The mystery of the missing clarinet

Joseph plays his clarinet on Thanksgiving for a school assignment.

Last fall, Joseph began playing clarinet with the STEAM Middle School band. This was a new instrument for Joseph, and for our family. We accepted an offer from Mary Ann, a friend at church, to use her daughter’s old clarinet, a beautiful old Buffet Crampon model made in France.

To our delight, Joseph has learned very quickly, making enormous progress since the fall. We enjoy hearing him practice, and it’s been fun to see him in the fall and spring concerts.

But disaster struck on a recent Thursday.

When Joseph and Josie came home on a recent Thursday, Joseph didn’t have his clarinet.

Yoli was certain she had seen him leave the house with it early that morning. Joseph, meanwhile, insisted he didn’t have the clarinet with him when he walked into STEAM Middle that morning.

A thorough search of our house didn’t turn up anything. When Yoli checked with the bus driver, she hadn’t found it. Nor was it in the school’s lost-and-found.

We began to feel desperate. Joseph needed to practice for his spring concert, which was just days away, and would count for a grade.

It was time to go full-on Inspector Morse … or Lynley … or Foyle … or Miss Scarlet. (We watch a lot of British inspectors)

The investigation begins

Sherlock Holmes (and Capt. Spock) once maintained that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains — however improbable — must be the truth.”

There weren’t many possibilities left, but it was time to narrow them down.

I called several nearby pawn shops, but none of them had received any clarinets in the past few days.

Then I reached out to the transportation department at the school district and asked if they could review video from cameras on Josie and Joseph’s bus.

We figured that if the bus video showed Joseph getting onboard with the clarinet, then that would mean he must have left it on the bus or at school. But if the video didn’t show the clarinet, then Joseph likely had set it down on the sidewalk while awaiting the bus, and forgot to pick it up again. Someone probably would have seen it afterward and swiped it.

Unfortunately nobody could review the video until Monday morning.

It was a long weekend. But Monday came at last. The transportation department reported to Yoli that the cameras clearly showed Joseph had set the clarinet down on the sidewalk that Thursday morning, and he didn’t bring it into the bus.

Our hearts sank. Almost certainly, then, someone had taken it.

Or rather, stolen it. After all, the clarinet had a name tag with our address and phone number. But nobody had called us or reached out in the five days it had been lost.

We hoped that maybe it had been taken by one of the kids who waited at the bus stop for a later bus. It would easier to find a student, we thought, than a random passerby walking down Chambers Road.

After school on Monday, I told Joseph the news. I explained that there would likely be some sort of financial penalty. We would need to replace the clarinet, which would be costly. And of course he would have to apologize personally to Mary Ann, who had loaned the clarinet to us in the first place.

Next I took Joseph to a tire shop across Chambers Road from the bus stop. The shop had many visible security cameras, though as far as we could tell, none of them pointed toward the bus stop. Still, maybe they could help. After a while, we met the owner, Abdullah, in the shop’s cramped back office. He told me if I returned Tuesday morning we could review the surveillance footage together before they opened the shop.

Mary Ann was out most of Monday evening for a church outing. But once she was home, Yoli took Joseph over to see her and apologize. It wasn’t easy for him, but she was very gracious all things considered.

A break in the case

Early Tuesday morning, Yoli went to the bus stop to speak with the kids who waited there for later buses, asking if any of them had seen anything. Some admitted they had seen the case, but nobody had seen anyone take it. Yoli gave them our information and told them we were offering a reward.

Later that morning, I returned to the tire shop, looking for Abdullah. He showed me the live feeds from all his cameras, and sure enough, there was one capturing a perfect view of the corner where the kids wait for their bus each morning. But Abdullah didn’t know how to work the software to review old footage, so we had to wait 20 minutes for one of his workers to finish a tire job and come help us.

Abdullah was surprised to learn I had visited his hometown, Jerusalem, 20 years ago during the second intifada. We talked about the neighborhood and our families. He lives in Ballwin for his kids’ sake, he said. He couldn’t imagine living in Ferguson.

“It’s a good town,” I said, as I told him about moving here 20 years ago. “We’ve got good neighbors. We look out for each other.”

When I asked if he had crime problems at his business, he said no. “It’s because I’m nice to all my customers,” he said. He had left cars unlocked in his lot in the past, and none were ever taken.

Over time the office filled with smoke and different conversations as we were joined by workers and family members. Some were taking coffee breaks, some wanted to know what was going on.

Eventually we began to review the footage. Sure enough, there were Joseph and Josie, arriving to the street corner around 6:35. I watched the screen as Josie begin to pace, a behavior I recognized all too well. Then Joseph set down the clarinet, just like the district told us he had. Eventually the bus came and took them away.

The clarinet remained on the sidewalk for quite some time. After 20 minutes, we watched someone come walking down the sidewalk, bundled up in dark clothes and toting an umbrella. Surely this is it, I thought. We began murmuring and laughing as the person repeatedly surveyed the clarinet and retreated. Clearly he or she was curious. Each time the person began to leave, he or she would hesitate and come back. But the nondescript case must have seemed suspicious, maybe even bomb-like. After taking a few final pokes with the umbrella and dithering a while longer, eventually the person walked away.

Moments later, a Toyota 4Runner stopped at the corner with its right turn signal activated. But the car didn’t turn. After a few beats, the driver opened his door and walked over. He grabbed the case and looked at it for a few moments, before climbing back in his car, turning onto Chambers, and driving away.

A tremor of excitement rippled through the office.

“There’s your guy!”

“He must live in the neighborhood. Nobody else would be driving that direction that early in the morning.”

“Yeah, you can find him.”

I felt certain I could. Though we couldn’t make out the license plate number, the vehicle was definitely a 4Runner. It had distinctive custom wheels, and it seemed like it might be iridescent.

We ran the video again, and I recorded it on my phone. I thanked Abdullah and the guys, then walked back home and got back to work.

Finding the 4Runner

I felt good. At last, a solid lead. We now had video evidence of someone taking the clarinet. The next step was to see if we could find the vehicle. I didn’t want to confront the guy, just get a license number. I figured the video and the license together would be enough for us to file a police report and have them take action.

That afternoon, Yoli visited several pawn shops. This served a dual purpose. She wanted to check again that nobody had tried to sell the clarinet. But she also wanted to see what might be available for us to buy as a replacement.

After the kids got home from school, we showed them the video. Ludi agreed to ride with me, as we drove through the part of the neighborhood from which a car was most likely to have come at that time of the morning. We saw a few cars that sort of fit the bill, but they didn’t have the right wheels, and they weren’t iridescent. But eventually we found a very promising red 4Runner. Though it wasn’t iridescent, it had big custom wheels. But it also had an “I Love Ferguson” sticker on the back. I wasn’t sure that I had seen a sticker on the vehicle in the surveillance video. Still, Ludi wrote down the house number and we got the license plate.

We couldn’t be certain it was the right one. So early Wednesday morning, Yoli and I decided to stake out the bus stop, to see if any cars matching the video would drive past. I brought my camera and my monopod and we waited.

Several cars drove by and parked along the curb ahead of us — parents dropping off their kids at the stop.

But after a while, there it was — the same 4Runner I had seen with Ludi the night before. To our surprise, the driver stopped, walked around the back, and opened his trunk. He pulled out the clarinet case, and began walking toward one of the vehicles ahead of us. I presume he was going to check with the parents there to see if it belonged to them.

I quickly dropped my photo equipment and jumped out of the car. “We’re the parents,” I called. “That’s ours!” He handed the clarinet case to me, then told me he was a parent of kids in the district. He wanted to make sure the clarinet got back where it belonged, he said.

And just like that, the case was closed, the clarinet found and returned.

It took just a few moments. Then we each hopped back into our cars and hurried to continue our days.

Joseph laughs in between frowns as I attempt to photograph him after his spring concert.


The timing of all this was perfect for Joseph, whose spring concert was that very night.

Clarinet in hand, he joined his bandmates for a rousing show, held in the gymnasium at STEAM High School. We were very proud to see him perform, and equally relieved to have the clarinet back where it belonged.

This whole situation was our own little miracle. Throughout the ordeal, we prayed for help. And help did come. We believe God cares even about things like this, and I hope it’s something Joseph will remember later in life.

On Friday, Yoli baked a few batches of cookies to serve as thank-yous. Joseph and I took some to the guys at the tire shop.

But we didn’t get a chance to properly thank the good Samaritan who helped us until Sunday. On Friday, we set out with a package of cookies, a gift card, and a thank-you card written by Joseph. But when we drove past his house, his 4Runner wasn’t there. Over the weekend, we kept driving by. Finally, on Sunday evening, we saw what we were looking for.

With Tigey in hand, Joseph and I knocked at the door and delivered the cookies. The Samaritan, whose name was Jamal, told me again that he just did what he would have wanted someone to do for his own children — and apparently one of his children is a friend of Ludi’s! I hope we were able to bless him.

Anyway, what I told Abdullah proved true. We’ve got good neighbors, and we look out for each other.

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