Terry Jon Martin has waited two decades for the other shoe to drop. In 2005, he stole one of Hollywood’s most recognizable bits of memorabilia: a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. But the law didn’t catch up to him until 2023, when the septuagenarian was indicted. In new court filings, his defense attorney revealed Martin’s motive in the crime, an apparent confusion over exactly what made the iconic pumps sparkle so.
The tale begins in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 2005, when child actor turned collector Michael Shaw lent the shoes to that city’s Judy Garland Museum. That August, someone “entered the building through a window and broke into the small display case holding the slippers,” the Guardian reported at the time, but there were no suspects to be found.
“There’s not a whole lot of evidence,” the town’s police chief said, but in the years following, many suspected Shaw—who’d collected an $800,000 insurance settlement—of the theft. “Inside job! No question!,” actor Jerry Maren (at his death in 2018, the movie’s last surviving Munchkin) once said on the record.
Even a million dollar reward, offered up in 2015, wasn’t enough to bring the shoes to light. It wasn’t until 2018 that the slippers—one of four known pair from the film—were recovered, in an FBI sting operation. But even then, the thief remained unknown.
It wasn’t until last May that federal prosecutors in North Dakota named Martin as their suspect, indicting him with one count of theft of a major artwork. Martin, who lived 12 miles from the scene of the crime, told the Associated Press “I gotta go on trial. I don’t want to talk to you.”
He remained similarly tight-lipped in the months that followed, but agreed to a plea deal in October, the Department of Justice confirmed. But even then, many details of the crime remained a mystery.
That changed with a memo filed by Martin’s defense attorney, Dane DeKrey, and reported by the AP. According to the filing, Martin was a reformed former mobster who turned over a new leaf after his release from prison in 1996. But in 2005, an associate from his past life suggested to Martin that the shoes were covered in real rubies, making them a ripe target for theft—he could simply steal the shoes, pull off the gemstones, and sell them off piece by piece.
But just as alluring as the money was the thrill of it, DeKrey said. “At first, Terry declined the invitation to participate in the heist. But old habits die hard, and the thought of a ‘final score’ kept him up at night,” DeKrey wrote in the filing. “After much contemplation, Terry had a criminal relapse and decided to participate in the theft.”
According to DeKrey, Martin hadn’t ever seen The Wizard of Oz, and didn’t realize the notable nature of the shoes. So, after taking a hammer to the display case and hustling the shoes to a fence—who informed him the shoe’s sparkles were mere glass—he “got rid of the slippers less than two days after he took them.”
That means there’s still abundant mystery surrounding the shoes, even now, as their whereabouts between when Martin tossed them in 2005 and the FBI caught wind of them over a decade later remain unknown. In the intervening years, federal officials have declined to provide details on the sting operation that uncovered the slippers, or what led them to Martin.
“The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of North Dakota will have no additional comment or statements until sentencing has been completed,” the agency said when pressed for details, but perhaps more will soon be revealed. Martin, who at age 76 is in hospice care due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, is set to be sentenced on January 29.