolen in the first place? As we stood next to the destroyed birds that they’d been charged with protecting, I felt like a jerk asking, but I hadn’t come this far to leave without knowing the truth. I told them that some fly-​­tiers believed the Tring wasn’t missing any skins, that everything had been recovered the morning of Edwin’s arrest.

“They think any discrepancy in the numbers is due to poor record keeping . . . that you’re just making guesses,” I said, wincing as I added McLain’s suggestion that they “should ‘check in another drawer.’ ”

Prys-​­Jones glared at me as though I’d just slapped him in the face. “What knowledge does he have of Tring? Zilch!”

“Just shows that he doesn’t know how a collection runs,” Adams murmured.

At that, Prys-​­Jones handed me a spreadsheet he’d brought to the interview. It meticulously noted the exact number of skins gathered from Edwin’s apartment the morning of the arrest (174), the number of those with tags (102) and without (72), and the number of skins subsequently returned by mail (19).

“What if I can help you get the missing skins back?” I blurted out, surprising myself.

Adams gestured at the pile of Ziploc bags, filled with scientifically useless feathers, and told me that the birds would need to be recovered intact, with their tags attached.

As the press officer chimed in to say that my time was up, I realized how animated I’d grown during the interview, charged by the idea of reopening the investigation that had ended the morning of Edwin’s arrest. I smiled and said I would find it difficult to be as restrained as Prys-​­Jones and Adams were, had I been in their position.

“We’re British. We’re not American,” Prys-​­Jones said.

“But how does it make you feel that he never went to jail? That he still got a degree from the Royal Academy?”

“If he’d gone to jail, how would it materially alter the situation we now find ourselves in, scientifically?” he replied.

“Emotionally, wouldn’t it have been somewhat satisfying?”

“What is the wider interest in an individual’s emotional response?” Prys-Jones snapped. A silence hung before he conceded, “It’s a sense of complete desperation, because we are here to look after these research collections in perpetuity and to make them available. To find that a portion of them has been vandalized is depressing in the extreme.

“We will be doing work on this for decades to come,” he continued, “trying to work out what information we might be able to restore to some of the specimens. Not necessarily succeeding. There are decades of wasted time in this.”

He shook his head. “It’s completely senseless. A crime committed by people who are delusional and obsessed.”

As our meeting ended, Prys-​­Jones handed me a small stack of printouts, on the top of which were the museum’s press releases. Having already read them many times over, I folded them up and tucked them into my back pocket.

 

L

ater that night I dropped into the Akeman pub for a pint of Tring red ale. It tasted like a slurry of flat Diet Coke and even flatter beer. Across the street, just next to the police station, the town’s tourist office was filled with pamphlets touting local attractions and history, among them a card boasting that George Washington’s great-​ grandfather John had hailed from Tring: he’d left in 1656 on a trading voyage to Virginia but remained there after a shipwreck on the Potomac.

As I forced down the ale, I tried to reconcile the many claims I’d heard from the fly-​­tying community with what Dr. Prys-​­Jones and Adams had shown me. Fly-​­tiers had an obvious incentive to claim the Tring was just guessing at the number of birds Edwin stole: if there were no missing skins, there was no ongoing criminality, and the fallout from the Tring heist could be limited to one person—Edwin Rist.

The curators claimed that Edwin had been shown the list of birds during his interrogation and had admitted to its accuracy. The spreadsheet not only gave me confidence in the Tring’s numbers but also put the lie to the idea that Edwin was the one bad apple in the fly-​­tying community. Only nineteen birds had been mailed back to the museum by Edwin’s customers following news of the arrest, representing some 6 percent of the total number. How many were still floating around the community, their owners aware that they were in possession of stolen goods?

Before I went to the Tring, the only number I’d seen, in press accounts of the arrest, was that 191 skins had been recovered. According to the spreadsheet, two more skins had been returned by mail since then, bringing the number to 193. Since the total number of specimens stolen was 299, this left 106 skins for me to track down.

But what about the Ziploc bags full of loose feathers and fragments that had been recovered from Edwin’s apartment? In one article, I’d seen a police evidence photo displaying five Indian Crow breastplates alongside a Flame Bowerbird cape, sliced from the back of the bird. Edwin had severed the patches containing the most desirable feathers from the original skins, which had presumably been thrown away and were now in some landfill outside London. Surely that would bring down the number of missing skins?

Fortunately the Tring’s spreadsheet included a column indicating the “approx no. of specimens represented by feathers and skin fragments” for each species of bird. I pitied the curators for having to undertake such an assessment. No part of their training had prepared them to answer the questions now before them: How many feathers made up a Resplendent Quetzal? If they had two Bird of Paradise wings but no body, did that represent one specimen? After sifting through the Ziplocs, they concluded that the total number of skins still at large was sixty-​­four.

Having the spreadsheet was like possessing one half of a map that revealed the coast of an unknown country. The column delineating the number and species of birds still missing shimmered like the starting point of a trail that disappeared into the terra incognita of an ongoing crime.

My mind raced through all the obstacles to finding them. To identify Edwin’s customers, I’d need to figure out how to dig up the evidence of his sales on the forum that had been deleted. I’d need to somehow convince him to talk to me. I’d have to determine if he had worked alone or with an accomplice. I’d have to find a way to break through the wall of silence surrounding the Tring heist in the fly-​­tying community and earn enough trust for people to start sharing their secrets.

I distractedly paged through the sheaf of press releases that Prys-​Jones had given me, not expecting to find anything new. But at the bottom was a single sheet of paper with the heading “Information From Police from Interview with Edwin Rist.”

Immediately, the official story put forward by Edwin’s attorneys began to unravel. In the articles quoting their remarks to the court, they painted Edwin’s actions as impulsive and amateurish, claiming that he’d spent only a “couple of weeks” plotting it out. But the notes from the interrogation included a timeline of Edwin’s planning, reflecting that he’d first written to the museum under false pretenses in February 2008, fifteen full months before the theft. He admitted to having discussed his plot over Skype with a roommate three months before he first visited the museum to photograph the birds. In the month leading up to the burglary, he purchased the glass cutter and a box of mothballs. In the interrogation, he admitted to putting an extra lock on his door to protect the birds and to buying fifteen hundred Ziploc bags in order to sell feathers.

The second half of the document included a short list of individuals whom Edwin had named as customers, along with the prices he’d charged. Four buyers and nine birds were listed, for a total of $17,000 in sales. Conspicuously absent, however, were Edwin’s listings of Indian Crow feathers I’d seen on the ClassicFlyTying.com forum. If he hadn’t volunteered those during his interrogation, what else had he hidden? Who else had bought from him? Had the four named buyers returned the skins to Tring?

I don’t know if the museum meant to pass me the document, but it was the hardest evidence I had, opening up several new leads.

As I stepped back outside into the freezing air, my phone buzzed with a call from Detective Sergeant Adele Hopkin, agreeing to meet with me the next day. Exhilarated by my proximity to the scene of a crime I was now determined to solve, I turned up Public Footpath 37 in search of the spot where Edwin had climbed over the wall. The darkness was complete, and in the distance, the medieval bells of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church began to ring ghostlike through the cold air. The footpath’s brick walls amplified every shuffled footstep, and as I quickened my pace, the echoes galloped after me. I was surprised by my thumping heart, and when at last I arrived behind the Ornithology Building, I looked around, wide-eyed. Nobody would have seen him back here. Unless someone had been passing by, nobody would’ve heard the sound of a window breaking. And while a tall person could have scaled the wall, I sure would have wanted someone there to help out. I got on my tiptoes to look for the window, wondering how big a suitcase Edwin might have fit through it, but I couldn’t get a good view.

For a moment, I considered trying to hoist myself up but imagined how the conversation would go if the Tring’s security guard happened to be passing on the other side of the wall.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Douglas, Viking, 320 pages, $19.05. Buy it online at Book Depository.

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