CASEY: Rightful owner reclaims unique guitar | Dan Casey

Gary Hunt isn’t sure when the guitar went missing from his girlfriend’s home in southwest Roanoke County. He said he believes it was sometime in August. They were in Belize for the first week of the month. And in between working and some house-sitting after they returned, they weren’t at home much.

The instrument was stored there, in a case, stacked on top of three other cased guitars. Sometime around Aug. 19, Hunt noticed the stack looked short. The top guitar was gone.

“It was a matter of suddenly being aware it was gone, and then thinking about it,” Hunt told me.

Unlike the others in the stack, the missing guitar was unique — and I’m not using that term lightly.

It’s made mostly of ziricote, a dark and gorgeously grained hardwood from Central America. Hunt himself brought the unfinished boards back to the United States after successive summer trips to Belize with the small education charity he heads, Bookbag Santa. He got the wood from a guy who owns a bar at the end of a pier in Placencia, a Belizean fishing village.

Second, the instrument was custom made. It was a project by 14 members of the Blue Ridge Luthiers, a group one of them described as “a ragtag band of misfits and instrument-makers.” The luthiers worked on it for more than 100 hours, part time. That consumed more than a year. They completed it in February 2016.

“The sound was gorgeous,” said Larry Sakayama of Wirtz, one of the guys who worked on the instrument.

The finished product was also stunning. “The wood is hard to get, and it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s like a landscape,” Sakayama told me. “If you were to buy one commercially it would be very expensive.”

“It was a much fuller-sounding guitar than you would expect from that body size,” said Chet Dickerson, who also worked on it. “It’s not something you’d typically see in a production guitar.”

Hunt had planned to auction the guitar to raise money for Bookbag Santa, which annually moves tons of discarded, gently used school supplies from the Roanoke Valley to impoverished students in Belize. (I was part of that group trip in 2015). But Hunt hadn’t yet figured out how to market the auction. That’s why the instrument was stacked in his girlfriend’s home.

When he realized it was missing, Hunt didn’t call Roanoke County police. Why?

One reason: He didn’t know exactly when the theft happened. Another: There were no signs of a break-in at his girlfriend’s house. He reasoned there was little evidence, or anything the cops could do.

Anyway, instead of calling the cops, Hunt made up a flyer for the pilfered guitar. Via both email and in person, he delivered it to four Roanoke music stores. He also took the flyer to 12 pawn shops he identified using the Yellow Pages. And he spread the word on social media.

Hunt was hoping to get the pilfered instrument back that way — and it worked.

Tuesday morning shortly after 11, a young woman entered Kelley’s Music. The store on Brambleton Avenue has been in business for 36 years. Guitar Player magazine has dubbed it one of America’s top independent guitar shops.

The woman was trying to sell Hunt’s missing guitar. Manager Corey Hunley, who’s also a local musician-songwriter, was behind the counter. The instrument is so distinctive, Hunley said, that he recognized it “within 10 seconds of speaking to her.”

“I see the guitar that’s been posted all over Facebook as a stolen guitar, with [Hunt’s] name and number attached to it,” Hunley told me. “So I call the guy and say, ‘Hey, your guitar’s in our store right now.’ ”

“She hovered around the shop for a while, with the idea I might be interested in purchasing it,” Hunley added. Around 11:50 a.m., she left with the instrument.

“The rest is history, as viewed through a glass-paned window” of Kelley’s Music, Hunley said.

As the young woman walked to her car with the guitar, Hunt pulled his van into the parking lot and spied her. He dialed 911 for the Roanoke County police and asked them to come to the store. Then he approached the woman and began chatting.

Police received Hunt’s call at 11:50 a.m., said Amy Whittaker, a Roanoke County spokeswoman. An officer arrived at the scene at 11:59.

By then jig was up. The officer told Hunt he could take the guitar with him. Bonus: Hunt also recognized three rings on the young woman’s hands as belonging to his girlfriend. They hadn’t realized those had also been stolen.

Hunt told me he believes the young woman is associated with an acquaintance of Hunt’s girlfriend’s son. Hunt suspects the acquaintance stole the guitar. He might have had a key to the house, Hunt added.

Whittaker said no one had yet been charged, but police are still investigating.

Hunt drove out of the music store parking lot feeling greatly relieved. But, he said, the young woman who had had his guitar was experiencing different emotions.

“She was standing there, talking to the cops, with tears in her eyes,” he said.

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