Friday, two weeks after his arrest was announced, Edwin Rist of Claverack pleaded guilty in an English courtroom to smashing a museum window with a brick and stealing 299 rare bird pelts, to sell their feathers to tiers of old-fashioned, fancy salmon flies.
Rist, 22, pleaded guilty to one count of burglarizing the Natural History Museum in Tring, England, in June 2009 and one count of money laundering, for selling some of the feathers to fly-tiers. Most skins have been returned, although some are still missing. Rist is due to be sentenced Jan. 14.
A student at the Royal Academy of Music, Rist is known among salmon fly tiers around the country for his skill in building the intricate, 19th century fly patterns, which sometimes require the feathers of birds that are now endangered or threatened. These flies, which can be as large as 7/0, are meant to be admired, not fished.
Rist’s lawyer admitted in the Hemel Hempstead magistrate’s court that Rist cased the museum by posing as a photographer to learn where the century-old cotingas, trogons and birds of paradise were kept, then returned weeks later after dark, broke in, filled a sack with treasures of natural history and, having missed the last train back to London, spent what must have been a very nervous night in the station waiting for the first morning train.
Prosecutor Jan Brooks told the court Rist may have already made $30,000 in sales, and the total haul of feathers could be worth “millions of pounds” on the exotic fly-tying materials market, according to the Daily Mail. His lawyer said Rist was trying to raise money to buy a new flute.
“Not only was he moved by his obsession of fly-tying, he did start to have fantasies, quite extremely childish fantasies, about how he might burgle the museum, equipment he might use and the clothing he might wear,” attorney Andrew Harman said, according to the Mail.
“This festered in his mind for a couple of weeks and it came from his fantastic James Bond-type fantasies about him going there, catching a train, walking from the train station.
“But he did not use exotic tools to get in, in fact he smashed a window. He didn’t even take a [flashlight], and has described going around trying to get light off his phone. It was a very amateur burglary.”
How an obviously brilliant young guy ended up in a mess like this, and how it will affect his future, is for Rist and his family to sort out. But the case has led to some soul-searching within the fancy fly-tying community.
“It had long been suspected that some of the feathers floating around on the open market had unsavory origins,” wrote John McCoy, outdoor writer for the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, last week. “Without documentation, it was impossible to know whether the feathers were legit, were poached from the wild, or were plucked from stolen museum specimens.
“Now those in the fly tying community — me included — are taking a hard look at the zeal with which we once pursued period-accurate feathers. We’re also looking for ways to reduce the financial incentive to traffic in illegally obtained materials.”
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