There’s a special place in hell for those who steal people's music equipment. The crime not only robs someone of sentimental belongings, but also a potential source of livelihood from people who (typically) can't afford to lose it. Often getting by from gig to gig with a cheap van or trailer, musicians can be easy targets for thieves.
Stolen gear is nothing new among bands; it comes with the profession. Hell, there’s even a Facebook group here in Dallas called “Gear Scumbags Have Stolen,” where members report and spread awareness about any stolen gear in the area. The group has new posts almost every week.
Brian Carter, member of the duo Signals & Alibis, has seen some extreme cases of gear theft, including whole vans and trailers being stolen. He's heard plenty of stories firsthand about bands losing thousands of dollars of gear, but said he still continues to see bands leave instruments unattended.
And Robert Maxwell, songwriter for Robert Cody Maxwell and the Gentleman Vain, had a near miss with a robbery himself. “They got in my car and stole some clothes,” Maxwell says. “The only reason they couldn’t steal our gear was because we were playing on stage at the time.”
Maxwell mentioned that he lives in a "decent" part of Dallas, and even there the cops told him they'd had more than 14 incidents of car burglary in just one week.
Codi Putman, a location sound mixer from Dallas, had a more severe incident. He was mixing audio for a feature film in Oak Cliff and Lower Greenville in 2012 and had about $28,000 worth of audio equipment in his truck. One morning, when he was about to leave town, he locked his keys in his truck and had to call a locksmith.
After waiting a bit too long, he looked out to see someone opening his truck. At first glance he thought it might be the locksmith, but as soon as he realized the man was taking out equipment and moving it into his own car, Putman ran out to stop him.
“He jumped in his car and tried to run me over,” Putman says. “I dodged out of the way but I got his license plates.” On the scene, police were unhelpfully skeptical of Putman’s description of the events, but apologized after hotel security cameras confirmed his story.
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The Dallas Police Department eventually found a partial thumb print on Putman’s truck in addition to the video evidence, his witness testimony and the plate number for the thief’s vehicle.
When presented with a line-up, Putman identified one man who he said he was 95 percent sure was the culprit. He didn’t want to say 100 percent because it was only a picture, but that turned out to be a mistake — even though the perpetrator had been previously charged for vehicle burglary six times.
“Apparently in order to prosecute and begin arrest, you have to have a 100 percent positive eyewitness ID,” he says. “So he walked and was never charged for anything.”
Though there's no treatment for having your gear stolen, Putman, Maxwell and Carter all recommend taking preventive measures instead. As Putman's story can attest, it's rare that you'll be able to recover gear after the fact.
Maxwell’s close call caused him to reconsider how he plans for gigs. He recommends bands invest in a GPS tracker for their trailer and write down the serial numbers for instruments in case they pop up at local pawn shops. Carter also suggested taking pictures of gear and considering instrument insurance if possible.
In one instance, a Dallas pawn shop ran the serial numbers for instruments that someone was trying to sell, and the store called the cops while the thief was browsing the store.
Maxwell says the most opportune moment for gear theft is during loading and unloading, when groups of people are shuffling equipment around. Maxwell even notes to be careful with how musicians act on the night of a show.
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“Don’t walk around like rock stars, don’t talk about all your gear,” he says. "Don't give anyone a reason or opportunity." Though he believes things like trackers can help, Maxwell says the best advice he can give is to stay away from using vans and trailers entirely: “People see a white van or a trailer, they know there’s something valuable there. It makes you a target.”
Carter adds to that, advising not to leave your gear in the car whenever possible. "Sure, no one wants to unload a whole van full of gear at 3 a.m.," he says. "But it's the only way to be safe."
Whenever gear gets stolen, especially a whole trailer, Maxwell says he's been glad to see Dallas musicians support each other. Beyond something like the "Scumbags" page, if he ever sees a post about stolen gear on Facebook, he’ll usually see it shared by tons of musicians trying to boost visibility.
“It’s their livelihood, and people help because they think about how it just as easily could’ve been them,” Maxwell says. "If it's happened to you, you won't ever forget it," he said. "But there are so many people who have yet to experience it, and hopefully if they learn from other people they won't ever have their gear disappear."