Houston’s status as the “Stolen Music Gear Capital of the World” could soon be a thing of the past.
Late last month, the Houston Police Department announced the arrest of more than 130 people for their roles in a vast theft and fencing ring, much of which focused on the jacking of vans and trailers full of music goods. HPD itself hauled in 76 of the suspects, and the rest were busted by police in Baytown and Pasadena, all of whom were assisted in “Operation Wheels and Deals” by the Department of Public Safety and—thanks to the international reach of the alleged conspiracy—the Department of Homeland Security.
Abilene-bred country singer Zane Williams played a major role in cracking the case. Last year, the honky-tonker’s tour van and trailer stuffed with instruments and gear were swiped in broad daylight from the parking lot of a North Houston restaurant where Williams and entourage were lunching en route to a Galveston gig.
Williams composed and posted a wry musical lament about the heist, and if it seems in retrospect like he was holding a trump card over the thieves, that’s because he was: he’d left a GPS device in his trailer, one that police used to track down some of his stuff and bolster their case of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy.
Prior to the Williams bust, police had been investigating these cases as individual thefts. As such, when apprehended and convicted, the perpetrators faced only months behind bars. Now that there is an allegation of a criminal conspiracy the perpetrators could face as many as fifteen years in prison if convicted.
That has to be a relief to people like young Austin fiddle phenom Ruby Jane and her mom JoBelle, who were carjacked at gunpoint (with the loss of all her gear) in North Houston in December 2011; and Tennessee roots rockers Black Lillies, who lost $70,000 worth of equipment when their trailer was stolen from the parking lot of a North Houston motel earlier this year; and Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Nosaj Thing, who lost thousands of dollars worth of equipment from a late-night van break-in at renowned 24-hour diner House of Pies, near River Oaks.
Although a GPS device led to the break in the Zane Williams case, such technology is a double-edged sword. Almost fifteen years ago, musician John Evans told me he believed thieves used a surreptitiously placed tracking device to trace his band trailer from the Astrodome parking lot to his home in Houston’s Montrose area, where they were able to swipe it with relative ease.
Which just goes to show you, thieves will always be with us, and the smart ones are just as high-tech as any of their victims can be. So how should musicians combat gear theft on the road?
One solution is to designate some poor roadie to sleep in the van. Yes, during a Texas summer, that duty could be considered cruel and unusual punishment—but hey, that’s why the roadies get the big bucks. (And their reputations for being ornery.) But seriously—they can sleep in the van with the windows open and by their mere snoring scare away some thieves.
“That’s insurance money, and if it was called insurance, everybody would be doing it,” says music industry veteran and Groover’s Paradise owner and operator Greg Ellis. “And yes, there is a degree of danger there, but by and large the kind of people who are gonna steal a van are not gonna kill you.”
Another rule, and this applies whether or not a roadie is sawing logs in the van, is to hump your most valuable gear into your hotel room or home with you at night. No, such a precaution won’t always save you. Ruby Jane was robbed at gunpoint, and Williams’s gear was stolen on a lunch break, for example, but it’s still a good idea. Amps and mics can be easily replaced. Not so much vintage Teles and Strats, neither from a financial nor a sentimental standpoint.
As a veteran of decades of touring, Beaumont-bred, Austin-based singer-guitarist Jesse Dayton has pretty much seen it all—including a brazen theft of two of his dearest possessions. “My ‘73 Fender Telecaster that I played on a Ray Price and a Waylon record and my ‘68 Gibson acoustic were stolen from the stage at a show in NYC,” he recalls, writing in from a tour stop in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I’m still bitter about it and will probably never get over it.”
But even though this cardinal rule would not have prevented the loss of those guitars, Dayton still can’t stress it enough: Bring your guitars to bed with you.
“No matter how tired, how drunk or how badly your trailer, bus or van is packed…TAKE YOUR GUITARS INTO YOUR HOTEL ROOM EVERY NIGHT. No excuses.”