As the streaming landscape has expanded, the race to find new and crazier material for true-crime docuseries has taken off. Bug Out, IMDb TV’s four-part effort (March 4), is certainly a frontrunner in that heated contest, recounting an increasingly unbelievable tale that took place in 2018 at Philadelphia’s Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, an educational museum that was robbed of upwards of $50,000 worth of winged, slithering, and creepy-crawly insects. It was a crime that made local news, and then exploded onto the national scene thanks to a single late-night joke from Jimmy Kimmel, attracting reporters by the dozen and instigating a regional and federal investigation into who could have carried out this most unusual of thefts.
At the center of this media maelstrom was John Cambridge, the CEO of the Insectarium, who in Bug Out sits for an interview in front of a collection of perilously stacked, cockeyed armoires and dressers—an early, subtle tip-off to his own unreliability. Cambridge became the instant face of this sensational story, incessantly appearing on television to express his outrage over the daring heist, which he had discovered upon showing up at work on Aug. 24, 2018. The sight that greeted him that day was nothing short of jaw-dropping: a building wholly cleared out of its valuable contents. It wasn’t long before Philadelphia detective Michael Zanetich and special investigations officer Dennis Rosenbaum were on the case, partnering with former FBI agent-turned-PI Jim Maxwell to deduce the truth behind this bizarre situation.
To do that, they needed to understand the niche world of bug collecting. That subculture is depicted by Bug Out as a wild and expansive international community comprised of everyday hobbyists who like to own a few butterflies and beetles, more serious connoisseurs who covet rare finds that are often only procurable through shady means, and the seedy wheelers and dealers who have no qualms about circumventing USDA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations to earn a pretty penny buying, selling, and trading exotic and endangered critters on the black market. It’s a colorful ecosystem of people who find bugs beautiful, fascinating and misunderstood and director Ben Feldman highlights them with the same respectful enthusiasm that he shows to his prime players, who include not only Cambridge but his director of operations Chrissy Rzepnicki and education department staffer Trisha Nichols.
The exotic creature trade is reportedly an annual $20 billion racket, and the pilfering of Cambridge’s prized possessions certainly seemed, on the face of it, to be related to the uglier side of that business. Nonetheless, the more Zanetich, Rosenbaum, and Maxwell dug, the more they unearthed a raft of complications. Chief among those was Cambridge’s recent legal tussles with the Insectarium’s founder and former CEO, Steve Kanya, who had been unceremoniously pushed out of the institution he established after beginning his entrepreneurial career as an exterminator. According to Cambridge, Kanya had—during the construction of the Butterfly Pavilion—embezzled money for his own personal gain. A court case ensued, and resulted in Kanya’s eviction, granting sole control of the Insectarium to Cambridge, who was aided throughout this fight by his benefactor parents.
Kanya thus appears, at first glance, to be a potential suspect, and the fact that he freely expresses his deep, abiding disgust for Cambridge—who he claims is the sole person he’s ever truly hated—doesn’t alter that knee-jerk impression. An equally promising possible perp, however, is Wlodek Lapkiewicz, the Insectarium’s animal care director, who had close ties to international dealers and bug fairs vendors. Feldman manages to get Lapkiewicz, along with everyone else involved in this sordid saga, to speak on camera, all while maintaining energy and suspense through rapid-fire cutting and a spritely score. Mixing and matching archival and fresh footage to brisk effect, Bug Out treats its subject seriously but still recognizes that a sense of humor is required by the material, and it strikes a confident tonal balance as it spins an ever-widening web.
Eventually, Feldman visits the wilds of the Australian Daintree Rainforest, where father-son smuggling duo Steve and Dan Lamond make a living by providing clients with whatever exceptional item they covet. Not content with simply globe-trotting to that remote locale, however, he additionally spends some time south of the border, where a thriving tarantula trade is, according to Tarantulas de Mexico founder Rodrigo Orozco, run like a veritable cartel, with all the lethal danger that description entails. Furthermore, after providing a reasonably comprehensive overview of the bug-collecting universe, Bug Out introduces yet another prospective culprit behind the heist: Chris Tomasetto, who assumed control of the Insectarium’s animal care unit once Lapkiewicz wound up in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors.
“Not content with simply globe-trotting to that remote locale, however, he additionally spends some time south of the border, where a thriving tarantula trade is, according to Tarantulas de Mexico founder Rodrigo Orozco, run like a veritable cartel, with all the lethal danger that description entails.”
Tomasetto reportedly clashed at every turn with Cambridge, and in its third episode, the series reveals that Cambridge actually has security camera recordings of Tomasetto and his cohorts removing giant canisters from the facility. It’s easy to assume that these clips are both a smoking gun and key evidence that director Feldman has willfully denied us, the audience, as a means of distending a somewhat self-contained narrative. It’s thus a pleasurable surprise to learn, over the course of its final two installments, that the show has even more twists up its sleeve, and that there’s a reason behind its overarching storytelling subterfuge.
There’ll be no ruining Bug Out’s climactic bombshells here, but one can safely say that Feldman doesn’t cut corners when it comes to challenging his talking heads, peppering them with questions that force them to confront their own deceptions and lies—including to him and, by extension, to us. What emerges is a portrait of a fantastical swindle and a strange and squirmy subculture, as well as a snapshot of an amorally greedy creep who believes that the ends always justify the means. That the Insectarium is now in shambles, and virtually everyone who once loved the place is gone, speaks to the depth of the wrongdoing perpetrated by the person responsible for this fiasco, and more than any menacing spider or furry centipede, it’s that individual’s off-the-rails ugliness which ultimately makes this series so memorable.