Musicians get their gear ripped off all the time. Someone unhitches a band's trailer and hauls ass. Another guy snatches a guitar off the stage and steals away into the night while the band is busy chatting up girls at the bar. People break into motel rooms and vans and private homes, and the gear ends up for sale underground, or in faraway towns, in Mexico or overseas, or on the Internet. Rarely do the rightful owners ever see their beloved instruments again. Instrument theft is so common that it hardly bears mention in the paper. But this case is different. This time, the good guys won.
For two years, Joey Wyatt has booked a room in Francisco Studios, the multistory red-brick rehearsal space on the gritty fringes of Old Chinatown. In one of Francisco's rooms, Wyatt stashed all of the equipment that he and his budding young cover band Defiance owned.
It so happens that Wyatt's dad is also a musician, and one night about four weeks ago he felt the need to jam. Joey gave his dad the keys and told Dad to go rock out.
When Dad arrived, he forgot which room his son's equipment was in, so he tried to open several doors before one finally opened. There, he was astonished to find four young men, who were equally surprised to see him. When Wyatt's dad told them who he was, the young guys told him that his son's space was just around the corner and showed him where it was. Dad went in and rocked for a while, and then went home and told his son what had happened.
Little did either Wyatt know that a light bulb -- however dim -- had gone off over the heads of the four kids in the wrong room. "I didn't think much of it at the time," the younger Wyatt says. "In addition to the deadbolt, there was also a padlock and other locks."
Days later Wyatt got a call from Francisco Studios telling him that there had been a break-in. Someone had sliced through the padlock and crowbarred the steel plate off the door at the top. When Wyatt arrived, the police were already there.
"When I walked into my room, all my stuff was gone," he says. "About $20,000 worth of equipment. Everything. We're talking bass cabinet, bass head, Marshall stack, Marshall head, two $1,000 guitars, about $4,000 worth of PA stuff, about $6,000 worth of drum gear, not to mention the software and all the other crap that I had."
Wyatt -- who, as events will soon show, is a natural-born cop -- was less than impressed with the work of the Houston Police Department. "The female cop that was there -- she didn't even know how to take a fingerprint. She was dusting, and I said, 'Aren't you gonna put tape on there and try to lift a print?' And she was like, 'Oh, yeah!' And so we didn't get any fingerprints and basically just went home empty-handed and depressed."
Wyatt returned home and put together a flyer describing his purloined equipment and stating a reward for its recovery. He downloaded pictures of the stuff off the Net and typed up a catalog of all his receipts and serial numbers (even those he couldn't find were still in the computers at Evans Music and Guitar Center) and made about 100 four-page flyers. He planned to stick them under the windshield wipers of all the cars in Francisco's lot.
Wyatt's lawyer told him to talk to Francisco owner Gonzalo Nango and find out what kind of insurance they had for events like this. Wyatt's attorney also told him to advise Nango that he was liable for the theft, since Nango had neglected to put a tape in the security camera. And then there's the fact that the back door to the studio has been broken for months
So Wyatt thought he had a pretty good case to at least get partially reimbursed. The day after the investigation, Wyatt arrived back at the studio. He wanted to have a chat with Nango, and he brought along a video camera to document the fact that his key worked in at least two doors.
"So I was taping myself sticking my key in every door, and when I came to this one room, the door opened. And there was four guys sitting there. Guys that I had known. We had even lent them drumsticks, helped fix their guitars, all kinds of shit."
The four guys acted cool at first. "They said, 'Hey, what's up?' I said, 'Nothing much. I guess you heard all my shit got taken, and the really weird thing is, my key fits your door. So I'm gonna look around in here for a few minutes if you don't mind.' And they said, 'Sure, go ahead.' "
Wyatt was pretty nervous. After all, he was by himself and he had a pretty good idea that these guys were involved. After all, he knew they had the key to his frickin' deadbolt. "I realized that if I found something, some shit could go down. These guys could shoot or stab me to keep themselves from getting in trouble. I started getting really nervous, and when I opened this one guitar case and it wasn't the guitar I was looking for, I just said, 'All right, you guys are cool. Sorry for barging in on you.' And they said they'd keep their eyes open for me."
As he was getting ready to leave, Wyatt had one last request. Would the guys mind filming themselves opening his door with his key? They said no problem, and while they were doing so, Nango arrived. Wyatt was showing Nango that the two keys worked in both locks when he noticed something in the guys' space that he hadn't seen before.
"I saw three of my cymbal stands and my high-hat stand. None of them had serial numbers, but they were all different brands, just like mine. Also, I specifically bought a two-legged high-hat stand, which is uncommon. So I laid all that on the floor and said, 'This is my shit, this is my shit! I can't believe it!'
The guys denied it. They said they'd had the stuff for years. Wyatt called Guitar Center on his cell and had them rattle off all the relevant makes and models -- a list that exactly matched what was lying on the floor of the studio. Wyatt's next call as to the police.
Wyatt spent the next ten minutes or so arguing with Nango and the two musicians. "Finally, I just said to them, 'Look. I know you have my shit. Just give me this and all the rest of it and I won't press charges.' "
Suddenly the two band members and two friends of theirs who were also there all had a bunch of pressing appointments. The two guys not in the band vanished when nobody was looking. One musician said he had a one o'clock class and had to go immediately. Wyatt allowed him to go, but only after copying his information off his driver's license.
One band member was left, and he was sticking to the story. The stuff was his, he told the cop, and the cop pulled Wyatt aside and told him that he really didn't have a case. There were no serial numbers on the cymbal stands. Even the fact that he could prove he bought identical ones, even though the accused culprit had a key to his rehearsal space, meant nothing. Circumstantial evidence.
Suddenly Nango came to the rescue. "He said, 'Hey, man, those two guys that took off -- their room's down the hall here. They took off so fast they left the door unlocked.' "
"We went and opened up the door, and half of our stuff was there," says Wyatt. "I started jumping up and down, I was so excited." The band member started talking. "He pulled out a 16-channel mixer and some cymbals that were hidden in his room. And the rest of the stuff was at one of their friends' houses or in pawnshops."
(HPD and other police forces routinely check the serial numbers of instruments at pawnshops, so Wyatt would have gotten that stuff back eventually. But the thieves had pawned only the cheap stuff -- they apparently planned to keep the pricier gear.)
Later that day, Wyatt and his guitar player drove back up to Francisco's and knocked on the nearby band members' door. One musician, whom the cops had released pending further investigation, let them in. "My guitar player started yelling at him right off the bat," Wyatt recalls. "I told him to knock it off." He said he told the accused thief it was his chance to redeem himself. "We lent you our best set of drumsticks one time, because you didn't have any, and this is the thanks I get?" he said. "Now's your chance to make it right."
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Wyatt is a big guy with a somewhat intimidating demeanor, and he's 33 years old and the president of his own medical scanning company. The alleged thief was much smaller and only about 20. He didn't stand a chance.
"Of course I wanted to physically abuse him, but I felt I could get more results by kind of having a psychological talk with him. So I said we could make all this go away if I just got all my stuff back as soon as possible. And I wouldn't press charges. Simple as that."
Less than 24 hours later, Wyatt had almost all of his stuff back. A few days later he had all of it. The other band has been kicked out of Francisco Studios. And now Wyatt keeps his gear at home, where he has a monitored alarm.
Not that it's necessarily any safer there -- Wyatt's home has also been broken into this year. "I caught that guy and got all my shit back from him, too," notes Wyatt, the Charles Bronson of Houston musicians. "My dad told me I missed my calling in life."