FARGO — The Roger Maris Museum still manages to turn heads as passersby walk in and out of the southeast entrance of West Acres mall.
But five years ago, someone used that same entrance to break into the Fargo shopping center and make off with the late baseball player's S. Rae Hickok Belt and 1960 American League MVP award.
“At first, we didn’t realize that anything had been taken,” said Chris Heaton, senior vice president of property management for West Acres Development. “It didn’t take long to figure out it had because, when someone comes in and breaks glass, there’s an objective there.”
In place of the two awards are now cardboard replicas and signs letting visitors know they were stolen.
The break-in has been called disturbing and disrespectful. When the museum was pitched to Maris, the Yankees rightfielder's one wish was for people to enjoy seeing his memorabilia for free, his son Roger Maris Jr. told The Forum.
To see someone steal from a place that meant so much to the man who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, and that has been enjoyed by so many fans, was disappointing, Maris Jr. said.
“Sometimes you just wonder why people do what they do,” he said.
The FBI continues to investigate the July 26, 2016, heist, along with other rare sports memorabilia thefts across the U.S. that had similar “modus operandi.” Agents in New York state and Philadelphia are working the case, but few details have been released about the investigation.
“They’re working on it,” Maris Jr. said. “It’s one of those things where they’re obviously keeping it close to the vest.”
The FBI does not comment on open investigations, a bureau spokeswoman told The Forum.
The Hickok Belt went to the best professional athlete of the year in the nation. The buckle is gold and features an Olympian-style athlete, a 4-carat diamond and other gems. The belt is made of alligator skin.
Some estimates place the belt’s worth at up to $140,000.
Who was behind the break-in, what happened with the awards, and where the items are now remains a mystery that may not be solved for years, retired FBI special agent James Page said. What is known is the heist was a brazen and bold act, Page said.
“The elaborate schemes are more for Hollywood,” he said. “There is some sophistication in some of the things that I investigated, but quite frankly, it's just knowing how to circumvent some things and being bold enough to do it.”
Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, Maris spent part of his childhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, before his family moved to Fargo in 1946, where he attended high school.
He initially turned down a museum in his honor but eventually agreed under one condition: He wanted it where people could see it.
Fargo and its people meant a lot to Maris, his son said.
“He just felt there’s people out there who were just so genuine and always had each other’s back and always tried to do the right thing,” Maris Jr. said.
Maris was able to see the museum open in 1984, the year before he died. The display case that runs along the West Acres hallway wall features a replica of the Yankees player’s 1961 locker, artifacts from his youth and major league career, and balls signed by some of the pitchers who gave up home runs to him. Visitors also can sit in Yankee Stadium seats and watch a video about Maris.
“It obviously means a great deal to have the museum in Dad’s hometown where people all over the world can come and learn about Dad’s legacy for generations to come,” Maris Jr. said.
The heist unfolded at about 2:15 a.m. on a Tuesday, according to surveillance footage detailed in a warrant. Video showed a white car with no front license plate pull up near the south doors between the Macy’s and Best Buy wings of the mall.
A passenger in a security guard outfit and dark face mask stepped out of the vehicle and ran to smash a glass door. With what looked to be an ax or hatchet in their hand, the thief made their way quickly to the nearby museum, shattered another pane of glass and grabbed the belt and trophy on display.
Exactly 60 seconds after breaking into the mall, the thief was back in the car before it sped off.
Mall security workers on duty that morning responded within two minutes of an alarm sounding, but the thief was already gone. “It happened so fast that it just kind of defies logic,” Heaton said.
By the time Heaton arrived, crews had cleaned up most of the glass, he said. Police also were at the scene to launch an investigation, but they handed the case over to federal agents. The Fargo Police Department declined to comment on the case, referring questions to the FBI.
Heaton said he doesn’t know what more the mall could have done to prevent the break-in. Since the theft, the mall has updated its surveillance and security systems, though Heaton declined to give specifics.
The mall is constantly evaluating its security measures, he added.
“If somebody wants something bad enough, they're usually going to figure out a way to get at it,” he said.
'Very few go hidden forever'
Heists like the one at the mall typically involve a thief who can blend in without anyone realizing they stole a certain item, said Page, the retired FBI agent.
Page did not investigate the Maris heist. But during his 21-year career, Page investigated a string of jewelry thefts in which the perpetrators disabled alarms, cut through bathroom walls into stores and made off with valuable items.
There is a market for rare memorabilia, Page said. Sports memorabilia thefts fall under a special section of FBI investigations, he said.
An item like the Hickok Belt typically goes to someone who wants it for their trophy room, but only a select few people will see it, Page said. A unique piece like the belt isn’t something that can be shown to a lot of people, lest it accidentally get shown to an undercover investigator, he said.
A buyer typically will keep such an item hidden, perhaps even until they die, Page said. “Whoever acquires these things tends to sit on them for a long time because they know they're one of a kind,” he said.
It’s possible the belt could resurface again, Page said. However, that likely won’t happen until years or even decades have passed, he added.
“One-of-a-kind things are really tough to move safely,” he said. “They'll eventually do it. It just takes a lot of time to line up the right buyer and make sure the coast is clear.”
Page said the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have a good record of tracking down rare memorabilia. “Very few go hidden forever,” he said.
Maris Jr. and Heaton said they are hopeful the treasures will be found.
“Hopefully, it’s in good condition and we can get it back into the museum … for future generations to be able to enjoy,” Maris Jr. said.