- Hue Jackson’s Hall of Fame Scammers: Edwin Rist - January 14, 2021
- Hue Jackson’s Hall of Fame Scammers: Gregor MacGregor - January 7, 2021
- The English: Are They Human? Case Study 17: Homemade Invisible Ink - December 17, 2020
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EDWIN RIST: FLAUTIST, FLYTIER, FELON?
DIED: Not yet!
We’ll begin today’s story with a short intro on Alfred Russel Wallace, the famed British naturalist. A contemporary of the illustrious Charles Darwin, Wallace, albeit an eccentric and a crackpot in many ways, was responsible for much of the early research on the theory of evolution. His travels across the globe, including to the Malay archipelago, where he studied birds of paradise, resulted in a wealth of information valuable to science in the mid to late nineteenth century, and he was able to bring home hundreds of specimens for preservation at the Natural History Museum in Britain. Wallace’s bird collection, found in the town of Tring, in Hertfordshire, is absolutely priceless – and, until recently, not especially well-guarded. And with that, we’ll bring in our protagonist.
How does a twenty-year-old man with no prior criminal record break into a museum and steal millions of dollars worth of bird feathers?
And more importantly, why?
Well, Edwin Rist is not your typical criminal.
Born into a middle-class family just outside of Albany, NY, Edwin was home-schooled growing up; a quiet, bookish kid, his real passion came in playing music – particularly, the flute. He had a lot of time to himself to explore his own hobbies and interests thanks to a flexible education schedule at home. Both his parents were journalists, and when Edwin was ten, in 1999, his father was doing some research for a story in an outdoors magazine about fly-fishing. For avid fishermen, a good fly is an essential piece of equipment – and when Edwin happened to stumble upon an instructional video for how to tie fishing flies using bird feathers, he was immediately hooked. Weirdly enough, most flytiers are not fishers themselves – they simply tie flies for the artistic and aesthetic aspect.
Flytying became an obsession for Edwin and his younger brother Anton – they spent their allowance money on feathers, hooks, and tools, and even took classes. Soon, the boys were entering competitions and attending conventions all over North America and Europe. As Edwin travelled and learned more and more, he began seeing fancier and fancier flies, using wilder and more exotic feathers – including some taken illegally from birds of paradise and other rare, and often endangered, animals. By using rare exotic feathers and following traditional Victorian practises from almost two centuries ago, young Edwin hoped to become the greatest tier of salmon flies in the world. His limitation, as always, remained in his financial constraints – with some feathers fetching thousands of dollars in online auctions, he didn’t have the money to make this dream happen, at first.
By the time Rist was 16, he was internationally regarded as a flytier – but despite his talent for lashing feathers, he still wanted to pursue a career in music. For even a middle-class family, this was an incredibly expensive proposition – but through hard work and determination, they made it happen. He was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music – and off he went to London.
While living in the UK, a French-Canadian flytying acquaintance, Luc Couturier, told him of the aforementioned Wallace birds of paradise collection out in Tring – and Edwin realized that the feathers could prove to be a financial windfall. By anonymously selling rare exotic bird feathers over the internet to members of the flytying community, he’d be able to make enough money to buy himself a new flute – an expensive, and highly useful, tool for his blossoming career as a classical musician. Not only that, but he’d be able to float his parents some cash, who were struggling as Labradoodle breeders back home in the Hudson Valley.
In 2009, Rist hatched his plan for stealing the birds; as the Wallace collection in Tring is housed in a separate portion of the museum that isn’t accessible to the general public, he first had to visit the museum posing as a photographer, taking pictures for a friend’s Ph.D project. He cased the joint, documenting the room layout, checking out security systems, looking at entries and exits, figuring out how to maximize his time.
Weeks later, on the night of June 23rd, he returned in the dead of night, ready to scale the side of the building, use a glass cutter to get in the window, and collect as many birds as possible. Making this scam ever-more hilarious, he dropped the glass cutter at some point in the heist, and resorted to using a rock, triggering an alarm in the museum. Inexplicably, security never came by – and Edwin had almost three hours to load up a suitcase with TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE BIRDS. Having spent so long, he missed his return train to London and had to wait on the isolated platform, with his heavy suitcase filled with contraband, for several hours – and yet, he didn’t attract any attention from passersby or law enforcement.
All the more shocking? The museum didn’t even notice the theft for over a month – the cops were called after seeing the broken window, but upon investigation, nothing seemed out of place whatsoever. Thirty-five days after the heist happened, a scientist went to go inspect a specimen, but was distraught to find the case empty. How one doesn’t notice almost 300 museum artefacts missing for that period of time, I will never understand.
Despite both robber and robbed acting comically inept in the entire process, it took police over a year to apprehend Rist. When an anonymous tip finally came from a flytier in the Netherlands that a bird skin he’d seen at a festival might have possibly been a Wallace specimen, the cops managed to connect the feathers to an eBay account – FlutePlayer1988. Edwin Rist was arrested and charged with burglary and money laundering. He was facing ten years in prison for the former and fourteen for the latter – some serious, serious time. What’s more is that he pleaded guilty to it.
And curiously enough, Rist did absolutely no jail time.
How’d he manage that? Well, as it turns out, with the help of a psychologist named Sir Simon Baron Cohen – yes, he’s Borat’s cousin! – Edwin’s lawyer successfully argued that his client had Asperger’s syndrome, and thus was unable to understand the gravity of his actions. He paid back about £125,000 of money made through bird skin and feather sales, while successfully graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, going on to a professional career as a flautist in Germany with various orchestras and ensembles. Just over a third of the missing birds have been recovered and re-homed, thanks to anonymous tips from across the world – but many of them are missing their tags containing key data, thus making the specimens ultimately useless for further scientific study.
Capping off Edwin’s incredible scam, Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of The Feather Thief, which covers this insane story in much greater depth, argues that the Asperger’s defense was also complete bullshit. He notes that in a six-hour in-person interview with Rist, he acted completely normally, having no issues with eye contact, social cues, or other such marked behaviour renowned for those typically identified as having the condition. What’s more, when Johnson called out Rist on his behaviour, he completely changed on a dime, all of a sudden acting much more withdrawn, rocking back and forth, and changing his voice affect dramatically.
At the end of the day, Edwin Rist is a free man, playing music, and going up on the wall of esteemed graduates of the Hue Jackson School of Scam Artistry.
Remember, folks – you heard it here first – directly from me! Unless the Feds are calling. In which case, you didn’t, and it was all Jimmy Haslam’s fault. Don’t forget to call 1-900-FAST-BUX now for exclusive access to my audio cassette scam lessons – just $29.95 a month, and $9.95 a minute for the phone call! Until next time – I’m Hue Jackson.