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20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm
20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm

When Return of the Jedi Was Stolen at Gunpoint

20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm
20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm

Larry Dewayne Riddick, Jr. had no way of knowing there would someday be an easier way of doing this. In just a few years, pirating feature films for profit—or just for the sake of undermining huge corporations—would be as effortless as clicking a mouse.

But this was 1983. And if Riddick wanted his own personal print of Return of the Jedi to peddle on the black market, he’d have to resort to more crude methods. He’d have to take it by force.

Riddick, 18, stood in the parking lot of the Glenwood Theaters in Overland Park, Kans. and watched as John J. Smith exited the building. Smith was the projectionist; Jedi was finishing its sixth week as the most popular film attraction in the country. It was after midnight. As Smith walked to his car, Riddick came up beside him and flashed a gun. He had come for the movie.

Smith told him roughly 20 people were still inside the theater. Riddick stewed in Smith’s car for 20 minutes, waiting for the last patron to leave. Once inside, he forced Smith to unspool the 70mm film print from the large metal canisters and into a series of portable containers. It took over an hour.

Once the film had been prepared for transport, Riddick fled the scene. In the increasingly sordid and violent world of movie piracy, he had just made off with the equivalent of a king’s ransom. Return of the Jedi, the concluding chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy, was so coveted that a wealthy couple would soon agree to pay $10,000 for the print.

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Screening a film without paying the distributor or exhibitor has existed for practically as long as the movies themselves. Early trade magazines ran ads warning “dupers” of copyright infringement. When the original Star Wars was released in 1977, unauthorized prints were sold for as much as $1000.

The 1980s brought a new dynamic: videocassette players. With videotapes, pirates could duplicate films 100 times over and charge a premium for the lurid privilege of owning a popular feature. Unscrupulous people with disposable income or international clients motivated by delayed foreign release dates were a pirate’s key clientele. Normally, projectionists could be bribed for a few hundred dollars to let a duper “borrow” it and strike copies before returning it. It was collusion, and the only parties being harmed were the studios and theaters.

By the time Return of the Jedi was released in May 1983, VCRs were installed in more than 30 million homes worldwide, with that number expected to grow exponentially in the years ahead. It was a ripe industry for bootlegs, and no film held more temptation than the third and (presumed) final film in the Star Wars franchise.

Return of the Jedi's distributor, 20th Century Fox, knew the movie would become a high-profile target. To dissuade any illegal distribution, the studio circulated word that each print of the film would be marked with a code that would allow them to identify the source of a bootleg. In truth, there was no code; they simply hoped the threat would be enough to keep the movie off the black market.

That didn’t happen. Instead of consorting with theater employees, pirates desperate to profit from Jedi—which could fetch up to $200 for a good-quality copy—decided to utilize direct methods. In addition to the theft in Overland Park, theater employees in Santa Maria, Calif. were confronted by two men wearing clown masks, one wielding a gun. Marched upstairs to the projection room, they were forced to unlock it and hand over the movie. In Columbia, S.C., a print disappeared before a manager arrived for work the morning of May 24, the day before the film's premiere. While the room held several movies, only Jedi was missing.

Fox and Lucasfilm condemned the practice in the media, with Lucasfilm president Robert Greber calling the thefts “outrageous” and pointing fingers at consumers. “All those people who think it’s a chic, trendy thing to own a pirated tape are accessories,” he said.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which monitors film piracy, offered a $500 reward for the missing prints. In England, where more reels had gone missing, Fox raised the incentive to $7000. There were no takers.

A few days after the theft in South Carolina, the film was discovered on a dirt road, the seals on the canisters unbroken: The thieves had apparently gotten cold feet about dubbing it. But in Overland Park, Riddick was committed. He kept the movie in his parents’ basement for several days before deciding to offer it to a local video store. The manager was noncommittal. When Riddick left to let him to think it over, the manager called the FBI.

Authorities set up a sting in Kansas City, where two agents posed as a married couple and invited Riddick to a hotel room to conduct a transaction. Riddick wanted $12,000 for Jedi but was willing to accept $10,000. After showing the agents one reel of the movie as proof, he was arrested. In December 1983, the 19-year-old got five years of probation and was ordered to perform 120 hours of community service.

When police asked why he did it, Riddick told them he was mad at his father.

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This Just In
Police Recover Nearly 100 Artifacts Stolen From John Lennon’s Estate
Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images
Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

A collection of artifacts stolen from John Lennon’s estate, including diaries, glasses, and handwritten music, has been recovered by German police, the Associated Press reports. After arresting the first suspect, law enforcement is now working to apprehend a second person of interest in the case.

The nearly 100 items went missing from the New York home of the late Beatles star’s widow Yoko Ono in 2006. Years later, German police were tipped off to their whereabouts when a bankruptcy administrator came across the haul in the storage facility of a Berlin auction house. The three leather-bound diaries that were recovered are dated 1975, 1979, and 1980. One entry refers to Lennon’s famous nude photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, and another was written the morning of December 8, 1980, hours before he was shot and killed. In addition to the journals, police retrieved two pairs of his iconic glasses, a 1965 recording of a Beatles concert, a 1952 school book, contract documents for the copyright of the song “I’m the Greatest”, handwritten scores for "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over”, and a cigarette case.

German authorities flew to New York to have Ono verify the items' authenticity. "She was very emotional and we noticed clearly how much these things mean to her,” prosecutor Susann Wettley told AP. When the objects will be returned to Ono is still unclear.

The first suspect, a 58-year-old German businessman from Turkey, was arrested Monday, November 21, following a raid of his house and vehicles. The second suspect is one of Ono's former chauffeurs who has a past conviction related to the theft. Police officers are hoping to extradite him from his current home in Turkey before moving forward with the case.

[h/t AP]

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History
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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