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A rash of tuba thefts at Southland high schools

The thefts, band leaders say, are probably attributable to Southern California's banda music craze and to the high prices the brass instruments fetch on the black market.

December 12, 2011|By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
  • Erik Cambreros, 16, walks to band rehearsal at South Gate High School with an old sousaphone, one of the last remaining at the campus. There has been a rash of tuba thefts at high schools in southeast Los Angeles County. At right, a workman installs a new lock on the band room door.
Erik Cambreros, 16, walks to band rehearsal at South Gate High School with… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

As Southern California awoke to the wreckage from a recent massive windstorm, music teacher Ruben Gonzalez Jr. was assessing a different sort of devastation in his band room at South Gate High School.

Thieves had pried open a door and torn the room apart while hunting for a specific instrument. "All they took were tubas," Gonzalez said. Losses included an upright concert tuba and a silver sousaphone — or marching-band tuba — worth a combined $13,000.

Several weeks earlier, band members at Centennial High School in Compton experienced a similar shock when they found that eight sousaphones were missing.

And on Tuesday, burglars broke into Huntington Park High School and spirited away the school's last tuba, according to band instructor Fernando Almader. A silver Jupiter tuba had been stolen earlier in the school year.

Those are just the latest in what police and music instructors are describing as a rash of unsolved tuba thefts at high schools in southeast Los Angeles County. The thefts, according to band leaders, were probably spurred by Southern California's banda music craze, as well as the high prices the brass instruments fetch on the black market. A high-quality tuba can cost well more than $5,000, but even an old, dented tuba can sell for as much as $2,000, music teachers say.

Strapped for cash and running low on school spirit, victimized bands were scrambling to replace their instruments before attending Saturday's 38th annual Marching Band and Drill Team Championships at East Los Angeles College.

As he waited to take the field during the competition, Huntington Park High student Ramon Olivares hoisted a King tuba the school had borrowed for the day.

"I got used to playing different tubas," Olivares said. "I was playing one; they stole it. I switched to our second tuba. They stole it. Now I've got this one. I played it for the first time yesterday."

The targeted schools fall within various city and school police jurisdictions, so the total number of missing tubas remains unknown. However, music instructors have reported the theft of scores of instruments over the last year.

Fremont High School in Florence had 13 sousaphones a decade ago; only one remained this year. It was stolen in June.

Jordan High School in Watts had its best tuba stolen last spring. Maywood Academy, just beginning a band program this fall, saw the theft of six instruments, including trumpets, a clarinet and an electric bass — though no tubas.

Some schools have experienced repeated break-ins. Before its most recent burglary, South Gate High School lost three tubas to thieves in September. One was an upright concert tuba, a gift last spring from the Manilow Music Project, run by singer Barry Manilow. In all, South Gate has lost five tubas this semester, worth almost $30,000, Gonzalez said.

No arrests have been made in any of the thefts, so it remains unclear who is stealing the instruments or why.

"I really think there's a black market for tubas," Gonzalez said. "Whether it be in this state or another state, or down south in Mexico."

The targeted schools are in an area with a very large Mexican immigrant population and where banda — dance music played by brass and woodwind instruments and anchored by the tuba — is king. Sierreno groups — with an accordion, guitar and tuba — have also become popular in recent years. Banda musicians say tuba players can earn more than $100 an hour.

Fremont High School band director Akiko Tanaka said the school has lost many brass instruments, not just tubas, and has spent a lot of time tracking them down — often visiting the homes of past and current students. "Some of them have taken them to pawn shops," Tanaka said. "Some are using them in college, some are in bandas. It's a trend that students are working in bandas."

So far, the school thefts appear to be isolated to this pocket of southeast L.A. County. Districts as far-flung as El Monte, Pomona, Lynwood, San Bernardino, Riverside and Long Beach have reported no tuba thefts.

"I've talked to all the band directors and they've never even heard of this issue," said Michael Hook, director of risk management for Chaffey Joint Union High School District in Ontario, whose 11 schools include some of the largest marching bands in Southern California.

For music programs already diminished by layoffs and budget cutbacks, the loss of tubas has been catastrophic.

"Some people are lucky if they get a $500 budget for the year," said Ligia Chaves-Rasas, band instructor at Bell High School, where no instruments have been stolen.

At football games this fall, the Jordan band was made up of a handful of kids. "We basically have no instruments at all," said the school's new band director, Marty Riley. "All have disappeared. Some of them were brand-new. We have the classes, but we don't have the instruments. It's my first year here. I truly have no idea where they've gone."

Meanwhile, Gonzalez has to get over the distress he's felt this semester at losing the tubas that anchor his band.

"We still have three tubas left, but we have more players than instruments," Gonzalez said. "We're going to have to find a way."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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