My stolen viola recovered by sharp-thinking good Samaritan

I am a part-time professional musician, and started playing the viola when I was 5 years old. Here in the Seattle area I play most often with Northwest Sinfonietta, and a new experimental orchestra called Scrape.

In October 2012, my viola was stolen out of my car. I was traveling and had just landed in Houston to go to a funeral the next day. I lived there for ten years, and my ritual as soon as I get there is to go straight to my favorite taco stand and get fish tacos. I picked up my best friend, who asked me before she got in the car if I wanted to put my things in the house. I said, “Nah, it will be ok!”

The restaurant is very very small and is in a great neighborhood, not dangerous at all. We parked in front of the restaurant’s patio, where about 20 people were eating dinner. I was definitely conscious of leaving my things in the car, not just my viola but also my laptop, iPad, and luggage.

We weren’t in the restaurant more than 30 minutes – in fact, had been sitting outside just around the corner from view of the car.

When we left, my friend walked around to her side of the car and froze in her tracks. I will never forget the look on her face when she realized that everything had been taken through the broken back passenger window.

We called the police and filed a report. The police told me actually NOT to call the pawn shops, because if the pawn shops know it’s stolen they won’t accept it. I was advised that my best chance of getting it back was to wait, that someone would find it and bring it to a real violin shop someday.

I was supposed to play a concert in Phoenix two days later with Northwest Sinfonietta, which is based here in Tacoma/Seattle. A friend from Seattle flew an extra viola down so that I could play the concert. My colleagues told me many stories about stolen instruments being recovered, sometimes after a few months but my friends at Hammond Ashley Violins in Issaquah told me a tale of a viola returning after 20 years.

After I returned home to North Bend, I started writing a very long description of my viola and the two bows that were also in the case. I scoured the internet for email addresses of violin shops in Texas and surrounding states. I sent the info to anyone I could find, figuring i would cast the widest net possible. Somehow I had included the email address of a shop in Philadelphia on my list.

When local music shop owner Lloyd Ernstes found the viola at the pawn shop in Missouri City, Texas, it was by Googling the name stamped on of one of those bows that led him to Mt. Airy Violins in Philadelphia. He called there, and owner Elizabeth Shaak immediately recalled my email about the stolen items. She forwarded the email to Lloyd, who then called me.

The next morning, a reporter from KPRC Channel 2 in Houston called to interview me over the phone for the news!

It’s cheesy, i know, but I feel like Lloyd and Elizabeth are my Christmas angels and that it’s a true miracle. There are still good people in the world and at a time when terrible things are happening, some good can still be found.

The two big things i learned from this experience were

  1. Never leave anything in the car that you care about, even for a minute in a place you think is safe.
  2. Take photos of the things you care about in case something ever happens to you!