San Diego

Swami Gets Stolen Guitar Back

"Swami" John Reis recovered his treasured guitar on Friday

On Monday, we reported on the theft of "Swami" John Reis' guitar, a silver-sparkle early-'80s Gibson Les Paul Custom. The thief lifted it out of his van in Kensington a week ago. We’re happy to report that the guitar is now back in Swami's hands.

"I made a flyer and was taking it to pawn shops," Reis said.

Swami performing in March 2017 at South By Southwest

Some of the shop owners told Reis to look for the guitar on the OfferUp app marketplace, which he downloaded and searched with no luck. But on Friday around 11 a.m., while he was in a meeting, a friend called to tell him he had found it. Loading the app, Reis was able to confirm it was, in fact, his stolen guitar, despite the fact that the distinctive swordfish stickers had been stripped off the front. He said he knew it was his because of the instrument's customization.

"The paint job on the top is something I had done ... The knobs are all mismatched -- again, something that would only be on that guitar," Reis said, adding "the strap, everything about it -- that was mine, no doubt at all."

Trying to do the right thing, Reis called the police, but, he said, the dispatcher informed him the detective assigned to his case wasn't on duty and that no detectives would be able to handle the situation until Monday.

Reis, who was with a group of five friends, discussed what to do, and they all believed every minute mattered, so one of them began to communicate with the "seller" on the OfferUp app.

"My main concern was that nobody got hurt," Reis said. "I just wanted my guitar back."

Almost comically, the guitar was listed as a 1955 gold-top Les Paul, which Reis guessed would be worth around $40,000 -- a "holy grail" of guitars, he said with a laugh -- and it was being offered for $700. The sellers had many other items listed as well, most of which -- earbuds, cell phones and the like -- all seemed like they could have been boosted out of cars as well.

Although the sellers initially began to communicate with Reis and his friends, they eventually stopped, possibly spooked by the fact that they were discussing a sale with someone without much of a history on OfferUp. Luckily for Reis, one of his friends had used the App often, buying and selling instruments, so that person also contacted the thieves, acting aggressively to make an offer and set up a meeting around 3 p.m. to "buy" the Les Paul at the Vons parking lot in North Park on Howard and 30th streets.

By this time, though, most of Reis' friends had left, and since the meeting was set up with only 15 minutes lead time, just he and two friends made their way over to the supermarket. The photos of the guitar on OfferUp contained clues about the "seller," including the fact that they were shot inside a dark-colored van, likely a Dodge Caravan. When Reis -- who was driving the same van his guitar had been stolen from and was worried that they might recognize his vehicle and be scared off -- spotted the other van, he used his to block them in.

Reis and his friends got out of their car to confront the driver and spotted a second man in the back seat.

"Gimme the guitar and we're gone, you're gone," Reis said he told them, but the men in the car denied having the instrument.

"Pictures were taken of them, of their license plate," Reis said, adding that one of his friends also called the police at the time. "They never showed up," Reis said.

As the confrontation was taking place, another friend of Reis' showed up, and the man in the back seat apparently decided he had had enough and took a bike out of the back seat of the van and rode away. With the door still open, Reis could see a guitar case, which the group took out and opened and confirmed it contained his guitar. And that was it -- they got back in Reis' van and drove away.

"I'm gonna give the police everything I have," Reis said, including screen shots of the guitar on OfferUp as well as photos of the Dodge Caravan, its license plate, driver and passenger.

Incredibly, the thieves had the audacity to contact Reis' friend on OfferUp afterward to complain about the botched "sale."

While Reis is, of course, glad to have his treasured guitar again, he said that's not the whole story -- he was genuinely moved by the show of support from the community, from his fans near and far.

The list price of the Gibson guitar is probably in the $3,000 range, but the market price to fans of his bands Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Pitchfork, Hot Snakes and Night Marchers is off the charts.

As Madrid Guitars' luthier Brandon Madrid suggested when the guitar was first stolen, "Whoever stole this guitar, they just didn't know what they're getting into."

Now, they do. 

Update (June 19, 11:35 a.m.): Asked for a comment about the case, the San Diego police on Monday said victims of crimes should not contact possible suspects without a police presence.

Contact Us