True crime story on feathers’ theft engrossing read
The Feather Thief By Kirk Wallace Johnson, Hutchinson, $38 .. .. ..
In June 2009 Edwin Rist made off with 299 stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring, England, at a conservative value of £1 million.
Rist was a 20-year-old American music student at the Royal Society of Music in London. His ambition was to play principal flautist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Edwin Rist was homeschooled as a young boy. When one day he saw a demonstration on television about fly tying he was instantly captivated and both music and fly tying became an obsession. Much later, when his parents were not forthcoming with money for a new flute, Rist had an idea. What better way of making money than to steal rare birds, dismantle them and sell to fellow fly tiers. After much careful planning this is exactly what he did.
The guard on duty at the time of the heist was too involved in a match on TV to look at his cameras. The window Rist broke and entered by was not noticed for nearly a month. The stolen birds were not noticed until a visiting curator requested a viewing. When the break-in was discovered the museum realised they had been rather remiss in their custodian duties and did not want publicity. There was no arrest.
For a while Rist was selling through eBay and made a considerable amount of money.
It was much later when a retired detective who had taken to trout fishing to alleviate his stress levels attended a fly tying symposium.
He asked where these rare feathers had come from. He was given Rist’s eBay address. Something clicked and he alerted the Herefordshire Constabulary. Rist’s apartment was searched. Boxes of skins and feathers in kliploc bags were enough evidence and DNA taken from blood found at the crime scene at the time was enough for a conviction.
This really is only the beginning of the story. The author, Kirk Wallace Johnston, previously involved with Iraq and the aftermath working with refugees and continually fighting with bureaucracy, had taken up trout fishing to cope with his stress. While making his flies he heard the story of Edwin Rist, now a sort of shady figure selling to people obsessed with fly tying and not even fishing.
He had no experience as a detective or catching criminals but he became fixated on Rist’s story and in the interest of science and justice determined to follow this story through and write the book.
This book is meticulously researched. Primitive societies have hunted rare birds to extinction. Last century the fashion industry was lambasted for their use of feathers and today Johnson has exposed another threat, unless carefully monitored, to bird life.
This is a true crime story. It is a story of absolute greed and how scruples can easily be put aside when you are neither the victim or the perpetrator, but benefit along the way.
If anybody had ever told me I would spend the greater part of three wet days with my head in a book about a crime involving fly tying and the antics, for want of a better word, I would not have believed them. The Feather Thief was compelling reading and when I reached the end I wanted to write to Kirk Wallace Johnston and say “good on you Kirk. In the name of justice and science you did what you could.”
This is a true crime story. It is a story of absolute greed and how scruples can easily be put aside.