Stolen Stradivarius Violin, Worth Millions, Located by Milwaukee Police

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn says there is physical evidence linking crime to three people in custody since Monday

The rare multimillion-dollar Stradivarius violin stolen last month from a concert violinist in Wisconsin has been recovered, police said Thursday.

The violin was found in a suitcase in the attic of a Milwaukee residence overnight Wednesday, city Police Chief Edward Flynn said.

The violin appears to be in good condition, he said.

Citizen tips and information about the stun gun used in the theft led to the arrests of three people, Flynn said.

Flynn confirmed Wednesday that three people were custody in connection with the theft. The three suspects -- two men, ages 42 and 36, and a woman, 32 -- were arrested Monday morning. Charges were pending.

Flynn said at that time that the violin case, which had a GPS tracking device, was recovered -- empty -- "within hours" of the Jan. 27 theft.

The FBI was assisting Milwaukee police in the investigation.

"At this point, we're confident the subjects in custody are the subjects responsible," said G.B. Jones, acting special-agent-in-charge of the FBI's Milwaukee office, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Flynn declined to say how police tracked them down, but he said there was physical evidence linking them to the crime.

Flynn also wouldn't speculate on a motive, although he said the suspects seemed to be working for themselves, not on behalf of a larger art-theft ring. He also said one had a previous association with art crime.

Flynn said one of the suspects has a previous art theft conviction.

"It appears we had a local criminal who had an interest in art theft and was smart enough to develop a plan for a robbery," the chief said. "Beyond that, we don't know what his motive was.

Violin virtuoso Frank Almond was walking to his car after an evening performance at the Wisconsin Lutheran College last month when someone jumped out of a van, shocked him with a stun gun and seized the rare and extremely valuable Stradivarius on loan to him.

The robber got back into the waiting vehicle, which sped off.

Almond, who had been knocked to the ground, wasn't seriously hurt. But he was devastated by the loss of the violin, which has been appraised for insurance purposes at $5 million.

The violin is known in musical circles as the "Lipinski" Stradivarius. Its previous owners include virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini, who was known for his "Devil's Trill" Sonata, and Polish violinist Karol Lipinski.

It was passed down through generations, eventually landing with the heirs of Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, according to Stefan Hersh a Chicago-based violin curator who helped restore it to playing condition after it was removed from storage in a bank vault in 2008. The current owner's name has not been revealed publicly.

Hersh, a friend of Almond's, said he used to watch how carefully Almond would care for the violin. While some musicians see their instruments as objects or tools, Almond understood the historical significance of the Lipinski, Hersh said.

"He had a special case made for it, he kept it highly protected in his car, he never let it out of his sight," Hersh said. "As a performer nothing shakes him, but after the theft he was highly shaken. I've never known him like that."

A message left for Almond through the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra wasn't immediately returned Wednesday. Police have asked that he not speak to the media while the investigation was going on.

Hersh said Almond had scars on his wrist and chest from the stun gun but otherwise wasn't seriously hurt.

Hersh said he couldn't sleep after he heard about the theft. He was worried the violin would be damaged, but the more he thought about it the more he suspected the thieves would take pains to protect their spoils.

"You'd have to think someone who thought this through with such meticulous planning would take good care of it," he said.

Flynn said he couldn't speculate on the condition of the violin.

Estimates vary for the number of Stradivarius violins that still exist, said Lisbeth Butler, the secretary of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Most experts believe that 600 to 650 remain, she said.

Two men, ages 41 and 36, and a 32-year-old woman are in custody, according to prosecutors. Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm said one suspect would likely be charged Friday morning and others could be charged after that. He said charges were delayed because prosecutors had been negotiating with one suspect for the return of the violin.

The Associated Press' Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report.

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