76-year old pleads guilty to stealing 'Wizard of Oz' ruby red slippers

Man in wheelchair sits between two cars
Terry Jon Martin prepares to leave the federal courthouse in Duluth on Friday after pleading guilty to stealing a pair of Wizard of Oz ruby slippers from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minn. in 2005.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The 76-year-old man charged with stealing a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the film “The Wizard of Oz” changed his plea to guilty at the federal courthouse in Duluth on Friday morning.

Terry Jon Martin said he believed the slippers were actually made of real rubies and then dumped them when he discovered they were not.

He admitted to using a small sledgehammer to break through the glass door into the Judy Garland museum in Grand Rapids, Minn., in 2005. He then used it to break a plexiglass case and stole the shoes. The slippers were on display in the actress’ hometown, on loan from a private Hollywood collector.

Plea deal

The FBI recovered the slippers in 2018, but no one was charged in the heist until earlier this year, when Martin was charged with one felony count of theft of major artwork.

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Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz accepted Martin’s guilty plea after asking him a long series of questions to determine he was mentally competent and understood the consequences of a guilty plea.

Martin entered the courthouse in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, wearing a flannel shirt and a mask. His attorney, Dane DeKrey, said he has advanced COPD and is in hospice care.

“So I think he wanted to take responsibility and move on with his life, what little life he has left,” DeKrey said. “A trial hanging over your head, or doing these things while you’re also trying to get your end of life affairs together, just didn’t seem like something that was worthwhile to him.”

"The Wizard of Oz" Ruby Red Slippers Viewing
The FBI recovered the slippers in 2018, but no one was charged in the heist until earlier this year, when Martin was charged with one felony count of theft of major artwork.
Bob Collins | MPR News 2011

Federal prosecutors agreed to a plea deal with Martin. The details of that agreement haven’t been made public, but after the hearing, DeKrey said “the linchpin for Terry [Martin] was a sentence recommendation where he doesn’t serve any time in prison, given his advanced age and health problems.”

DeKrey said that’s only a recommendation. After a probation officer conducts an investigation and issues a report, Schiltz could sentence Martin to anywhere from zero to 10 years in prison at a hearing sometime in the next three months, which the judge agreed to hold on an expedited basis.

But DeKrey said he wasn’t even sure if Martin would make it to that hearing.

“I don’t know what to expect with where we will be. So even with an expedited schedule, with his condition, I’m not exactly sure if we’re going to get there.”

A pair worth several million dollars

The famous pair of ruby slippers that Martin swiped from the Judy Garland museum were worn by Garland’s character Dorothy in the iconic film as she clicked her heels and repeated “there’s no place like home.”

At the time of the theft, the slippers were ensured for $1 million, although the FBI says the market value is now considered $3.5 million.

But during his plea hearing, Martin told the judge he never attempted to collect an insurance reward for the slippers. He said after hiding the shoes in a trailer near his home outside Grand Rapids, he took them to a “jewelry fence,” who told him the shoes were made of glass.

Martin, who apparently believed the shoes were made with real gems, said after that, he “didn’t want anything else to do with them,” and left them with the fence.

“That is just crazy,” said John Kelsch, executive director of the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, outside the courthouse after the hearing.

Person in red stands outside
John Kelsch, executive director of the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minn., outside the federal courthouse in Duluth on Friday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

“I mean, it’s been known since 1939, that they’re just costume jewelry. They’re just glass. And to think that they stole them for the value of the rubies. That’s not where the value is. It’s a cultural treasure.”

After Martin stole the slippers, they disappeared for more than a decade, despite reward offers that grew to $1 million for any information on their location.

Leads took investigators around the country. In 2011, law enforcement searched the San Diego home of a man who claimed to have the slippers but ultimately was hiding the wrong pair. Four years later volunteers dove into the Tioga Mine Pit in Itasca County looking for the slippers, but came up empty.

Then, in 2017, the FBI said that the Markel Corp., which owns the slippers, was contacted in an apparent extortion scheme. Police in Grand Rapids asked for the FBI’s help and conducted a sting operation to recover the slippers, which have serial numbers and Garland’s name scrawled on the inside.

They are one of four pairs remaining and are considered among the most recognizable memorabilia in American film history. The others are held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Museum of American History and a private collector.

‘Fast and loose life’

Kelsch, the museum director, said while the guilty plea brought some closure to the ordeal, he said it was disappointing that someone who lived 12 miles south of the museum would steal such a treasured part of Grand Rapids’ heritage.

Federal court proceedings show Martin was convicted of five different felonies in the 1960s and 1970s in Minnesota and Iowa on assault, robbery and burglary charges. He was also convicted of robbing a drug store in the Twin Cities in the 1980s. 

“He’s lived a fast and loose life,” his attorney DeKrey said on the courthouse steps after the hearing. “And I think he’s OK with what’s happening now. I think he’s at peace with it, frankly.”

“I understand that there needs to be justice,” DeKrey added. “But the Terry that I know and met is not whoever Terry was when he used that little sledgehammer to break into the Judy Garland Museum.”