Courts & Crime

Crook strikes sour note, steals invaluable violas

Commuting can be such a hassle.

Especially when you're Theodore Kuchar, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, and have to travel 6,000 miles from your home in Ostrava-Stara Bela, in the Czech Republic, to your Fresno address. Not only is it a long journey, but there are plenty of opportunities for unfortunate things to happen along the way.

Late at night on Dec. 19, Kuchar left his Czech home on a return trip to Fresno. Ahead of him were rides in a taxi, train and three different airplanes. He walked out the door with a big suitcase and two smaller viola cases in either hand.

One viola was old, from 1742. The other was new. Kuchar, whose viola playing is secondary to his conducting career, had it built for him by Jan Bobak, a noted Polish instrument maker.

When he got to Fresno the morning of Dec. 21, he opened the cases. Both violas were gone.

"I remember thinking, 'These things just don't happen to me, they happen to other people,' " says Kuchar, who has replayed the entire trip many times in his mind.

Here's what he thinks happened, as odd as it sounds.

When he got on the train for Prague, it was about 11:30 p.m. He was the only one in his car. He put the cases with the instruments on the overhead shelf above him.

About half an hour after the train left the station, a man wearing black trousers, black short jacket and black woolen cap -- and black gloves -- came into the compartment holding a map.

Dark hair was sticking out of his cap, and he had a bright skin color.

"He pushed the map under my nose," Kuchar is quoted as saying in the Czech police report. "It was dark in the compartment. I smelled slight 'stink' from his sleeve or map, like some chemical ... Then the man left and I fell asleep right after that."

He slept for a couple of hours, waking up just before the train arrived at his station. After that, he says, he never left the viola cases unattended. Most of the time he was carrying heavy luggage with each instrument case and didn't notice the slightly decreased weight. Besides, he says, the violas only weigh about a pound and a half.

Another clue that the theft took place on the train: He noticed that cash was missing from his wallet when he got off. At first he assumed that his wife had borrowed it before his trip.

No trace of the violas has been found.

Kuchar bought the 1742 viola at auction for $13,500, he told police. The value of the new viola is $12,000.

His insurance on them was minimal.

"Let's just say the coverage was extremely symbolic, not nearly what they were worth," he says.

He was upset at the theft, but he's also happy that he wasn't traveling with a third cello that he owns, a much rarer and more valuable instrument made in the early 1600s (and that was featured in a 2007 Bee article).

In fact, he's able to laugh about how bizarre the whole thing seems. When it's pointed out that he leads "an interesting life," he says slyly, "I'm not happy about it."

The funny thing, he says, is that he usually isn't able to sleep on trains.

"I was out for two, two and a half hours," he says. "When I woke up I remember thinking, 'This is great. I feel like a million bucks.' "

Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.