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How a scheme to steal a Stradivarius went awry

In January, a street criminal tazed Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond and stole his precious Stradivarius violin. Unfortunately for the thief -- who was sentenced to seven years in jail Monday -- the police commissioner in charge was a symphony devotee. Buzz Bissinger of Vanity Fair joins Jeffrey Brown to tell the tale.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: the story of an unusual heist in the world of classical music that was years in the making, with an unlikely thief, a police commissioner devoted to the symphony, and a historic instrument.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's called the Lipinski Stradivarius, a violin made 299 years ago by the master instrument-maker valued at some $6 million dollars. And on January 27, following a performance, it was stolen from Frank Almond, the concert master of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

    But just nine days later, it was found safe and sound in the attic of a local house. Forty-two-year-old Milwaukee native Salah Salahadyn pleaded guilty to the theft last month and today was given a seven-year sentence.

    Journalist and writer Buzz Bissinger told the strange tale of the robbery and its aftermath in a story for "Vanity Fair" magazine. He's the bestselling author of "Friday Night Lights" and other books and joins us now.

    And welcome to you.

    So the theft itself was pretty easy. Done with a Taser, right? Tell us a little bit about the theft and the plot.

  • BUZZ BISSINGER, Vanity Fair:

    Well, you know, Salah Salahadyn had a plan. It was a plan he talked about in prison.

    He said — and he was right — he said, you know what would be really easy is to steal a Stradivarius from a violinist, because they really don't protect them much. There's no security. And he thought about it and he basically went and did it. He cased Frank Almond's house. He knew his patterns. He went to his concerts. He knew his exit patterns.

    And on that very, very frigid, frigid January night, he got out of his van. He saw Frank coming out of the concert hall. He used the Taser. Frank was obviously shocked. And he took his $6 million Stradivarius violin and, by the way, bows that were worth $50,000.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Not hard to take, but then hard to know what to do with, right? Do we even know what the motive was? I saw some theory that maybe it was to take it and then give it back for the money that he'd get.

  • BUZZ BISSINGER:

    You know, look, it's common sense. He had a plan, and, you know, it was a fine plan in terms of stealing the violin, although Frank did take care of hit. He wasn't cavalier about it, like some actually musicians are.

    But what are you going to do with it? Where are you going to fence it? It's not like hubcaps. It's not even like a giraffe. No one wants it. So, what are you going to do with it? He had no idea, I believe, what to do with it.

    What he said about wanting to buy the apartment complex where he lived to help older tenants and minority tenants, he's given a lot of different stories as to what he was going to do with it. I personally think he was going to try to profit from it.

    But he had one big problem, which is the police commissioner, Commissioner Flynn of Milwaukee, Ed Flynn, he may be the only police chief in the country who knew what a Stradivarius was. He went to the orchestra. He knew board members. And the police officers at the scene, they didn't know what it was.

    They kept saying, Mr. Almond, how do you spell Stradivarius? And then they said, what, $6 million? Well, he knew. And he got one on the phone with one of the police officers of the scene. And this were his exact words: "Send in the cavalry."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Send in the cavalry."

  • BUZZ BISSINGER:

    The cavalry was sent in.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • BUZZ BISSINGER:

    And Salah Salahadyn was a goner basically after that. They had cops and detectives, some from homicide, all over the place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There is of course a history of Strads being lost, sometimes taken, although not usually, I don't know if ever, by this kind of means.

    Tell us a little bit about this particular violin, because of course it has its own history. It's named after one of its former owners, a Polish violinist.

  • BUZZ BISSINGER:

    Well, you know, Stradivarius, there are about 600 instruments left.

    You know, the Stradivarius, it's amazing. It's remarkable. You think about it, that an instrument that was made 299 years ago is still basically perfect. I don't think anything — there is no anything that's ever been equaled by what Stradivarius has done and the sound he created.

    This was made 299 years ago. The original owner was Tartini, and he had this dream. He had a dream where the devil came to him, basically, and said, I'm going to play the most beautiful sound and melody ever. And he wrote it down. It was called "The Devil's Symphony," or "The Devil's Sonata," and then, from there, it went to Lipinski, who I believe was a Polish violinist.

    From there, it went other places. And, finally, it did end up in the hands of a man. And his wife was a concert violinist who had ties to Milwaukee, which is how it found its way to Milwaukee.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And so, in the end, what do you take from all of this? It sounds like it's partly a very funny tale of a caper gone awry that didn't have a chance from the start really. It's also partly, potentially tragic. So what do you take?

  • BUZZ BISSINGER:

    Yes, I find tragedy in it.

    I mean, it's very Coen brothers-esque. And to me, the tragedy is, first of all, Frank Almond could have seriously gotten hurt, not necessarily by a Taser. But if you crack your head on the ice — and there was thick ice — you can die.

    And I thought there was a tragedy in Mr. Salah Salahadyn. I met him. He's a very, very smart, bright, engaging guy, but he kind of got on the wrong track. He had two prior criminal felony convictions. And my sense was, you know, you could have done a lot else with your life than be the manager of an apartment complex, of which he was making no money, and then this cockamamie scheme to steal a violin.

    And that is, to me, where the tragedy was. This was a guy who should have done more with his life, but got caught up in the cycle of poverty and not knowing how to get out of it. It really shouldn't have happened.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Buzz Bissinger, thanks so much for telling us the story.

  • BUZZ BISSINGER:

    Thank you.

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