Music community bands together to recover stolen instruments

by Keith Barber

Mitch Easter, a local songwriter, musician and producer who gained notoriety for his work with REM in the early 1980s, had his Fidelitorium Recordings studio broken into on Aug. 1. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Kathy Clark doesn’t understand thievery, especially the kind that impacts artists.

“It’s an attack on that person’s state of being,” Clark said. “Musicians and all artists have to really work hard. I don’t even know how to describe it. You have to make a living; you have to make money. An artist has to constantly compromise to do that because it’s nearly impossible to make a living doing your art.”

Clark heard about Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Recordings studio being broken into earlier this month and launched a social media campaign in the hopes that information would come forth to help police solve the case.

“My first reaction is that Mitch is such a nice guy,” Clark said. “The thing I can say about Mitch is he’s super talented not only as a guitarist and songwriter but as a producer and recording engineer. He’s dealt with a lot of big-name people but he’s so sweet, humble and gracious. There aren’t a lot of people left on the planet that are genuine people — that’s what I respect about Mitch Easter.”

On Aug. 1, Ted Comerford, a local record producer and friend of Easter’s, entered Fidelitorium Recordings studio in Kernersville to discover a break-in had occurred. The thieves had stolen a total of nine guitars from the outer lobby area of the studio. Comerford immediately contacted the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. Easter said he was out of town when he got the news from Comerford.

“He was kind of in between a couple of sessions,” said Easter, a Winston-Salem native. “He was about to start one on [Aug. 1] and I think he had been meeting with the guys from that band the night before and they had been playing some of the guitars and checking out what stuff they might want to use on the session.”

Easter, who gained notoriety as a record producer for his work with REM in the early 1980s, said a lot of instruments had been brought out into the front room of the studio, which serves as a lounge area for musicians.

“There were a lot of instruments in the building because I had brought some of mine in for people to use,” Easter explained. “I have guitars that sort of rotate in and out of sessions according to what people are using. They all happened to be piled up in the front room of the where we don’t normally keep them, but that’s where they were.”

According to police reports, Deputy DA Shaver responded to the burglary call on Aug. 1. Easter said sheriff’s deputies lifted fingerprints from the scene. The outer door of Fidelitorium has a lock but not a deadbolt, Easter said, which would make forced entry fairly easy.

“They probably could get behind the plunger on [the door] just like the old credit card trick,” he said. “It’s a very domestic type of doorknob. It was locked; they just got in. In hindsight, all this stuff seems so avoidable but we’ve never had anything stolen. I’ve been here for so long and nothing’s ever gone.”

Easter built the studio in a rural part of Kernersville 11 years ago. He said the door to the recording studio has a deadbolt and it was secure the night of the break-in.

“The cops said kids ride around on ATVs but they’re actually scoping out houses,” Easter said. “We see those ATV boys around here all the time because there’s a field next door, it goes back in the woods. That’s actually where the deputy thought that’s where they might have gone with this stuff.”

Another theory of the case is someone who had worked in the studio would have knowledge of the valuable items inside. However, Easter has his own theory.

“It’s really hard to imagine anybody that worked here would have anything to do with it, but unwittingly, somebody could describe this place to somebody, and that person could think, ‘Hmm, easy pickings,’” he said.

“On the one hand when you think about how popular guitars are as a theft item, then it does seem like we’ve been protected by some good karma from all the musicians — they don’t want this place to get messed up,” Easter continued. “They come in here and do something that’s meaningful to them.”

Five of Easter’s guitars were stolen including a Fender Electric 12-string acoustic guitar played by Peter Buck of REM during the Murmur and Reckoning sessions, a Kay acoustic guitar, a Fender Paisley Stratocaster, a Fender Rosewood Telecaster and a Guild S60 were also stolen from Easter’s guitar collection. The other stolen items belonged to members of the bands recording at the studio and included a G&L electric bass, a Jerry Jones electric bass, a Fender Telecaster and a Fender Electric Xii.

The estimated value of all the items is $13,750, but it would be impossible to assess the sentimental value of the items that were stolen, Easter said. For example, Easter purchased his first guitar, the Fender Electric 12-string played by Buck, from Camel Pawnshop at the age of 12.

A songwriter, musician, and producer, Easter led the band Let’s Active during the 1980s. He’s produced records for such music industry luminaries as Suzanne Vega, Marshall Crenshaw, Pavement and Velvet Crush. Easter released his first solo album in 2007.

Easter said the response to the social media campaign to help him recover his instruments has been overwhelming. He’s received some leads via e-mail but nothing concrete.

“The fact that there’s been so much interest in this on Facebook is a testament to this incredible goodwill [among musicians],” Easter said. “I’m astounded by the level of interest. I’m hearing from my friends in Europe about it.”

Based on her experience, Clark said internet campaigns have proven to be a highly effective tool in the recovery of stolen instruments and recording equipment.

Clark recalled the story of Riley Baugus, a local banjo player who was featured on the soundtrack of the 2003 film Cold Mountain. She said an e-mail campaign ultimately led to the recovery of Baugus’ banjo from a local pawnshop.

Capt. David Clayton of the Winston- Salem Police Department said a city ordinance mandates that all pawnshop owners provide information on all items pawned in their store on a particular day. Also, sellers must show a photo ID at the time of the transaction. That information is recorded and shared with the police department electronically, Clayton said.

Pawnshop inventories are then compared

to police records to determine if the shop has received stolen goods. The Winston-Salem Police Department recovers approximately $50,000 a year in stolen goods due in large part to the ordinance, Clayton said.

Kernersville Town Attorney John Wolfe said the town has a similar ordinance that compels pawnshop owners to share information on all items received. The Kernersville Police Department then compares those inventories to police records of stolen goods.

However, Clark said she believes the best way for someone to recover stolen musical instruments and equipment is to conduct their own investigation. Clark shared the story of how her boyfriend, Danny Bayer, a local sound engineer, once recovered several pieces of sound equipment stolen from his car. After the theft, Bayer made a detailed list of all equipment stolen including serial numbers and began going from one local pawnshop to the next.

“He gave the list to police and all local pawnshops,” Clark said. “He would stop in at pawnshops from time to time and eventually he recalled all his gear. It was his footwork that led to recovery of those items. Stolen goods are recovered by spreading the word and people doing the legwork themselves.”

Despite the ongoing investigation by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and Clark’s online campaign to raise awareness of the break-in and theft at Mitch Easter’s recording studio, the trail seems to have gone cold.

“I hope this [campaign] works, but I’m getting more and more cynical,” Clark said.