Man Sentenced For Bird Thefts

8 April 2011, 17:29 | Updated: 8 April 2011, 17:32

Twenty two year old Edwin Rist, who pleaded guilty at Hemel Hempstead Magistrates Court on November 26, was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, suspended for two years.

He was also given a supervision order for 12 months.

Rist, from the USA, pleaded guilty to burglary and money laundering offences after 299 rare bird skins went missing from the Natural History Museum at Tring on June 24 2009. The birds had been housed in a private collections’ area at the back of the museum.

The student, who was studying music in London, planned to steal the bird skins in 2008, having visited the museum under false pretences. He arranged a visit to the Museum in order to photograph a sample of bird skins in the collection on behalf of a colleague, before returning to break in to the premises on the 24 June 2009.

Rist took 299 skins for use in ornamental fly-tying, the money from which he was hoping to put towards his studies, buy a new flute and improve his lifestyle. He separated many of the bird skins, or feathers from them, and sold them on to other fly-tiers. However, police were alerted to him by a fly-tier who has seen the media appeals and became suspicious when he was offered the skins for sale.

He was arrested on 12 November last year at his student accommodation in North London, where he had returned to study after the summer break.

Following the arrest and charge, a number of people from across the world have come forward with specimens they had unwittingly purchased from Rist and now wanted to return. Countries included Norway, Denmark, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

In total 191 intact birds have been recovered to date, but only 101 still retain their labels, which are critical scientifically. In addition, parts (feathers, etc.) from an estimated 31 further birds have also been recovered.

Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie from Dacorum Local Crime Unit said: “This is a very positive result against a man who, through his obsession with fly-tying and greed for money, essentially tried to rob the world of some of its natural heritage. It has been an intriguing case and we are thrilled to be able to have not only solved it, but also to have returned many of the bird skins to the museum for future generations to enjoy and use in scientific research. This case and the subsequent sentence send a strong message to anyone considering similar criminal behaviour that there is a strong likelihood they will be caught and receive a criminal record for their efforts.”

He added: “I would like to thank the media and the public for their help in solving this case. I would also like to appeal to anyone else who may have bought bird feathers or skins from Rist to come forward and return these items. Like previous people, you may well have done so without knowing their source. Please get in touch so we can return these rare items to the Natural History Museum.”

The birds that were stolen form part of the nation’s natural history collection, assembled over the last 350 years. The 70 million specimens looked after by the Natural History Museum are a resource of international importance in the development of scientific knowledge. The ornithological collections are amongst the most heavily used and are consulted by researchers throughout the world, who either visit the Natural History Museum at Tring or request loans.

Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, said “We are pleased that the matter has been resolved. We would to thank the police, media, public and fly tying community for their help in recovering many of these priceless specimens but there has still been a terrible impact on our national collections. The stolen birds were a number of brightly-coloured tropical birds, including Cotingas, Quetzals and Birds of Paradise. Some of these are endangered species, irreplaceable and, therefore, of special scientific concern. The knowledge gleaned from these collections helps protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us. Unfortunately, a significant number of the returned specimens have been irrevocably damaged or their labels destroyed which will make them almost impossible to study in the future so we would be extremely grateful for any information on the remaining missing specimens. The wanton destruction of such culturally and scientifically important specimens is in stark contrast to the great interest in nature demonstrated by many members of the fly-fishing community with whom the Museum has a close working relationship through our river-fly programme.”

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) District Crown Prosecutor, Tapashi Nadarajah, said: “This was an unusual case for the CPS. Some of these birds were very old and very rare, which made their theft even more distressing for the staff at the Natural History Museum. Thankfully, many of the stolen bird skins have been recovered and will continue to enlighten and fascinate people for many more years to come. Edwin Rist pleaded guilty to the thefts and money laundering offences, which at least removes the need for a lengthy and costly trial. He has now been brought back before the courts where he has been sentenced for his crimes.”  

Judge Gullich said the loss of the birds was a natural history disaster. “Scientific knowledge has been lost forever.”

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of any outstanding birds is asked to contact either the police on non-emergency number 0845 33 00 222 or the Natural History Museum on 020 7942 5065.