Philly Insectarium ‘heist’: The aftermath, financial troubles, and internal strife

After the “heist,” Cambridge called the police, who sent armed officers to question Mumper and some other employees at their homes, including Anthony Mangiola, a teenage intern who was still in high school at the time.

Mangiola said officers first questioned him at home without his parents present, and then later, he was questioned at a police station for around three hours.

“I remember following everything that happened. For about six months, any time someone would come to the door unannounced and knock, my body would seize,” Mangiola said. “I would just stop. If anyone rank the doorbell unannounced. I would stop.”

Neither Mumper, Tomasetto, nor Mangiola have been charged with any crimes.

A Philadelphia Police detective in charge of the case said earlier this year that the case remains open.

‘Bug Out’ and the fallout

A recent documentary series on IMDB TV, which aired this past spring, has now thrust the case of missing bugs back into the spotlight. That four-part series—called “Bug Out”—presented the argument from Cambridge’s former employees that they merely took their own insects back with them after quitting.

A butterfly lands on a piece of plastic.
Butterflies land on everything in the Butterfly Pavilion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cambridge, represented by his father who is a lawyer and also a member of the museum’s board, has now sued the filmmakers and some of the interviewees, including Mumper, Tomasetto, and Rzepnicki, for defamation.

The museum’s financial trouble continued after the creatures went missing. In 2018, the museum became a nonprofit to “allow avoidance of taxes the corporation was in no position to pay,” as Cambridge explained in a lawsuit against Rzepnicki, the museum’s former director of operations.

In 2019, an employee who worked in animal care at the time said the department continued to be underfunded. They recalled buying food for animals, and gas for travel shows, without being reimbursed. The employee also said they did construction work, which they did not feel qualified to do. Cambridge maintains that the insectarium pays employees for work expenses. WHYY agreed to withhold this person’s name because they fear retaliation from Cambridge.

“We just knew that John was a little eccentric and that was just kind of something we all laughed about and knew … But I don’t think I really realized the extent and extent to which his … eccentric nature was really harmful to the people around him and to the museum as a whole,” the employee said.

A visible example of this that former employees point to is in the back of the museum, where 24 old shipping containers are stacked up in what Cambridge calls “the sandcastle,” a structure he designed himself and describes as artwork. It went up in late 2019.

Shipping containers are haphazardly arranged on an open lot.
An outdoor space for events, made up of shipping containers, added in late 2019 at the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“There’s so few other things around here that … serve as a community beacon, and so if we have an opportunity to create something that you can see from Frankford Avenue and … drum up more interest in this area, we’re going to do it ,” Cambridge said.

He said he would like to see it become a performance venue and a plaza.

It certainly got people’s attention, said Trisha Nichols.

“It did cause quite an up-stir when all of these shipping containers started coming in and they’re kind of rusty and ugly looking and they’re getting stacked behind a building … the people across the street were calling in and complaining,” she recalled.

The “sandcastle” and the museum itself also got the attention of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses & Inspections. The Insectarium has 46 violations in its property history, and failed most of its inspections.

Cambridge said the violations are simply requests that the city asks them to fulfill, and he follows all of them.

“Whatever you’re looking at on there is something that we’re aware of that we’re addressing with the city,” he said. “We are … avidly compliant.”

Keeping the museum afloat was ‘one giant game of Sudoku’

Michael O’Leary, who worked for the Insectarium briefly and has been a friend of Cambridge for more than a decade, said he sees a different side of Cambridge. With him, he claims, every day is a new adventure.

“It was fun and exciting, but it got a bit chaotic at times,” he said. “He was like a true juggernaut. There was no stopping him. Whatever he wanted, he needed to happen.”

“He would shoot for the stars and settle at the moon. So, he had these very huge giant projects and ideas that he wanted to get accomplished that were probably impossible. So if he shot for there and we came to him and said, ‘well, we got half of it done,’ he would then say, ‘Cool, all right, well, this is half.’”

A new event space in the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion, featuring a creature mural. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

However, O’Leary said that quality also made Cambridge difficult to work with — particularly if you didn’t buy into his vision or didn’t want to push as hard as he did to get something done.

“There are times when I resisted because I thought, ‘this is not the procedure for this … We need to do this … by the book’ … He threw the book out.” O’Leary said. “He was like, ‘We just need to figure out what we’re doing here, figure out how to get it done, or come close.’”

Cambridge said after a few years as CEO, he has learned “not to get bullied as much. There is no possibility that you’re going to make everybody happy.”

“I have been bullied many times … by people who just say, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing, so you shouldn’t do it.’ … No one knows what they’re doing to start out with. That’s not an excuse not to do it and not get stuff done. That’s a call to learn quickly and do so with humility,” Cambridge said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Nichols was still working at the insectarium. She decided to create virtual classes, and later some in-person classes, on insects and science that local schools would pay for. She said the insectarium’s work environment remained the same, and scheduling classes was difficult because she had to balance virtual and in-person classes, how long it would take to drive, which employees liked younger kids, who liked working with which animals … and so we.

“It was like one giant game of Sudoku.”

“Money was tight, and turnover was wild. But you know what? I was actively teaching kids, interacting with kids every day, watching their faces light up … The reason I stayed was for that,” Nichols said.

Trisha Nichols was the director of education at the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion. She’s now teaching online courses on entomology. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That changed last year. Cambridge created and sold art classes, including classes on juggling, that Nichols thought she and her team of science educators were not really qualified to teach. She said that as the director of education, she would like to have a say in what classes the museum offers, and losing that felt like losing the freedom to create programs and see them through. So she finally left.

“It ended with him wanting to teach … my educators how to juggle.”

“I really loved the place while I was there and I really loved the work that I was doing and I loved the impact that I was having on the kids and I wouldn’t change any of that for the world,” she said. “I also know that the insectarium was actively changing into a place that I didn’t really want to be a part of … I am a little bit sad every now and again … to drive by it and to know I’m not there. ”

She continues to teach classes on science and insects as part of her own business.

This May, Cambridge filed for personal bankruptcy. He said he has not taken a paycheck in a long time and put all of his money into the insectarium.

“I’m proud of my bankruptcy,” Cambridge said. “I did everything I said I was going to do to try and protect and save and grow this place.”

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