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banjo headA Stolen Instrument Story With a Happy Ending

Dateline: Saturday, July 15, 2000 - Wendell, NC

by Don Zepp

Interesting goings on here yesterday.

Shortly after I opened the store yesterday, Friday, morning, I received a call from a local semi-professional banjo player whom I knew of, but had not met, and who was clearly distraught. His house had been broken into the preceding night, and his Stelling Golden Cross was stolen (as was his Martin HD-282R, along with their respective Calton cases).

I took down descriptions of the instruments, just in case (he didn't have the serial numbers! If you don't have your numbers written down somewhere, please stop reading right now, and go make a record of them). He assured me that with their Calton cases bearing his name, I'd know them, and that the Golden Cross also had his name on the truss rod cover. I countered that any self-respecting thief would simply remove the instruments from their cases, and turn the truss rod cover over. Nonetheless, it was my intention to post the theft of the instruments to the various places that list such things (including BANJO-L, of course).

An hour or so later, while I was showing guitars to some regular customers, I glanced out the window and saw two young males, one of whom was carrying a banjo, sans case, towards the store. A second glance told me that it was a Stelling...

Sure enough, a few seconds later, he was in the store with a used Stelling Golden Cross, asking if he could get it appraised. Seems he had bought it at a yard sale for $150 to learn to play, but just couldn't get the hang of it.

I took the instrument from him, asked a few questions about its age, etc., and removed the resonator. I then told him I'd be with him in a moment, as I had to help the guitar testers. As the boys (one was, perhaps 14, the other 17-18) wandered off to look at the other banjos, I quietly asked the guitarists to a) keep an eye on the two, and b) to play loudly. In a regular voice, I then said to one of the guitarists "Sure, I think I've got an old one in the back...just a minute." and I wandered to the back of the store where I dialed 911 and asked for a police officer. I then carried some papers back to the loudly playing guitarists, and said "Here's what you need."

I returned my attention to the boys with the banjo, who had by then discovered the prices on the Stellings hanging in the store, and who were now even more interested in the value of the banjo.

I made a (slow) show of looking up the value in the Blue Book ("Let's see... Q...R...S... it should be in here somewhere..."), and after pronouncing it to be worth well over a thousand dollars, was asked if I'd like to buy it. I allowed as I might be, but as it was a bit old, I'd need to try it. I then played a tune on it. One of the kids obligingly said: "Cool, the Hillbillies!" to which I replied: "No, no, the Beverly Hillbillies goes like this..." and then bought some more time by playing that a couple of times.

I then made a show of looking down the neck, which I proclaimed to be in need of adjustment. I removed the truss rod cover (surreptitiously noting that, as expected, the owner's name was engraved on what had become its the underside), which I casually laid down on the counter, and started to rummage through my tools for a nut driver. As I was returning to the banjo, in came Marty, a local cop (the brother-in-law of my girl friend's best friend, and who had just stopped by at my girl friend's house that morning). As he stood at the counter next to the boys, I handed him the truss rod cover and said: "Hi, again, Marty. These young gentlemen seem to be in possession of a banjo stolen last from the fellow whose name is engraved on this piece."

The elder kid feigned surprise, and repeated his contention that he had bought it at a yard sale, um... just right that morning (said Marty-the-Cop: "A Friday morning yard sale? Hmmm... don't see many of those!"). After checking the kid's ID, and having a few more words, Marty-the-Cop said to the elder kid: "Well, I guess you won't mind coming to the station (a block away) so we can talk about this, because you are in possession of stolen goods." The kid said "Sure," and Marty cuffed him and headed out, telling the younger kid to go wait in their car.

The problem was that when Marty got to the station, he had no reason to hold the kid, as he had no report of the banjo's being stolen, only my assertion thereof, so he called me to try to find the owner. Unfortunately, although I had dutifully written down all the details about the instruments that morning, I had failed to write down the owner's phone number! Not only that, I didn't even know where he lived. Marty-the Cop started calling local police stations, and I started calling local bluegrassers, trying to find a number or address for the owner.

After about 30 minutes of calls, I was successful, and got back to the owner who had county sheriff's investigators with him at the time. They in turn called the Wendell Police saying they had heard he had a breaking-and-entering suspect in custody. Marty later said he had been unable to find any official report of the banjo's being stolen, and was about to release the kid when the call came. He said he was delighted to hear that a banjo was among the stolen items, for he then had reason to hold the kid.

At that point, he went back to get the younger kid. As he was on his way (a block-and-a-half), a call came in on the radio, saying that they were looking for a red Camaro that was seen speeding out of the neighborhood whence the instruments were stolen, and, as he rounded the corner, there was the younger kid, dutifully sitting in the car--a red Camaro. Having just been given reason to search, he found in the trunk two Calton cases: an empty banjo case and one with a guitar in it!

Bingo! The kids were held for the Sheriff, and arrests made. Later, when the cops came back to the store with the elder kid in tow, he said to me "I didn't take the stuff." and the cops with him said, "Yeah, but you were with the guy who did when he did it." The kid then said "Yeah, and I've done time for him for this sort of thing before." (!)

Now, making this even more interesting was the fact that I found out where the victim lives: about 400 yards from my house (which is 25 miles from my store), in the neighborhood that backs up to mine! If it weren't for the trees, I could see his house from mine. Just think, the kid could have been trying to sell me one of my own instruments...

BTW, there have been several break-ins near my home recently, in which thefts mostly computers and stereo stuff were being taken. About 4 years ago, we had had a rash of just such robberies here in my neighborhood (my next-door neighbor was hit, as was the house across the street), and a group of fairly local kids was ultimately caught and arrested. Now I find myself wondering if the banjo-stealing kid--who said he had "done time" you'll recall--was responsible for those break-ins, too!

Anyway, all's well that ends well. The banjo owner couldn't get his instruments back yesterday--the D.A. will have to release them--but he came over to the store to thank me for my role in their recovery, and I loaned him a used Stelling Sunflower so he could play his gig last night. I think I may have gained a customer, and at the very least, I've learned that right near me lives another banjo player.

The morals of all this are, for me:

1) Keep a copy of your serial numbers--I would have had a hard time justifying calling the cops if he had brought in the unidentifiable guitar (although knowing the cop on the beat sure helps--he took a chance holding the kid on nothing more than my say-so).

2) If someone tells you to be on the lookout for stolen goods, be sure to get a contact number! We were very, very lucky.

3) If you deal in used instruments, be sure to keep abreast of what's hot and what's not.

4) If something is stolen from you, report it immediately, and then, call around to the local places in which it might surface. It worked this time!

Yours in the eternal fight against crime and evil-doers in general,



Don Zepp operates ZEPP Country Music in Wendell NC and also maintains the BANJO-L website. BANJO-L is a free email discussion group about all things concerning banjos. You can easily subscribe to it from the website.

Email to Don at .


Main text ©2000 by Don Zepp

Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 09 Apr 2007 by WF