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Folktales: Birdnapped
The true story of the abduction of beloved Big Red
By Darren Urban Oct 25, 2023

The following is based -- pretty closely -- on a true story. The names have not been changed because, frankly, they didn't have to be. Be sure to catch the newest video episode of Folktales when it debuts at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the Cardinals YouTube channel.


The afternoon was overcast as I sat at my desk, hoping rain would eventually pelt the window but knowing it never would, and there was a knock at the door.

The man introduced himself as J. Scott Gavin, and he had a story to tell. And if there was anything I could do it was write a story. The whole thing felt a little Interview With A Vampire-ish, although Gavin was not a vampire, just a musician, wearing a T-shirt repping his band (The Thieves About) and talking about his past.

That past had been as Big Red's handler for more than a decade from 2001-2011, a lifetime ago. "Big Red, the Cardinals' mascot?" I asked. "What else would it be?" Gavin replied.

There were thousands of appearances with Big Red over his decade-plus, but it was a 2004 incident that was burned into Gavin's brain. That was the story he wanted to tell.

"I remember it vividly," Gavin said, and how could he not, when he was talking about his bright red Chevy Tahoe with sparkly rims as he pulled into the parking lot of the Cardinals' Tempe complex one January morning. He was taking Big Red to a Special Olympics event that day, and he had time to kill. Checking emails and doing some paperwork was the goal, but as he approached the front door, a co-worker convinced him to walk across the street and get a snack at the QT gas station.

This, I thought, wouldn't turn out well.

"When we came out of the QT, I noticed the truck was gone," Gavin said.

No. It did not turn out well.

Getting your car stolen affects you in some kind of way, and even all these years later you could see how the moment once shattered Gavin. But there was more than that, more than just the loss of his transportation and the violation of his world. The missing car wasn't just what had made his heart – and stomach – sink. Big Red had been in the back of the car.

"I got really nervous and scared," Gavin said. "All those thoughts, they just start racing around in your brain."

Big Red had been, intentionally or not, birdnapped.


Gavin shook his head at the memory. Where do you turn when a Big Red (truck) is stolen, especially when it has Big Red inside? It really shouldn't have been surprising when Gavin found yet another Big Red.

OK, Rick Knight wasn't that big – probably about 6-foot-2 – but he did have red hair, and he was the Cardinals director of security, so of course that's who Gavin would seek out. Knight was also ex-police, and with all this stuff being taken, involving law enforcement was going to be a necessity.

Just not yet.

Weeks went by with nary a word. Gavin replaced his car and his Big Red. They took a trip to Denver for the mascot convention when Gavin got a voicemail. It was from the Tempe police. They had found his car, but not the huge Big Red bag that had been in the back. That, Gavin admitted, would have been too fortuitous. As he explained, I wondered why he would even imagine, if all these weeks had passed, there would be a happy ending. Then again, I've always been a cynical sort.

Reliving this wasn't easy. Gavin stayed composed in acknowledging he had never expected the rims and tires to still be there. But the paneling was different. It was filthy, and Gavin said he insisted it wasn't his car – except the police showed him the VIN and yes, it was. If he wasn't going to believe them, he could believe all the Big Red autograph cards that were still tucked into the back side of the SUV.

That really should've been the end of it, Gavin said. All's well that didn't end well, but life goes on. A new car, a new Big Red, two chapters should've been all that was needed.

Then J. Scott Gavin got the call that would change his life. (Or at least the end of this story.)


There had been a story in the paper talking about Gavin's misfortune. One day soon after, he got a call while sitting at his desk.

"Are you Scott Gavin?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"I've got your bird."

Gavin got emotional recalling the moment. "It took my breath away." Big Red still had a chance. The caller offered to show Gavin he wasn't lying. And a couple of days later, a box arrived for Gavin at his office.

It was a shoe. A lone shoe, but most certainly a Big Red shoe. "It was proof of life," Gavin said, as if he was reliving the moment all over again. I didn't have the heart to tell him a shoe usually wasn't regarded either as proof of life or something untoward, but I was here to chronicle, not to lecture.

Another phone call came, making sure Gavin saw the shoe, and predictably asking for a ransom.

That's when Knight fully entered the story. He had been a cop for 20 years, eventually moving from part-time security with the Cardinals to a full-time role. He had started as security to help with owner Bill Bidwill. But when Big Red was taken, Knight had just left the force less than two years before, and the police instincts were still very much flowing through him.

That's also when Knight fully entered the office. Gavin had called him to join us in the retelling.

Tracking down the culprit was in Knight's wheelhouse, and "Scott wanted to be involved in the whole thing," he said.

The whole thing had made Knight nervous. You could see that. Years of investigations and cases and bad people left a mark, and guys asking for ransoms usually weren't up for Good Neighbor awards. The guy kept calling Gavin, they'd have conversations. He told Gavin he didn't steal the car, but he knew who did. And obviously – probably? – he had Big Red. "You built a relationship with a bad dude," Knight thought.

But maybe, just maybe, that could be of use. There was something sinister here. Maybe this was a car theft ring the two of them – with police help, of course – could break up. Maybe it was deeper than that. Maybe, Gavin said, "it was a birdnapping ring."

That seemed a longshot to me, but I was out of the judgment business. I'd better be, after listening to this tale for so long. But it held my attention, especially when the two of them began talking about the decision to try and have Gavin wear a wire, to meet up with the guy at a convenience store just off the freeway in Phoenix. Knight had a spot where it could be easy for the police to trap the guy.

When you start talking about wearing a wire, though, that's when it gets real. And Gavin just smiled when that possibility was brought up now. He was never going to do it then, and his feelings hadn't changed.

"I've seen plenty of movies where the guy wearing the wire gets whacked," he said.


The calls stopped.

Kind of an abrupt end to it all, I said to Gavin. He nodded his head. Not all stories end neat and tidy. If anyone should understand that, it should've been me. The near-daily contact he had with the guy suddenly came to a halt, and Gavin knew that wasn't good. In one of their last communications, the guy said he needed to get out of the country, and who knows – perhaps the Big Red Ripoff Artist didn't have an international calling plan.

It looked like tears might be welling up in Gavin's eyes as he reached this point of the story. Sure, it could've been allergies, but I don't think so. The car had been brought back and he had found a new Big Red, so why emotionally invest so hard in saving the first one? "It'd become a part of me," Gavin said. "I was really driven."

The pragmatic Knight also wished Big Red could've been found. This was a case he couldn't solve, no matter how much he had wanted. His best guess is that Big Red was down in Mexico, maybe South America. "Who knows where he ended up?" Knight said. "I hope he's doing well."

Gavin took a moment to compose himself. "I'd like to think he went to a better place," Gavin said, and you could feel the genuine optimism as he said it.

I pictured Big Red on a beach, near a boat. It could be Zihuatanejo for all I knew. But as the two men got up to leave, and I started mulling how exactly I was going to write all this into some cohesive piece, one thought kept nagging at me.

Where would Big Red have found a replacement giant bird-foot shoe? Because he was missing one.

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