On the evening of 19 March 2000, Willie Fulgear went dumpster diving. It was what he did most nights. He’d moved to Los Angeles 40 years earlier with dreams of becoming a singer, but that plan had never worked out. Instead, he made his money scavenging for the jewels of the junkyard. Usually old bits of car. Anything that would sell to metal shops. But that night was different. Behind the Food-4-Less in Koreatown, he struck gold. Dozens of little gold men, in fact. Gleaming up at him, in a bed of Styrofoam, were 52 Oscars statuettes.
Fulgear frantically loaded the 24-carat gold-plated goodies into his 1989 Cadillac Coupe De Ville and sped home. One quick internet search later, he understood what he had: a small army of Academy Awards, with a $50,000 reward attached. He immediately called the local TV station and the police. He was rich!
Just six days earlier, on 13 March, Academy executive director Bruce Davis was en route to the annual nominees’ luncheon at the Beverly Hilton when he got the panicked call telling him that the statuettes were missing. A representative from RS Owens, the Chicago-based company that made the trophies, was ringing to inform him that on 8 March, 55 of them had been stolen from an LA loading dock.
A Vanity Fair investigation in 2001 reported that while the trophies were sitting at the LA sorting facility, someone had spotted the Academy’s branding on the pallet. After tearing open one box, staffers on the graveyard shift allegedly posed for photos with the Oscars, holding them up for the camera like Hollywood winners. In the hours that followed, the pallet ended up on a truck headed for Hawthorne, and not their intended destination, Beverly Hills. From that point on, the Oscars were officially off-grid.
A huge hunt for the missing Oscars began. A 24-hour tip line was set up, the FBI was called in, and there was a plea to dock workers to come forward with any information, with a $50,000 reward put on the table.
Following an investigation, a few tipsters had come out of the woodwork. On 18 March – the day before Fulgear found the trophies – police arrested truck driver Lawrence Edward Ledent and forklift operator Anthony Hart at their respective homes. Ledent, sharing his story with Vanity Fair’s Mark Seal from prison, insisted it was Hart who had initiated the heist, placing the pallet on Ledent’s truck but not telling him what was inside.
When Ledent, who knew he was carrying stolen goods of some kind, finished his route, curiosity got the better of him. He took a peek inside and found the Oscars. Reeling, he took them to his friend John Willie Harris’s house. Harris, a rubbish truck driver, was appalled to get home to find Ledent storing the trophies there. He sent him away and the Oscars were dumped. Somewhere in the process, three golden knights got separated from the rest.
Ledent, Hart and Harris were all sentenced in connection with the theft. A couple of the three missing Oscars are believed to have turned up in a federal drug raid in Miami in 2003, but one is still out there somewhere.
In a bizarre twist, Harris turned out to be the estranged half-brother of Fulgear, the man who found the trophies by some bins, but detectives – after questioning Fulgear for hours and hooking him up to a polygraph – decided that this was pure coincidence, and there was no suspicious connection between the heist and the discovery.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the stolen Oscars – which had been intended for the 2001 ceremony the following year – were later destroyed. “They were never going to hand out a stolen statue,” RS Owens’ design director Joseph Petree told the publication.
And what became of Fulgear? He had a rise and fall fit for a Hollywood movie. At first, he was a local hero, and was presented with a cheque for $50,000 at a press conference in front of the LAPD headquarters. The Academy also gave him two seats to that year’s ceremony, a free tux and a chauffeured sedan. Fulgear reportedly asked “How long is the limo?” when Academy boss Davis phoned with the invitation. When Davis told him there’d be no limousine, Fulgear wangled one courtesy of Inside Edition, in exchange for an exclusive about the ceremony.
Fulgear hit the red carpet later that month with his son, Allen. Arnold Schwarzenegger shook his hand, telling him, “Willie, you’re a born star!’” He even got a shout-out onstage from host Billy Crystal, with Fulgear waving his top hat to the crowd and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman applauding the man of the hour.
But the good times didn’t last. A year later, Fulgear told Vanity Fair: “Man, I wish I’d never seen them Oscars. It built me up one day and pushed me right back down the next day. I’m taking medication! I am stressed! I mean stressed out!”
The first thing he’d done with his winnings was buy a $17,000 gold Lexus. The rest of the cash was locked away in a safe in his home – but within weeks his house was ransacked and the safe was taken. The one item the thieves left behind? The giant prop reward cheque that Fulgear had posed with at his press conference.
Fulgear died a few years later, in 2005. While he was never charged in connection with the heist, the detective who worked the case still has his doubts. “He was hurting for money and I think they sucked him into it,” LAPD detective Marc Zavala told Vanity Fair in 2020. “I knew in my heart of hearts that he knew more.”
Twenty-four years later, the saga of the Oscar theft has a few infuriating threads left hanging. That last Oscar is still AWOL, the police remain suspicious, and the one man who could reveal all met an early demise. If this true-life tale ever got the Hollywood biopic treatment, you’d probably ask for a new ending.