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A Sense of Privacy Was Stolen With Stradivarius Cello

So much is so utterly weird and mystifying about the Great Strad Snatch in Los Feliz last month that only now are all the oddities beginning to sink in:

The cellist was so beat one Saturday night that he unlocked his door and went on inside and to bed, forgetting that he’d left his boss’ $3.5-million, 300-year-old Stradivarius violoncello right outside, which is where the thief found it the next morning.

The thief made his getaway lugging a big, awkward silvery cello case on his bicycle. The only other big-time bike caper I can think of was the ride-by murder of Mickey and Trudy Thompson 16 years ago. I always found something especially poignant about a lifelong promoter of auto racing being killed by a couple of hit men on 10-speeds.

The LAPD’s “Stolen Art” notice, deadpan as a wanted poster, shows front and back mug shots of the hot fiddle, and its vital statistics. Length: 30 1/2 inches. Color: golden brown. Identifying marks: original label stating Cremona 1684.

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But the one that stopped me in my tracks was this:

The police had “released a videotape showing a young man on a bicycle ... making off with the cello.”

Wait, hold it, achtung, stop right there.

It’s just after dawn on an April Sunday, in a hillside neighborhood the real estate agents like to call “quiet and exclusive,” and someone’s doing a Rodney King cinema verite job on the theft of a bulky stringed instrument? I know we’re all supposed to be movie-mad in this town but isn’t this taking it a little too far?

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(Actually, there is movie potential here, if you like slapstick -- and Mack Sennett, the original pie-in-the-eye, Keystone Kops director, who filmed his two-reeler comedies up in these hills. On the videotape, the fiddle thief rides out of frame and then, in a perfect off-camera moment, comes the sound of a smash-up as he evidently rides straight into some trash cans.

And for the bittersweet finale: Police announced last night that the wayward Strad had turned up over the weekend, alongside some other trash cans in Silverlake. It was noticeably cracked, a perfect Pyrrhic crime.)

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Three and a half mil. That’s a half-million dollars more than the 2002 price someone I know paid for that big Jazz Age mansion down the street from Casa Cello. I’ve been to that house; it’s fabulous, all right, but it’s no Stradivarius.

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When the neighbors were talking about the theft to my colleague Sara Lin and mentioned the “bikers” who zipped around their streets, they weren’t talking about the Mongols but the Schwinns. It’s that kind of neighborhood.

At least I thought it was. Now I’m thinking it’s like the demilitarized zone with bougainvillea. I went out looking for the video camera that captured the Stradivarius crime, but it must have been cunningly concealed -- even more concealed than the barbed wire and security lights atop the hillside walls.

The video freaks in the office tell me you can buy your own rudimentary system for about a hundred bucks and hook it all up to your computer and you have surveillance, and instant street theater.

But for what? Los Feliz isn’t LAX; it isn’t the courthouse. Heck, it isn’t even that corner crime zone, the convenience store. So why the video surveillance?

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Video: It’s everyplace you’d expect, and even want -- and many you wouldn’t.

Central London’s got them mounted every few hundred yards. They’re not far from the college parking lot where a visiting Claremont professor supposedly was taped staging a phony hate-crime against herself. They’re at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, where two years ago a film that won a special prize, a documentary called “Bowling for Columbine,” included surveillance video of two teenage killers on their murderous ramble.

Landlords set up videocam surveillance to watch for drug dealers, and drug dealers set up videocam surveillance to watch for cops.

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Ten years ago, the LAPD went quietly door to door in Brentwood, asking for a peek at homeowners’ security videotapes, looking for any time-stamped glimpse of a white Ford Bronco driven by one of their neighbors, an ex-football star suspected of double murder.

Visit the Vietnam Memorial, and you’ll get videotaped. Go to the Rose Parade, and you’ll get videotaped. Ride the BART in San Francisco, and the video monitors can make out the logo on your golf shirt. Fly out of the Fresno airport, and they’ll match your face against a database of known terrorists.

And now, Los Feliz, and who knows how many neighborhoods like it. Smile, you’re on Neighbor-Cam.

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Suppose you and I were anything short of perfect: What might the neighborhood-cam snare in its wide and indiscriminate net? The dad who promised his kids he’d quit smoking, but slips down to the corner for a drag? The woman who is conveniently “distracted” as her poodle poops on the neighbor’s dichondra? The local deli man videotaped snogging in his car with some hot number who’s not Mrs. Deli Man?

Who else might have come and gone in all innocence at Casa Cello and now be in someone’s home videocam? And who owns these video outtakes?

There’s a little thing in the Constitution that frowns on unreasonable search and seizure. Is this it? How much of “me” is actually mine? Just by strolling down a street in the twilight, do I consent to a neighbor videotaping me? Is his security worth more than my privacy?

And the big question: If I wind up on “America’s Least Wanted,” do I get a cut?

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When it comes to technology, the law is a laggard. A lot of states, including this one, say you can’t tape your own telephone conversation unless the person on the other end says it’s OK. Linda Tripp almost found herself in the defendant’s dock for pulling this one on Monica Lewinsky.

Last weekend, after a van backed into my car in a parking lot, I instantly phoned my insurance company, left a message about the accident -- and then had the presence of mind, so I thought, to put the other driver on the phone to record his version, which was a full confession.

Feeling like Miss Marple, but cuter, and Sherlock Holmes, but with better headgear, I phoned the insurance people the next morning expecting congratulations. Yeah, that’s fine, I was told, but it’s really not admissible in court because he didn’t actually say he was consenting to being recorded.

If it’s not too hot tonight, I think I’ll go for a walk. And in case the neighbors are videotaping, I think I’ll wear my Clinton mask, or maybe my Nixon mask. That way they’ll know I didn’t have sex with that woman, and I am not a crook.

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Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com. Earlier columns can be found at

latimes.com/morrison.


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