‘It’s Tiger King meets Ace Ventura’: The savage true story of the world’s biggest bug heist | Television
A a room teeming with thousands of giant, alien critters might seem like your worst nightmare (or one of Ant and Dec’s Bushtucker Trials on I’m a Celebrity). It’s also the starting point for Bug Out, the latest bizarre true-crime documentary series, set in America’s first insect zoo, the Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion in Philadelphia. Prepare for a mystery with more twists and turns than a colony of worms.
The show focuses on the moment in August 2018 when museum boss Dr John Cambridge arrived at work and did a double take when he realized his room, which should have been full of creatures, was suddenly empty. Glass tanks have been knocked down, shelves bare, displays cleaned. Thousands of live insects, worth an estimated $50,000 (£38,000), had been stolen. It was the biggest bug robbery in history.
Many of the missing animals were rare, large or life-threatening – in some cases, all three. The thieves’ loot included scorpions, tarantulas, rhinoceros cockroaches, and a six-eyed sand spider. This spider is one of the most venomous arachnids in the world, with a bite similar to that of a rattlesnake. There is no known antidote.
Aspiring director Ben Feldman — not to be confused with his namesake actor, AKA Jonah of Superstore (“One of my interviewees was so disappointed,” he laughs) — was working as a lawyer in his hometown of Philadelphia when news of the broke robbery. His story value that he could film perked up his ears.
“I had heard about the museum,” the 37-year-old says via video call. “A lot of school trips go there. It was set up by this ex-cop called Steve Kanya. In 1975 he had a pest control business called Bug Off. As a publicity stunt, he put his “catch of the day” in the store window – a huge cockroach, termite colony or whatever. He noticed cars stopping to stare at him and thought, “Huh, there’s something here.” It became the country’s first insectarium.
When Feldman heard of the theft, he contacted Cambridge. “He immediately said, ‘There’s so much more to this story.’ So I just kept pulling the strings. I thought it was just a clickbaity title. I didn’t expect such a crazy roller coaster.
The case became national news so much that Jimmy Kimmel and Amy Poehler joked about it on late night television. The FBI has set up a whistleblower hotline. The museum has received thousands of dollars in donations from sympathetic citizens.
In the process of investigating this one-of-a-kind theft, Philadelphia police have lifted the rock to find a seedy subculture of insect poachers, obsessive collectors, and illicit smugglers. They quickly assumed that, like half of workplace robberies, it was likely an inside job. But who of the eccentric museum staff was responsible? And where were the 7,000 bugs?
Those under scrutiny included Kanya, who claimed Cambridge defrauded him. The documentary also reveals that the museum’s entomology expert, Wlodek Lapkiewicz, had a lucrative side business trading illegal species by mail. Another employee, Michael Kinzler, had a criminal record that included stealing from an employer. Chris Tomasetto and Alison Mumper, an adorable couple covered in bug tattoos, were also suspected of leading a staff mutiny.
Their colleague Kelvin Wiley was big on social media for letting bugs crawl across his face – and quit his job immediately after the robbery. In one scene, Wiley casually opens his mouth and a huge hairy tarantula pops out. It provides one of many “WTF?” of Bug Out. moments. “There was an audible gasp from the film crew,” says Feldman. “I showed this episode to a friend last week and as soon as the spider came out he was like, ‘This is going to be a hit.’ He was so repulsed. Another memorable scene shows a panicked employee disposing of a giant African snail – illegal in the United States – in gruesome style. “It’s the size of a dog,” Feldman says. “Like something out of Star Wars.”
Cambridge, on the other hand, has a delightful turn of phrase. He describes one ex-colleague as “a huge human ding-a-ling” and another as “a huge bag of assholes”.
The saga full of surprises tackles death threats, embezzlement and organized crime. Feldman tracks money from insect traffickers in Australia to criminal cartels in Mexico. There’s a botched police raid. Giant centipedes and poisonous scorpions, illegally shipped from Africa, escape inside a mail van. At one point, a federal agent – the excellent Ed Newcomer – catches the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler, the notoriously elusive Yoshi Kojima, in a honey trap – despite Newcomer being straight and married.
Bug Out took three years to make and led to Feldman quitting his legal career to become a full-time filmmaker. Like a quirky thriller, it unravels a cobweb of lies and exposes bitter behind-the-scenes squabbles at a seemingly sane museum. Feldman tells the extraordinary story over four fast-paced 35-minute episodes that defy belief and are eminently bingeable.
Bug Out continues the trend of moving away from “killer” crime documentaries towards scam-based threads, whether online dating scams (The Tinder Swindler, Sweet Bobby) or impersonation (Inventing Anna, The Puppet Master). They are just as voyeuristic and just as revealing of human nature, but without an unpleasant aftertaste. “It’s not the kind of true crime based on murder that we’ve all seen a hundred times,” Feldman acknowledges. “I would put Bug Out in a separate category. It is Tiger King who meets Ace Ventura.
The story has several scorpion stings in its tail, and Feldman thinks the full extent of the scandal still hasn’t emerged: “I think there’s more to come.” No spoilers, but the climactic episode has a dizzying carpet pull and some very tense matchups. “There was definitely an atmosphere during these conversations,” he says. “That’s where my legal training came in handy.
The Bug Out value is on IMDb TV, Amazon’s free streaming service, from March 4