To Catch an Orchid Thief: Interview with Susan Orlean

Dee Perry–How did you find out about John Laroche?

Susan Orlean–When I was flipping through this newspaper... it was just a newspaper that someone had left on an airplane next to me. It was the one time I was glad that airplane crews don't clean up absolutely thoroughly. I saw the headline and it read "Local Nursery Man, Three Seminoles Arrested with Rare Orchids in Swamp." And that's the sort of headline I find irresistible. It just asked a million questions. And looking at it made me turn the page, and turn the page back and I thought, "What is this all about?" And especially even the structure of the sentence, that there was a distinction being made between one of the people and these three other people that were Seminoles. What they were doing with rare plants in a swamp, well why would you take rare plants out of a swamp? Frankly, what were these Seminole tribe members doing mixed up in this whole thing? It was just filled with questions and no answers. I didn't know anything about orchids. I knew that the Seminole tribe had a lot of land in Florida, but I didn't know anything about why they would be involved.

Frankly I didn't know orchids grew wild in Florida. I had no idea. And even though I'd been in Florida many times, I'd never heard of this particular place. When you know a place pretty well, you fancy yourself being intimately familiar with all of it. To read about a place and discover, in this little story, was a place not far from where I'd been, I'm sure I'd driven past it. And here it was, a place that has rare plants that are found no where else in the world. It was almost like a piñata. You see the shape of it and then you tap it and all of sudden these things fall out and they're things that don't seem like they all should've ever been at one place at one time. So I was hooked, even though the idea of doing a book about orchids and an orchid collector was as far from my mind as anything I can think of.

DP–Yeah, when I'd heard the description I thought the same thing, I don't know anything about orchids and I don't know that I'd want to, but it's really an irresistible story. And in part because of John Laroche. Talk about him and what kind of person you discovered him to be.

SO–John was really unlike anyone I'd written about before. And quite honestly, unlike anyone I'd ever known before. First of all, he is a self-taught man. He is somebody who has no academic credentials to speak of beyond high school, and yet when he gets interested in something, he is a tireless self-educator. He learns it backward and forward, inside and out. He consumes it, and that itself was sort of a remarkable thing. Almost an old-fashioned quality, that "self-taught man," the one in the library, reading volume after volume about something.

He is an incredibly irritating person (laughs) who enjoys being provocative. He enjoys playing you against your expectations. He's a great egomaniac, somebody who has no interest in living an ordinary life. He would never have done anything in a simple way. Everything had to be an attention-getting event, something grand. Everything had to be written in large letters.

There was one incident that was in the book, but I'd forgotten about it until recently. We were going to an orchid show, it was no big deal at all. Tickets to go to an orchid show are two dollars, it's less than a movie. When we got there, Laroche thought it would only be interesting to go if we could somehow persuade the people who were selling the tickets that we should get the tickets for free. It really wasn't worth the time, it was only a couple of dollars. There was no reason we should have gotten the tickets for free, but for him everything was a challenge. "How can I outwit the system." "How can I sort of rub against the grain and make people think differently about something they thought was really very ordinary." You should pay for your ticket, that's the way that it is. "Well why should I pay for the ticket?" There's sort of a constant agitation in him that made him very interesting. If he were just a simple crook, I don't think the project would have been as enticing.

The fact is that through the entire book, or my reporting on it, I never really settled on how I felt about him. He had schemes that at first glance seemed completely selfish and greedy, and on second glance seemed fascinatingly provocative. Sometimes I would think he was just... not exactly putting me on, but the grandness of his schemes was something of a show. And then other times I'd think, "Well no. Really he is living that sort of life." He's a real character. On the other hand again, there is something about him that isn't so eccentric that you can't relate to him in any way. A person who is so outside the margins, is a whole different sort of person to take on when you're writing. If they can't embody some qualities that the regular reader can identify with then they're too alien. I think most people would not read about John Laroche and say, "Gee I'm just like him," but there are certain things about him where I think you have that shock of recognition of thinking, "Oh yeah, I know that feeling," when you first start collecting whatever it is you collect and that's all you want to think about or talk about.

DP–Let's talk about the orchid theft itself. Laroche had a theory that if he was working with the Seminole Indians, and had his assistants go in and actually steal these endangered plants, he wouldn't necessarily be breaking the law...

SO–That's right, and this is the typical John Laroche special. He had done some research and had discovered that the laws regarding endangered species, and in particular the Native American exemption to some of those laws, in Florida law. It's not very clear which of those two concerns overrides the other. Is it the notion that endangered species need to be protected and that includes everyone and everything. Or are Native American's rights somehow a higher concern and that overrides those laws. Well, because it's not clear, it's been very difficult. And there have been many cases that have gone, in fact to the Supreme Court, to try to sort this out.

Well his notion was as far as it stands right now, the law in Florida is not clear. Seminoles are entitled to go and collect these orchids. It is illegal to collect wild orchids. In addition, these were growing in a state preserve in Florida. So Laroche thought, "Well this is my opportunity." He was working for the Seminole tribe, he was helping them set up a plant nursery. And he proposed this plan to them and they accepted it. And they had their own agenda. The Seminoles are the only tribe that is still at war with the United States. They've never signed a peace treaty. So every once in a while, an issue like this brings out a sense of entitlement and kind of a little thirst for conflict. "We are going to show that we are not at peace with the United States." So I think there was a lot of enthusiasm for it. Laroche decided to build himself a little insurance plan. He went in with a crew of Seminoles who were working with him. He didn't touch any of the plants, he'd just point to the ones he wanted, and they'd cut the branches the orchids were attached to. The reason he was collecting these orchids were not to just make one bouquet. He wanted to propagate them. These are orchids that you can't buy commercially. He wanted to propagate them and therefore have the very special and unusual group of plants that they could then market and presumably do very well.

Again, just when I'd come to my conclusion that Laroche was just a greedy guy looking to make money, he pointed this out to me. Which was, "As soon as I'm done doing this, I'm going to go to the Florida legislature and give a speech and point out to them that they need to correct these laws. They're terribly written, they're in conflict and frankly if I'm smart enough to figure this out, a lot of people will be eventually." Although John thinks he's the smartest person on earth so he would've figured it out first. And his feeling was that this is going to set an example, and, "After I do it, they're gonna go back and fix these laws."

Well on one hand, you scratch your head and think that's the craziest thing I've ever heard. On the other hand, there was a sort of mad logic to it, which is: this law is a mess. It ought to be figured out and written properly. If he had been able to make a great case for it, there's a chance that someone would've taken him up on it and said, "We can't let this happen again." Well of course that's the irony, he wanted to be the negative example rather than the positive one. He wanted to do the terrible thing and then somehow emerge from it as the hero and say, "No one should do this terrible thing again." It was this hilarious self-contained thought process that John is so good at, which is, "I'll get what I want out of it and then, gosh darn it, no one else is gonna do it because this is terrible."

DP–So how did the case eventually work out, or has it completely?

SO–The case has completely settled in an unresolved way. Essentially, the state had to really acknowledge that they couldn't prosecute him for taking these rare plants, because the law isn't clear. Instead they decided to prosecute him only for having the branches cut down from the trees, which was as good as they could get him on. It's a little like busting Al Capone for tax evasion. You can't get them on the real charge because the law requires too many twists and turns to get a conviction, so you go for something somewhat innocuous. The fine was not large, he was banned from the swamp for six months and the law is still sitting there. There is no reason someone else couldn't go back and do the same thing again. But the prosecutor was so irritated by Laroche, and believe me I understand this. I think his feeling is "All right, I concede the point. I can't prosecute him fully on this count of taking the orchids, but I'm gonna get him for something." And he did.

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