red knee spider

Insect Heist! Over 7K bugs & insects stolen from museum: Is it kidnapping, murder?

Crime Scene Investigator and criminologist Sheryl McCollum takes an interest in tiny, rare victims that require special care to survive

As a little girl growing up in the South I loved catching Lighting Bugs. Nothing better than placing them in a mason jar and watching their “butts light up.” What a cool bug. After watching them for a while, my momma would always say to me and my sister’s, “ok girl’s let them fly back to their momma; we can’t keep them; they don’t belong to us.”

“We don’t know what they eat or where they sleep,” she would gently explain.

She was right. I didn’t know how to care for these bugs I loved so much. I had never seen one eat or sleep. My dad would always chime in and remind us that “them bugs are like a man: you can catch ’em again tomorrow if you want.”

What happened in Philadelphia as far as historical crime standings go is unprecedented. Never before has 90 percent of all the animals in a museum been stolen.

An Insect Heist!  

As a criminologist, I had to delve into this case. Over 7,000 animals were taken from the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion on August 22. The sexy crime could result in sales on the black market, but a far more sinister crime of revenge seems more likely.

How did I not know about this?

Peter Oboyski from the Essig Museum Entomology had not heard about the heist either, but was quick to give a heartfelt statement.

“The people have been robbed!  We go to special places, the time involved, the cost, the personal risk, the historical aspects – we have all been robbed.”

Huck McCollum, a 17-year-old Gecko owner, said that without the proper care, the insects will end up dying in a painful way.

“If these thieves do not have the right food, warming lights, sand, and habitats, these living breathing creatures will die a torturous death and that’s just pitiful.”

These animals are beautiful, rare, fragile, and irreplaceable. These tiny, perfect creatures are so rare and unique that the only word that comes to mind is matchless. I’ve learned over the past several days that some of these specimens came from specific places that now no longer hail from those faraway lands. That means even if you find another “same species,” they host inherent differences.

CSI Sheryl McCollum [Photo: Hapeville PD]

Let’s Talk Motive

If you want to understand motive, look at the scene. The criminals left their work uniforms behind. The uniforms were left eerily hanging on the walls by knives, according to owner Dr. John Cambridge, owner of the Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion. This is a message! A clear concrete very directed message.

There has been tons of speculation that the theft was about selling these creatures on the black market. If it was that simple why the knives? Why stab them into the walls?  I pray these animals are alive and were sold to collectors or homes, but I have my doubts.

I find it hard to believe that a pissed off employee would take the time necessary to find buyers for 7,000 specimens and gather all the needed food, containers, supplies and transportation in a manner of days.  Police are checking with exotic pet shows and legitimate buyers. Black Market dealers are plentiful.

 But this group of “criminal masterminds” were caught on camera, at the place they used to work. No mask. No disguises. Left behind their own uniforms. Get the picture?

It feels more like revenge than money.  They are seen clearly on surveillance footage taking these helpless animals, placing them in containers, then walking down the fire escape, putting the stolen animals in the vehicles and getting into their own cars.  As if they had not already made a ton of mistakes there’s another big one: some of the creatures were evidence in a federal case.  They allegedly stole federal evidence!  They are now begin sought after by the FBI!  Well, that’s gonna sting!

Among the heisted animals is a Mexican Fire-leg tarantula, a comic book type  specimen that can fire bristly hairs like missiles when threatened. According to Cambridge, still missing are two-spotted assassin bugs that can cause temporary blindness with their bite, a few lizards, and an army of beetles, roaches, scorpions and other spiders. Big on the list of which animals need to be located is the six-eyed sand spider believed to have the deadliest venom in the world.

Two-spotted assassin bug [Photo: Greg Hume]

“Those are likely gone for good,”  John Cambridge, the Insectarium’s CEO, believes this crime was about revenge and greed, said.

Cambridge knows one of the suspects was a fired employee. He hopes that greed played and role and some of the animals are begin sold. Student researcher and snake expert Noah Fields added that these fragile, rare insects are as special to their owners as any cat or dog would be.

“These insects that have been taken are not only revered as pets by their keepers in the same way a household cat or dog is, but they carry the important jobs of teaching museum visitors about the importance of both insects and biodiversity,” Fields explained. “This is a devastating loss for a young institution such as the Philadelphia Insectarium that’s striving to spread a good message about these misunderstood animals.”

As a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI), I know bugs are tiny little detectives that can literally help us determine the time of death, where the injuries are, and the area the crime may have occurred in. These are just a few things insects can do for us at a crime scene.

On the black market,  these animals could collectively garner close to $50,000. I sincerely hope this is the case.  However, their execution leaves me with little hope.  The crime was sloppy, not well planned or stealthy executed.  They left evidence, personal items, DNA, fingerprints and their faces, bodies and cars all on camera!  I don’t have much hope the care and concern for these rare and one of a kind animals are begin fed, given water, warmth or mist as needed.

This community of insect experts, researchers and professors are a close group. They support each other, admire each other and in the case of the worst insect crime in history and donate, replace and raise money for new living exhibits. I always tell my children where one person does wrong a hundreds will show up to try and make it right.

I pray for the return of these special beings.  Like my momma said, “they don’t belong to us.”

We should only care for and admire them. I look forward to the arrest of these criminals. But mostly I look forward to the great ironic justice of them begin caged. You’re our specimens now! I hope your cell mate makes you his ladybug!

Meanwhile, the insectarium shut down two of its three floors after the theft, leaving only the butterfly pavilion exhibit open, the Washington Post reports.

[Feature Photo: George Chernilevsky]