Philly Insectarium ‘Heist’: The Aftermath, Financial Troubles and Internal Disputes

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

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

“I remember following everything that happened. For about six months, every time someone came to the door unannounced and knocked, my body would seize,” Mangiola said. “I would just stop. If someone rang the doorbell unannounced. I would stop.”

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

A Philadelphia Police detective on the case said earlier this year that the case is still open.

‘Bug Out’ and the aftermath

A recent documentary series on IMDB TV, which aired last spring, has put the case of the missing bugs back in the spotlight. This four-part series, entitled ‘Bug Out’, presented the argument by former Cambridge employees that they only took their own bugs with them after they left.

Butterflies land on everything in the butterfly pavilion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

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 those interviewed, including Mumper, Tomasetto and Rzepnicki, for defamation.

The museum’s financial problems continued after the creatures disappeared. In 2018, the museum became a non-profit organization to “facilitate the evasion of taxes the company could not pay,” as Cambridge explained in a lawsuit against Rzepnicki, the museum’s former operations manager.

In 2019, an employee then working in animal care said the department remained underfunded. They recalled buying feed for animals and gas for travel shows without being reimbursed. The clerk also said that they had been doing construction work for which they did not feel qualified. Cambridge claims that the Insectarium reimburses staff for labor costs. WHYY have agreed to withhold this person’s name over fears of retaliation from Cambridge.

“All we knew was that John was a little bit eccentric, and that was something we all laughed about and knew … But I don’t think I really realized how much and to what extent his … eccentric nature could harm those around him.” him and the museum as a whole,” says the employee.

A visible example of this, pointed out by former staff, is at the rear of the museum, where 24 old shipping containers are stacked in what Cambridge calls “the sandcastle,” a structure he designed himself and is showing as a work of art designated. At the end of 2019 things went up.

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

“There are so few other things here that … serve as beacons for the community, so if we have the opportunity to create something that you can see from Frankford Avenue and … create more interest in this area, we’re going to do it,” Cambridge said.

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

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

“It caused quite a stir when all these shipping containers came in and they looked kind of rusty and ugly and they were stacked behind a building … people across the street were calling and complaining,” she recalled.

The “sand castle” and the museum itself also caught the attention of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections. The insectarium has 46 violations in its ownership history and has failed most of its inspections.

Cambridge said the breaches are just demands the city is asking them to comply with and he is complying with all of them.

“Whatever you see there, it’s something that we’re aware of and are addressing with the city,” he said. “We are… eagerly compliant.”

Keeping the museum running was ‘one giant Sudoku game’

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

“It was fun and exciting, but sometimes it got a little bit messy,” he said. “He was like a real juggernaut. There was no stopping him. Whatever he wanted, it had to happen.”

“He would reach for the stars and settle on the moon. So he had these very huge projects and ideas that he wanted to make that were probably impossible. So when he shot there and we came up to him and said, ‘Well, we’re halfway there,’ he then said, ‘Cool, all right, well, that’s half.'”

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

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

“Sometimes I fought back because I thought, ‘That’s not the procedure for this… We have to do this… By the book’… He threw the book away,” O’Leary said. “He said, ‘We just have to figure out what we’re doing here, figure out how to do it, or get close to it.'”

Cambridge said after a few years as CEO he learned “not to be bullied so much. There’s no way you’re going to make everyone happy.”

“I’ve been bullied a lot … by people who just say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, so you shouldn’t be doing it.’ … Nobody knows what they start with. That’s no excuse not to do it and not get things done. This is a call to learn quickly and with humility,” said Cambridge.

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

“It was like a giant Sudoku game.”

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

Trisha Nichols was the Education Director of the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion. She now teaches online courses in entomology. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

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

“He ended up wanting to…teach my educators to juggle.”

“I really loved the place when I was there and I loved the work I was doing and I loved the effect I had on the kids and I wouldn’t change any of that for the world,” she said. “I also know that the Insectarium has been actively morphing into a place that I didn’t really want to be a part of… I get a little sad at times… driving by it and knowing I’m not there. ”

As part of her own business, she continues to teach courses on natural sciences and insects.

Cambridge filed for personal bankruptcy in May this year. He said he hadn’t accepted a paycheck in a long time and put all his money into the insectarium.

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

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