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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Man who stole Judy Garland's ruby red slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz to be sentenced

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The man who admitted stealing what might be one of the world's most famous pair of shoes will be sentenced tomorrow. It was nearly 20 years ago that a Minnesota man swiped one of four remaining pairs of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland during the 1939 filming of "The Wizard Of Oz." Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio reports on new details that have emerged about the crime.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: It was August 28, 2005. John Kelsch will never forget that day he learned the slippers had been stolen. He's founding director of the Judy Garland Museum in the actor's home town of Grand Rapids, three hours north of Minneapolis. The slippers were on display there when he got an early morning call from a staff person.

JOHN KELSCH: And all she said was, they're gone. And I knew exactly what she meant.

KRAKER: Kelsch still serves as the curator at the museum, where he's worked for 36 years. He points out the carriage that Dorothy rode into the Emerald City in "The Wizard Of Oz," a dress Judy Garland tested for the film.

KELSCH: And here's the original case which bore the original ruby slippers when they were stolen. It was right in the center of the gallery with a plexiglass top, just like this.

KRAKER: Someone smashed a door window to enter the museum, then broke through the case to grab the slippers. All that remained was one tiny red sequin on the floor amidst shards of glass. And for more than a decade, there was no sign of the slippers. They had vanished. Brian Mattson is an investigator with the Grand Rapids Police Department.

BRIAN MATTSON: We've chased so many leads over the years, and even the ones that were false leads, you still have to track them down to show that they weren't legitimate.

KRAKER: Mattson says for years, he heard rumors that a local was involved.

MATTSON: We've heard they've been burned in a bonfire, thrown in the Mississippi River.

KRAKER: Divers even searched an abandoned mine pit. Finally, in 2018, police and the FBI recovered the slippers in a sting operation. But no one was arrested until last year, when a man named Terry Jon Martin, who lived just 12 miles south of the museum, was charged with the theft. Martin's attorney, Dane DeKrey, says his client lived a life of crime for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANE DEKREY: One of his convictions is for a fur coat heist in Minneapolis. You know, this is true-crime fodder.

KRAKER: DeKrey says Martin had put his past behind him until an old associate, allegedly someone with connections to the mob, contacted him about the slippers. After the robbery, DeKrey says Martin contacted a fence, someone who deals in stolen property.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEKREY: Terry's goal was to take off the gemstones, or the rubies, that were on top of the slippers, and he thought those were real. He was told by his associate they were real. And so he was hoping for this fence not to sell the slippers as this commemorative memorabilia, but simply to sell the jewels.

KRAKER: When Martin realized the rubies were just costume jewelry, DeKrey says he just gave them to the fence. He says Martin didn't understand the cultural value the slippers held.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEKREY: Because Terry had no clue about anything really related to Dorothy, Judy Garland, "The Wizard Of Oz," he thought that it had been a waste of time.

KRAKER: Martin is 76 now, in hospice care. DeKrey says he'll ask the judge not to sentence Martin to prison because he likely only has a few months to live. Judy Garland Museum curator John Kelsch says he's happy the slippers have been found. But he says the mystery endures because people will still want to know where the ruby slippers were for 12 long years.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dan Kraker