ATLANTA (AP) – Stolen oboes, trumpets and ornate, hand-crafted violins, valued all together at more than $100,000, have been recovered thanks to the keen observations and collaboration of music shop employees in Georgia and North Carolina.
Investigators recovered the instruments at a Studio 6 hotel in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell on Wednesday – the same week the Violin Society of America had sent an urgent bulletin about the thefts to its members nationwide.
Leslie Edwards Fields, 52, and Gary Donald Crouse, 60, were apprehended after one of the suspects showed up at a Roswell shop seeking violin cases, Roswell Police spokeswoman Lisa Holland said. Both men are charged with theft by receiving stolen property. It was unclear if they had attorneys; their names were not yet listed in county court records Friday night.
Fields and Crouse had sold violins to a shop owned by John Montgomery in Raleigh, North Carolina, in recent months, but the manner in which they presented the instruments and the stories they gave made Montgomery suspicious. When he researched the violins, which are hand-crafted and have unique characteristics, he determined they had been stolen from Atlanta-area shops.
Montgomery contacted Atlanta Violin in Roswell and office manager Megan Hallam said they worked together to reclaim the stolen instruments and alert police.
“We definitely felt like we were involved in some kind of spy caper,” Hallam said.
Fields had been inside Atlanta Violin multiple times and Hallam said he typically wore a suit jacket. It’s unclear how the violins were stolen, but the staff suspects the jacket was modified to conceal the instruments, Hallam said.
The store’s owner and other staff shared concerns over Fields, but Hallam said the shop works to offer a friendly and welcoming environment and no one questioned him or trailed him through the store.
“We are gonna trust our instincts in the future,” Hallam said.
In late April, Crouse came to the North Carolina violin shop saying he was looking to sell an elderly woman’s collection. Montgomery said he made a photocopy of Crouse’s driver’s license before buying the instruments.
Fields also visited the North Carolina shop in late May and again on June 8, saying that he wanted to sell his mother-in-law’s violins. Montgomery said he grew suspicious after Fields brought in seven violins on his second visit.
“There’s a certain type of person who plays violin and he was not that type of person,” Montgomery said. “He couldn’t keep his story straight.”
Montgomery researched the violins online and said their characteristics led him back to Atlanta-area shops that had information about them on their websites. Since violins are made with wood, experts can use irregularities in the organic material to judge the instrument. Montgomery said a knot in the wood is almost like a birthmark or freckle.
“Just like you’d look at a painting, you can look at a violin,” he said. “You can look at a Van Gogh and say it’s a Van Gogh.”
Hallam said Montgomery sent two stolen violins Fields and Crouse sold him back to the suburban Atlanta shop and three others were recovered when the men were arrested. Atlanta Violin has agreed to reimburse Montgomery if his insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the instruments, Hallam said.
“He did the right thing. He could have tried to keep his nose out of it,” Hallam said. “He didn’t, he made a point of making sure he was part of fixing a problem.”
Investigators also found two oboes, two trumpets and a clarinet inside the hotel room and are looking for the owners of those instruments, Holland said. Another recovered violin and trumpet have been linked to other suburban Atlanta music shops.
All together, the stolen instruments are believed to be worth more than $100,000, police said.
The violin society sent an email warning of the thefts to about 3,000 people on its distribution list earlier this week, said account manager Lewis Martinez. Some members shared the message on social media.
“Word can spread very quickly, and if people are made aware, they can be on their toes when these people do show up at their door,” Martinez said.
Thefts of violins are unusual, but not without precedent, said Lori Kirr, president of the violin society.
“It’s not very common, but we all kind of tend to stick together when something like this happens and get the word out,” Kirr said.
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