The Case of the Wandering Bass

Steal a guitar, go to jail. That's what happens in the normal world. But then there's Miami Beach.

Musician Mitch Mestel loves his custom-made electric bass. Built eleven years ago, it has a uniquely curved neck and an unvarnished plainness. "It's brown, mostly due to sweat," says the 36-year-old New Jersey transplant.

On Halloween night Mestel was playing at Cactus Cantina, 630 Sixth Street on South Beach, with Jabberwocky, a comedy folk group.

"Somewhere around the second or third set, these three guys came in," Mestel recalls. "They looked pretty street-ish. They'd been drinking a manly amount. As we were packing up our equipment, one of them was getting very, very helpful. Suddenly my bass was gone, and so was he."

Mestel called the cops, but the cops didn't come. He went to a flophouse near the tip of South Beach, where someone had told him he might find the thief. No luck.

Finally, around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, a tearful Mestel went to the Miami Beach Police Station to file a report. To his surprise, the thief was standing in the lobby -- holding the pilfered bass. The rightful owner lost no time repossessing it.

"I laid it up on the counter and told these two desk cops exactly what kind of bass it was," says Mestel. "I told them where they could find my name and social security number on it. As I'm telling them this, these two guys I'd never seen before start shouting and screaming like the Dolphins just won the Super Bowl. They're watching me and cheering like crazy."

Witnesses say the two strangers -- whose names Mestel never learned -- tackled the thief outside Uncle Sam's Music Cafe at 1141 Washington Avenue, across the street from the police station. "They'd seen this guy around South Beach, always with different instruments, and they drew their own conclusions," Mestel explains. "One of 'em grabbed my bass, the other put the guy in a full nelson."

But after making their citizen's arrest, the strangers found themselves in custody. A passing patrolman decided they might be strong-arm robbers. He asked them and their quarry to come with him to the station to hash things out.

Enter Mestel.
After failing to win release for the strangers who rescued his bass, Mestel asked to fill out a police report. That's when he says police informed him he had to leave his bass as material evidence. He balked; the thief went free.

"I can't believe the legal system is set up this way," Mestel exclaims. "I wanted to file a report and see this guy go to jail. But to do that I have to give up the tools of my trade. So they refuse to arrest this scumbag! I don't know who I'm more peeved at, the police or the thief."

Bruce "Opie" Wareing, the officer on desk duty the night of the theft, could not be reached for comment for this story.

"I don't know, under the circumstances, why the officer felt it would be necessary to hold the musical instrument," says departmental legal advisor Marjorie Sakin. "It doesn't sound off-kilter. We have all sorts of evidence in our evidence room. Every case is different."

Mestel waited outside the station to see if the two heroic strangers would actually go to jail on strong-arm robbery charges. About fifteen minutes later, they exited the building. Mestel says he hopes they'll show up at the Clevelander Hotel bar, where he's playing this Sunday, so he can thank them in person.

 
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