Zach Tann had spent years collecting Star Wars memorabilia. And in February 2017 the fan received a message that seemingly brought with it the potential to take his hobby to the next level. But the $20,000 figurine on offer apparently had dubious origins. In fact, it seemed that the piece had been stolen as part of a $200,000 heist – one that sent shockwaves through the franchise’s toy-collecting community.
Decades before Tann made that fateful connection, however, filmmaker George Lucas put into motion the plans for a movie that would eventually become Star Wars. The director managed to make a foothold in Hollywood, too, after his 1973 film, American Graffiti, earned five Oscar nominations – including one for Best Picture.
But when Star Wars hit theaters, no one – Lucas included – had any idea of the phenomenon it would become. The sci-fi movie certainly excelled at the box office, earning a total of $775 million worldwide. After adjustments are made for inflation, then, Star Wars ranks second on the list of highest-earning films in North American history. And as fans know, the original adventure went on to spawn not only two sequels and three prequels, but also another sequel trilogy, an animated flick and a pair of anthology movies.
Yet none of this success would be possible without Star Wars aficionados around the world – with some being more obsessive than others. And for fan Mark Dermul, the first movie made an indelible impression when he originally watched it as a seven-year-old. Indeed, it even “formed [his] character, in a sense,” as he told Business Insider in 2015.
As an adult, Dermul’s passion for the franchise still hadn’t faded, either. In fact, his enduring appreciation of the series led him to become an informal tour guide during trips to Star Wars filming locations. However, a 2010 visit to Tunisia – which had filled in as a substitute for Tatooine – left Dermul upset at the condition of the place where Luke Skywalker had once stood.
So, Dermul and a group of his friends decided to take action by seeking donations through Facebook. The team were successful, too, gathering $11,000 in just ten months. And in 2012 he and five others flew back to Tunisia, where they and a local crew worked to restore Skywalker’s Tatooine home to its former glory.
Others, however, have taken personal inspiration from the Star Wars universe. Take superfan John-Michael “JM” Arias, for example, who found himself transported by that first film to be released. He told Business Insider, “[The movie] was such a great escape from my life. I come from a history of poverty, neglect and abuse.”
After Arias had grown up, however, he found himself suffering from severe depression as well as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. While attempting to find his own path to happiness, then, the man from the Philippines recalled just how much joy Star Wars had once brought to him. And that was when he came up with the idea for the Light Saber Team.
After that, Arias gathered fellow Star Wars fans to partake in lightsaber-centric workouts. And not only did the unusual fitness program improve practitioners’ physical conditions, but it bettered their mental health too. Indeed, some told Arias that the group had even helped them overcome suicidal thoughts.
Plus, of course, practically any Star Wars fan worth their salt has wielded a makeshift lightsaber in their time. The more dedicated even have custom lightsabers built. Often, too, they will take these accessories, pair them with movie-inspired costumes and gather for conventions centered upon the movie series that started more than four decades ago.
Then there’s another mainstay in the Star Wars fan community: acquiring related memorabilia. It’s also pretty safe to say that Steve Sansweet is among the most dedicated collectors of the franchise’s merch. Sansweet has his own personal link to the series to boot, having worked for 15 years at Lucasfilm – the television and film production company founded by George Lucas in 1971.
What’s more, Sansweet eventually acquired so many pieces that he began storing them in one of the three old hen houses on his Petaluma, California, property. And as more Star Wars movies emerged and as Sansweet traveled to further fan conventions, the collection eventually expanded into a second hen house.
But that wasn’t the end of Sansweet’s endeavors. Ultimately, then, he decided to display his treasure trove for others to see. And in the process, he came up with a name for the home that housed his extensive collection: Rancho Obi-Wan. Sansweet also registered Rancho Obi-Wan as a California nonprofit public benefit corporation, meaning people who visited would be bettered by learning about the memorabilia’s cultural, educational, cultural and aesthetic impact.
Furthermore, there’s a purpose behind the Rancho Obi-Wan project. Its website explains, “Rancho Obi-Wan’s mission is to inspire… [And we] hope to further inspire others by giving guided tours of the private collection… traveling to conventions with carefully curated displays, supporting other organizations in their charitable efforts and reaching out to children and adults of all ages.”
Naturally, though, Sansweet isn’t the only Star Wars collector out there. Joined together by their shared hobby, merch fans have forged their own community through which they can talk about the movies and their own arrays of memorabilia. And in the process, Star Wars enthusiasts sometimes find great pieces to add to their collections. In fact, that’s just what happened to Zach Tann in February 2017.
Tann found his interest in collecting piqued after watching an episode of the reality TV show Toy Hunter in 2013. In the four years that followed, then, he acquired his own array of Star Wars items – some of which he had gone on to sell to his fellow enthusiasts. And in turn, others in the community had approached Tann with special finds, too.
On February 3, 2017, for example, fellow Star Wars aficionado Carl Cunningham texted Tann with an offer that he almost couldn’t refuse. And while Cunningham had spent the eight months before this message selling off a portion of his collection to Tann, he had saved perhaps the best piece for last. Indeed, this latest figure was perhaps the most coveted item in the world of Star Wars collectables: the Rocket Fett.
Nearly 40 years before Cunningham had a Rocket Fett in his hands, the first Star Wars film hit theaters. And, just before that, a company called Kenner had secured the merchandising license for any movie-related toys. There was just one problem, however. Neither Kenner nor Lucasfilm had foreseen how popular the flick would be, meaning the toy firm hadn’t sufficiently prepared to churn out Star Wars items for the Christmas season.
To cover for the hiccup, then, Kenner’s team came up with an unconventional plan: they would sell an I.O.U. of sorts for the holidays. For $16, kids would receive a display stand made of card and a mail-in offer to have figurines of Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Chewbacca and Leia Organa sent to them through the post.
And this initial Kenner bundle ignited the spark in many Star Wars collectors. After they had received the first four holiday figures, you see, they wanted to complete the set with the final eight. Kenner eventually sold 26 million units of this particular offering, in fact, and continued building what would become one of the largest toy franchises ever.
Indeed, Kenner seemed to have learned a lesson from the first mistake, as the company made the necessary preparations before the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. This time around, the firm’s Star Wars-related offerings would include a figure of a new character called Boba Fett – and his toy would have an exciting new feature, too.
At that time, the interactive elements of most figurines were limited. Typically, their arms, legs and heads could all be twisted and moved, but that was about it. The Kenner-made Boba Fett doll, on the other hand, would come with a spring-loaded backpack ready to fire a small missile made of plastic. Alas, though, the unique model wouldn’t make it past the prototype stage.
Before the Boba Fett toy’s release, a Battlestar Galactica figurine from Mattel had featured a similar detachable missile. And as a child had tragically choked on the small item, Kenner had to ditch the idea of arming their Boba Fett with such a dangerous accessory. Yet although the missile-firing version of Fett was never put into mass production, a few prototypes still exist; several Kenner employees had hung onto their original models, you see.
And by the time that Cunningham contacted Tann in 2017, the value of the 1979 model had skyrocketed to a minimum of $20,000. Even so, Tann paid the asking price right away. To the fan, the purchase felt as though it was the payoff for all the time that he had dedicated to Star Wars collecting.
“I’d been working my butt off for four years. And I felt, like, finally, I found my guy that’s going to hook me up with a lot of great stuff. This is what every collector dreams of,” Tann said to Popular Mechanics in 2017. Now he just had to wait for Cunningham to send him the model. In the meantime, though, Tann found out some upsetting news from another collecting-world connection.
Through a post on the website Rebelscum.com, Tann learned that an individual named Philip Wise had experienced a devastating loss. Wise had a 20,000-piece Star Wars collection that many fellow enthusiasts came to visit and tour. But some time in the previous two weeks, Wise had said that a prominent piece of his memorabilia had disappeared. Yes, his Rocket Fett prototype was gone.
And in his Rebelscum post, Wise implored anyone with information about “a Fett like this floating around” to come forward. Yet while the revelation naturally gave Tann pause, he nevertheless doubted that Cunningham had stolen the figure. Tann told Popular Mechanics, “Your reputation will get destroyed if you scam somebody within the groups… It’s just not worth it.”
Still, the Rebelscum post did spur Tann to cover all of his bases, even if it meant losing his Rocket Fett – or the money he had deposited for the figurine. He emailed Wise right away, and soon after that the pair chatted on the phone. And during the conversation, Tann told his fellow collector that he had recently acquired a Rocket Fett – although he wouldn’t give up the name of the seller.
In particular, since Tann couldn’t be sure if the Rocket Fett had actually been stolen, he didn’t want to raise undue suspicion of Cunningham. Nevertheless, Tann said that he would confirm any suspicions Wise had about a potential suspect. But when the collector gave one clue as to the identity of the seller, Wise quickly realized who was being spoken about.
Then Tann began to question more than just the origins of the Rocket Fett. This was understandable, too, since he had purchased several collectables from Cunningham over the previous eight months. And sure enough, some of his buys matched with other items missing from Wise’s collection.
Plus, although Tann possessed a few pieces that didn’t seem to have come from Wise’s inventory, both men felt that they had an explanation. Owing to the quality of the items that Tann had purchased, the pair suspected that Cunningham had stolen them from Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan.
So Sansweet and the Rancho Obi-Wan crew began to go through their entire inventory to figure out what – if anything – had gone missing. And in the interim, Tann decided that he’d keep working with Cunningham. This wasn’t as a bid to claim the Rocket Fett for himself, however; instead, he wanted to get the figurine back to Wise.
Tann therefore texted Cunningham, who quickly admitted to being “nervous” to hand over the figurine. He also reportedly wrote, “A friend, Philip Wise… has one very similar, and it was literally stolen about two weeks ago.” But when Tann asked if Cunningham had access to Wise’s collection, the other man said no. He then made a startling statement.
According to Tann, Cunningham followed up by saying, “No idea how [the Rocket Fett] could have been stolen. The last time I was there, it was locked inside a case… Unreal. And [Wise] has video surveillance.” It appeared that Cunningham had just described all of the hurdles he had overcome to take the Rocket Fett himself.
Cunningham also claimed that Wise had sold him the figurine, meaning he would have to sell it back to Wise instead of Tann. So he sent Tann some of his money back – and that’s when Wise confronted him about stealing the figure in the first place. And supposedly, the shame of stealing from a friend was too much for Cunningham to take, so he duly admitted to Wise what he had done.
Plus, not only did Cunningham give back Wise’s Rocket Fett, but he also confessed his actions to Sansweet. Specifically, the man revealed that during three separate volunteering rounds at Rancho Obi-Wan, he had stolen from the collection. Sansweet went on to file a police report, with the authorities subsequently putting out a warrant for Cunningham’s arrest. The wanted man ultimately surrendered and afterwards pleaded guilty to the charges that he had been given.
In all, Sansweet believed that Wise had stolen more than 100 valuables – with a staggering combined worth of more than $200,000 – from his collection. And then there was the emotional toll of the theft to consider, too. In 2017 Sansweet told The Guardian that he had to deal with the “feeling of utter betrayal that someone could stoop to this level… someone [he] had invited to [his] house and shared meals with.”
But Cunningham had the chance to apologize directly to Sansweet when he appeared in court for sentencing on November 30, 2017. At that time, the man in the dock said, “I just wish there was something I could do to take away the pain that Steve and others feel and the shame that I brought on my family for putting them at risk for what I’ve done. I was a good person. I’ve done terrible things to people.”
Nevertheless, it appears that Cunningham’s words did little to sway Sansweet’s opinion of him. Indeed, when the Rancho Obi-Wan owner gave a victim-impact statement in court, he said, “Although he has expressed words of apology, not for one moment do I believe that Carl has truly felt remorse for his actions against me and others.” The judge seemed to agree, too, handing Cunningham a sentence of 12 months to be spent in Sonoma County Jail. He also ordered him to pay Sansweet roughly $185,000 in restitution.
In the end, then, Sansweet enacted a new rule at Rancho Obi-Wan that forbid anyone from entering the collection alone. Both he and Tann also questioned their future as collectors; Sansweet even considered the possibility of closing down his museum. But, eventually, both decided to carry on. And in 2017 Sansweet told the Los Angeles Times, “Star Wars fans – there are none better… We’re not letting this one really rotten apple spoil the bunch.”