Pilsen music store owner recovers stolen instruments with help from stranger a year after they were taken

CHICAGO — A music store owner who lost all of his instruments in a burglary had them returned by a stranger nearly a year later — and they could help save his business.

Twelve custom guitars and basses were stolen from Richard Phillis’ shop, Chicago GuitarSpace, in late August. At the time, he thought the theft might spell the end of his fledgling business, as the instruments were worth tens of thousands of dollars and his insurance paid him only a small indemnity.

Journalists wrote about the brazen burglary, which happened just minutes after Phillis left the store at 600 W. Cermak Road for the day. He asked for help to retrieve the instruments.

Then the tips started coming in.

“Citizen detectives” called Phillis, telling him where he could find his instruments, he said. He got so many phone calls that got him nowhere that he started ignoring them and lost hope.

But months after the guitars and basses were stolen this spring, a woman started calling. She told Phillis she knew who stole the instruments, and they felt bad and wanted to return them.

Phillis thought the frequent calls were another dead end or a scam and didn’t take the woman’s advice seriously. He told her not to call him, but she continued to reach out.

“They were really persistent and she kept calling me, kept calling me, ‘I know who took it and they feel really bad and they saw you on the news,'” said Phillis.

The woman was so insistent that she was able to return the instruments to Phillis, he finally agreed to meet her.

Phillis and his wife told the woman they would meet at a public intersection so they could all be safe. As the two were driving, they saw a woman with an oversized trash can, Phillis said. They took the lid off the trash can – and inside were his instruments.

Phillis, confused and shocked, put the instruments in his car and drove off, he said. His wife burst into tears.

“It was eight months, you know? … We had lost all hope of ever seeing these things again,” he said. “We just couldn’t believe [it]. Why would anyone go out of their way to do that?

Phillis felt nervous even seeing the instruments, he said.

“It’s just hard for me to believe that someone went out of their way to help us without wanting money or something,” he said. “I was still half expecting something bad to happen.”

The instruments have Cosmetic damagelikely from when the burglar threw them into a truck during the heist, Phillis said.

But the damage—dents, nicks here and there—is repairable, and Phillis is selling the items at a discount. They are marketed under a “Plunder Sale” on its website. “These instruments have been on a mysterious tour,” the site says. “Now they’re home and a little bruised.”

Being able to sell the guitars and basses online, even at a lower price due to damage, will be a boon to the store and Phillis’ family, he said.

GuitarSpace struggled to return from the heist, as Phillis spent months trying to replenish his inventory after everything he had had been taken. Then the store was completely closed when Chicago was in phase 1 of the pandemic and non-essential businesses closed.

“It would definitely help if people bought from us right now,” Phillis said. “We weren’t allowed to open, we weren’t allowed to have customers in the store, but obviously we had to keep paying rent. It was hard.

“I imagine it’s been tough for all the small businesses…and then just the added blow of having all of our products stolen. Yeah, we’ve had a really hard time.”

Phillis has no idea who the woman was who saved his instruments and hasn’t spoken to him since.

It’s possible the woman stole the instruments herself, Phillis said, but isn’t certain. He said he didn’t think he would want to press charges against her even if she was, and he said he was still shocked that a stranger helped him retrieve the instruments.

“I know that might sound weird,” Phillis said. “I’m really struggling with this crazy thing that happened where someone really put themselves in harm’s way and made such a big effort to get things back to me.

“Honestly, enough time has passed and they really haven’t asked for anything. It’s just – it’s just very strange.

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Alice P. Darby