Case of the stolen $6 million Stradivarius violin ends happily ever after

In the underbelly of St. Paul's Park Square Theatre it's 30 minutes until show time and violinist Frank Almond is just getting warmed up.

As Concertmaster for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Frank often travels the country accompanied by a 300-year-old, $6 million Stradivarius violin. He's had it on loan for nine years, and he performed in St. Paul recently not as a culmination of the nine years they've spent together, but because of the nine days of hell they spent apart. 

A few years ago the instrument was stolen in Milwaukee, making international headlines; it was the first known armed robbery of fine art.

Now the FBI and the Milwaukee police are releasing behind the scenes details and crime scene images, giving us a look into the one of the most riveting art crimes in history.

It was January 2014. Frank was walking to his car after a concert in Milwaukee, Stradivarius in hand, when he was ambushed with a Taser. He remembers it all too well.

"I was down long enough for him to get the violin and get in the van but I was up fast enough to watch the van drive off," he said. "It was like a Coen Brothers movie where you're trying to explain to these beat cops or a dispatcher that a multi-million dollar instrument has been stolen in a robbery."

Despite the shaky start, investigators gained traction quickly. Within 48 hours there were two major clues: a traceable Taser cartridge and the discarded violin case.

Then, in a timeline only seen in Hollywood movies, investigators keyed on a local street criminal who had been plotting the Stradivarius heist for years. They broke him down, cut a deal and he took them to the goods.

Dave Bass, a specially trained agent with the FBI Art Crimes Team, jumped on the case early.

"We made it into the house and we're all like, 'Okay where's it at? Where's it at?' he said. "I remember everybody's looking at him, the subject., and he points up to the attic. And I remember thinking. ‘Oh no.’ I'm thinking to myself, surely he didn't leave it up in that attic this whole time, so I had a little bit of a sinking feeling."

Special agent Tim Bisswurm was also there that night. He leads the FBI's major crimes division in Milwaukee.

"As time went by, I mean this was so exciting at the time the room was filling up with more and more people," he said.

Huddled inside the house, they'd now have to wait for a search warrant.

Although painful, it turned out to be a good thing. It gave the attic time to slowly warm up, which helped the violin, loosely wrapped in a baby blanket, acclimate. When Dave finally unwrapped it and declared it intact, a room full of cops--and one robber--exhaled.

"It has seen decades come and decades go, so that gave me some degree of comfort," Dave said. "But still to be in an attic in Milwaukee, it just defied all logic."

The first feel-good phone call was to the Milwaukee police chief. The second was to Frank Almond.

"So I'm standing in the parking lot of a strip mall in Jupiter, Fla. talking to the chief about nine days later. "He said, 'We found the violin' and I said, 'You're kidding,'" Almond said. "The fact that it really didn't have any major damage was astonishing."

Three years later, in downtown St. Paul, the dynamic duo is ready to take the stage.

But Frank's not slated to play his usual concert series--in fact the audience doesn't even know Frank is here until he's introduced by his two accomplices.

For the next two hours, the audience is captivated by three men telling a behind the scenes story of an awkwardly executed violin heist, its unprecedented recovery and everything in between.

As you'd expect, there are new, undisclosed safety protocols for Frank and the Stradivarius. But after everything it's been through, even Frank will tell you the violin's destiny isn't his to control.

"It's 300 years, you know it's been through a lot," he said. "It's quite resilient and I'm sort of going through its life.” 

So for now, it's a happy ending. Case closed.