Buzz Bissinger é um conceituado jornalista americano. No final da década de 1980 ganhou um prémio Pulitzer na categoria de jornalismo de investigação. Alguns dos seus artigos foram adaptados ao cinema. Nos últimos anos celebrizou-se escreveu vários livros relacionados com desporto. Agora, na Vanity Fair, conta a história de como um criminoso de rua se interessou e foi acusado de roubar um violino Stradivarius.
It isn’t every day that a street criminal—a high-school dropout with two felony convictions—is accused of stealing a centuries-old violin worth as much as $6 million. But nothing about the heist of the Lipinski Stradivarius, which galvanized the music world last winter, was normal, or even logical
Looking at it one way, there was a certain twisted creativity to it.
It just isn’t every day that a high-school dropout and twice-convicted felon, your basic street criminal, as he was described, is the alleged mastermind of a crime that no one in law enforcement the world over had ever quite seen. Maybe it wasn’t the crime of the century, but it definitely was the crime of the century in Milwaukee. The city, known for beer, bratwurst, the Brewers, and frighteningly large portions at German restaurants, had never been a hotbed of headlines. But this made national and world news not seen since the days of the city’s own serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
The Milwaukee Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation put out dozens of officers and detectives and supervisors to crack the case and find a suspect named Salah Salahadyn.
Forty-two years old with a thin frame and the studied manner of someone trying very hard to be measured and professorial when he is neither, Salahadyn was a Milwaukee native and fancied himself a high-end art thief, according to police.
It is not exactly clear why he fancied himself this way. There was no evidence that he was a high-end art thief, except for one strangely bungled attempt roughly 15 years earlier in which he tried to return—for a finder’s fee—a $25,000 statue to the same Milwaukee gallery owner from whom it had been stolen. (In an interview with Vanity Fair, Salahadyn insists that he did not know the statue had been stolen.) He was arrested by police and given a five-year sentence for receiving stolen property.
His lifestyle, a free apartment and $400 a month in return for managing the apartment building, with two of his five children under the age of three, and fighting to make ends meet over the years by selling weed, did not seem the stuff of The Thomas Crown Affair either. He was articulate and well spoken, somewhat at odds with his fractured life. You couldn’t help but feel it all should have been better. But you only had to spend a minute with him to figure out that he loved notoriety even if it was bad, that he had a very serious case of grandiosity.
Still, there was method.
This idea of stealing a Stradivarius violin known as the Lipinski—299 years old, still eminently playable, and valued at somewhere between $5 and $6 million—did not just fall from the sky. Police say Salahadyn had been thinking of stealing a Stradivarius for at least a decade, ultimately setting his sights on the Lipinski because of the Milwaukee connection. He knew the patterns of his target, the routine of where he worked, where he parked, where he shopped, what car he drove, the name of his wife, all chilling because of the stalker aspect. According to police, Salahadyn went to one of his concerts, noting, among other details, that he was the only African-American there. He knew the history of what he was after, so much so that you could say he had become obsessed with it. This was no ordinary object of desire.
If you look at it another way, there was something dangerous and almost deranged about it, the kind of crime Abbott and Costello might plan, after consultation with Cheech and Chong and Martin and Lewis. There were also repercussions that could have been catastrophic far beyond the fate of a multi-million-dollar violin.
A Taser was used on Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond as he was about to get into his car in a parking lot in subzero temperatures after a performance on January 27. Tasers in very rare instances have caused fatal heart attacks. In falling to the ground, the 50-year-old Almond could have cracked his head open on the patchy ice that had built up as a result of the frigid winter.
The Taser did immobilize Almond just long enough for someone to grab the violin case slung over his left shoulder. In that respect the crime went off just the way Salahadyn had allegedly dreamed of in prison—the ease of stealing a Stradivarius simply by grabbing it from an unsuspecting classical musician.
But there are two parts to an art heist such as this—stealing the object and then having a plan as to what to do with it afterward. It was in this second area that the scheme seemed stunted.
The getaway vehicle was a somewhat bruised minivan, sticking out like a phosphorescent bulb because of its maroon color. Police say its driver was not some trained professional but the mother of three of Salahadyn’s children.
It did not help that the Taser used on Almond shot out dozens of confetti-size identification tags, thereby enabling the F.B.I. to track down where the Taser had been purchased online and the owner of record.
It also did not help that the owner, the sublimely named Universal Knowledge Allah, or Uni to his friends, an affable barber and Tupperware consultant hoping to crack the middle-age-housewife party market, blabbed about details of the robbery (he was not at the scene that night) to a customer, who coughed him up to the police. It did not help when a former inmate who years before had been in the same Wisconsin prison as Salahadyn, sniffing a reward for the return of the violin, said in an e-mail to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that Salahadyn had talked in prison about stealing a Stradivarius. A $100,000 reward was offered, and in high-end thefts of this nature, it sometimes has the same effect as the perfect worm, with fishes jumping all over themselves to the top to get it.
It really did not help that unlike hubcaps, for example, or even a python, you can’t just walk up to someone in the street and say you know where you can get a really good deal on a stolen $6 million violin. It really really did not help that the Stradivarius happened to be stolen in perhaps the one place in America where the police chief didn’t think it was a form of Streptococcus and, fully cognizant of its cultural significance, decided to send in “the cavalry.”
The cavalry won.
In July the 37-year-old Allah, after admitting to his role in the theft, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Salahadyn is scheduled to appear in court on October 3. According to Milwaukee Police detective Billy Ball, one of the key investigators on the case, the district attorney’s office agreed after his arrest in February to reduce the charge against him from armed robbery to robbery. In return Salahadyn agreed to lead authorities to the violin and also plead guilty, according to Ball.
Several scheduled hearings were postponed, one in July, when Salahadyn’s attorney withdrew as counsel, and the most recent in early September, when, eight months into the case, Salahadyn’s new attorney asked for a motion hearing.
As of mid-September, Salahadyn had still not filed any plea, although claiming innocence appears somewhat difficult for him because of a lengthy interview with Vice News in which he did a seemingly failproof job of incriminating himself. During the interview, which he gave without the knowledge of counsel, he admitted to being involved in the robbery of the violin and in the physical possession of it. He claimed that he had been coerced by an Asian crime syndicate that he had made contact with and performed various activities for over the years; in this case he said they wanted him to take the Lipinski to Chicago, presumably for eventual transport to somewhere else. But he said he had changed his mind because he could not bear for the priceless instrument to leave its rightful home of Milwaukee.
Federal and local law-enforcement authorities describe Salahadyn’s claims as ludicrous, ridiculous, and pretty much any other likewise description. Dave Bass, who is a special agent on the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team and who works in the bureau’s Milwaukee Field Division, where the case was assigned, says there is absolutely no evidence that an Asian syndicate was behind this. He gives several reasons, the most cogent being: Why would any sophisticated crime organization trust a local thief from Milwaukee, particularly one with terrible judgment?
Bass believes the motive may have been the $100,000 reward that was being offered by private sources. It is not uncommon in art heists for someone to steal an object, send in “mules” to help “find” it, and then reap reward money, since owners are often frantic to get their property back with no questions asked. So perhaps the intent was to let the investigation die down, make sure no specific names had surfaced, and then aid in the recovery in return for at least a portion of the reward. The flaw in this scenario, as Bass notes, is that the money is not usually released unless there is a conviction.
Or it simply could have been what Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn hypothesized: “We can’t ever dismiss the nitwit factor.”
Whatever the motive, it is safe to say that neither Salahadyn nor Allah could have remotely imagined the tsunami that was about to hit them. Nor could the Lipinski, whose nearly three-century journey up until the moment of the robbery had already been the musical equivalent of the cat with nine lives.
On April 28, 2008, Frank Almond received a curious e-mail. The writer, who still refuses to be publicly identified, claimed something improbable. She or he said that he or she was in the process of inheriting a Stradivarius violin known as the Lipinski. Two or three times a year, Almond got e-mails similar to this, about the discovery of a Stradivarius. It was typical for someone who had reached Almond’s stature: two degrees from Juilliard and the Charles and Marie Caestecker Concertmaster Chair at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He’s also the founder of a much-acclaimed chamber series called Frankly Music and a guest concertmaster appearing with symphonies across the globe.
Since around 1666, when the singular genius Antonio Stradivari began making his own violins in Cremona, Italy, it is not unreasonable to assume that everyone in history has at one time or another come to believe that the violin shoved into the corner of the attic is in fact a Stradivarius when it was probably purchased at a Henny Youngman concert.
Not much is known about Stradivari except that he was a workaholic up until his death, in 1737. (The exact date of his birth has been pegged to sometime around 1644.) For centuries classical musicians and scholars and scientists have tried to pinpoint the exact reason that his instruments are still believed to be the best ever produced, an unequaled balance of upper partials and lower partials, bright and joyful at times and painfully beautiful at others. Trying to account for the uniqueness of the Stradivarius is something of a growth area unto itself. Some say it was the varnish (no proof). Some say it was because of wood that was indigenous to the Cremona region and is now extinct (no proof). Stefan Hersh, a leading expert in the field of rare string instruments, sums it up best when he says, “What certainly must be true is that Stradivari had to have a great intuitive feel for acoustics, astonishing skill as a carver, and a truly dazzling imagination to create the works he did.”
Many of those who have played a Stradivarius, whether it’s a violin or viola or cello, ascribe human characteristics to it. They talk about its soul and its moods. It is no accident that many of them, including the Lipinski, are named after past owners, in this particular instance noted 19th-century Polish violinist Karol Lipi´nski. You don’t simply repair a Stradivarius; you “stabilize” it. If you follow that line, the instrument can also be bratty, temperamental, imperious if it doesn’t trust you, and, like a runaway, prone to disappearance.
In past years they have reportedly been left in the trunk of a New York taxi, a Newark cab, a train in Switzerland, on a porch in Los Angeles, the seat of a Porsche, and the side of the freeway, once again in Los Angeles, after it flew off the top of a moving car, according to one account. Some were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Another had been camouflaged in sticky black shoe polish, and it was only on the precipice of death that the person playing it admitted it had been stolen 49 years earlier. Another was stolen from its owner in New York as she was critically ill and 19 years later has still not been recovered. Yet another was stolen from a sandwich shop at a London train station when the violinist using it had become distracted with her cell phone.
The Stradivarius has also been accused of fraud. The French being the French, whose role in the world seems to be to debunk everything that isn’t French, have instigated research studies, one in which maestro violin soloists played a variety of instruments and basically could not distinguish between a Stradivarius and a much newer violin.
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