Kirk Wallace Johnson was fly-fishing in the frothy waters of a New Mexico river when his guide told him a whopper of a tale he could hardly believe. Be forewarned, once you start the book that was born from this moment, you’ll be just as hooked as Johnson was.
“This whole story kind of grabbed me by the throat,” Johnson recalls. “I still sometimes can’t believe that it really happened and that I was lucky enough to be able to write about it.” Speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, the likable, earnest author is discussing his highly improbable true crime story, The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. The thief is flutist Edwin Rist, a talented young American with two great loves: music and the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying—creating elaborate artificial flies for use in fly-fishing.
One night in 2009, after performing at London’s Royal Academy of Music, the 20-year-old broke into one of the world’s largest ornithological collections, the Natural History Museum in Tring, England. For a fly tier like Rist, who lusted after exotic feathers, this museum was Fort Knox. He broke a window, climbed in and stuffed a suitcase full of 299 priceless and rare preserved bird specimens used for study and display. Some had been collected 150 years before by a contemporary of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace.
Unbelievably, the theft wasn’t discovered for more than a month, and Rist wasn’t arrested until 507 days after his crime. What’s more, Rist never went to jail, receiving only a suspended sentence. Numerous specimens were never recovered; they were likely either sold on the black market or are still hidden somewhere.
“Part of what drove me into this madcap search was a sense that justice has been denied here, that [Rist] had gotten away with it,” Johnson admits. He spent years researching, interviewing and traveling to different countries, even creating what he calls a “ridiculously obsessive timeline” of Rist’s life. Johnson yearned for “some kind of dramatic moment where some suitcase would be opened up and I would find all of them—as improbable or naive as that is.”
The author certainly knows about justice, having founded a nonprofit in 2007 known as the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies and written To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind. “I still have these waves of guilt that I should only be doing refugee work,” Johnson says. “What an indulgence to go chase the feather thief around the world.”
Johnson discovered that Rist was something of a Victorian fly-tying savant, having fallen in love with the art at age 11, and by 2005 he and his younger brother were being hailed as “the future of fly-tying” by the editor of Fly Tyer magazine. Rist won numerous fly-tying competitions but wasn’t himself a fisherman. While many other fly tiers do not use expensive or exotic feathers, Rist’s particular type of fly-tying is an intricate art form that focuses on “a cult-like attention to detail” and the worship of expensive, often rare feathers.
“He would always just stay one step ahead of everyone else. Until he didn’t.”
“The vast majority of these guys not only don’t fish with them, they don’t even know how to fish with them,” Johnson explains. “It is just an aesthetic pursuit and obsession. One of the many absurdities in this whole story is that the salmon don’t know the difference. There’s no earthly reason why a salmon in Scotland should be attracted to a king bird-of-paradise feather from New Guinea. It doesn’t make any sense—they’re never going to meet.”
Even to this day, Johnson is still “a little shocked” that Rist went through with it. After visiting the Tring museum during normal hours, Rist first created a computer document titled “Plan for Museum Invasion.” At the time of the theft, he was hoping to buy a $20,000 golden flute. His history with the fly-tying community gave him the means to connect with potential buyers for the valuable exotic feathers. “The number of mental fail-safes that just malfunctioned here, where he would have talked himself out of this, is kind of staggering,” Johnson says.
As to why Rist succumbed to temptation, Johnson can only speculate: “I get the feeling that for most of his life Edwin has been the smartest person in the room. I think that he reasoned, How would anybody catch [me]? He would always just stay one step ahead of everyone else. Until he didn’t.”
Rist only received a veritable slap on the wrist with his suspended sentence, largely because the British court system believes he has Asperger’s syndrome. His reputation did suffer, yet he continues to work as a professional musician in Germany under a different name.
Surprisingly, Rist agreed to be interviewed for the book. In Düsseldorf, where Rist was living, he and Johnson talked for nearly eight hours, while Johnson’s wife manned several tape recorders.
“My wife, who is a lawyer by training, still asks this question: ‘Why on earth did he talk to you?’ ” Johnson says. “Because there really was no good to come of it. And there were moments in the interview when I could sense her lawyerly side kind of leaning forward to say, ‘Edwin, don’t answer.’ ”
But answer Rist did, steadfastly maintaining, “I am not a thief,” and claiming not to know the whereabouts of the still-missing bird skins.
The mystery of the missing specimens continues to haunt Johnson, who says, “Every now and then I’ll be at a red light, and I’ll be like, ah, does he still have 50 of these skins in his apartment?”
He adds, “My hope, to be honest, is that the book will summon others to the hunt.”
Photo credit Josee Cantin Johnson