After months of dead-end leads, Joe Salvino had given up hope.
The family clock – an heirloom that survived two world wars and was hand-carried across the Atlantic from Salvino’s ancestral home in Holland – was gone for good, stolen from his storage unit to feed a criminal’s drug addiction.
Or so he thought.
The call came Wednesday afternoon.
“Is this Joe?” said the man. “I think I had your clock.”
The past tense of the statement threw Salvino for a loop.
“Where’s this mystery going now?” he thought.
Since his storage unit was burglarized last September, Salvino had badgered anyone who would listen about the $8,000 worth of equipment and valuables that were taken from the East Missoula rental.
He developed sources with questionable characters who frequented the grocery store at all hours of the night, while he stocked shelves or cashiered.
Missoula police and county sheriff’s detectives received dozens of emails from Salvino. Attached to several of the messages was an itemized list of everything he lost and a photo of the missing heirloom. Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Scott Newell alone received at least a dozen emails.
“He definitely didn’t want that case slipping through the cracks,” he said.
It was unusual to have a victim who was so dedicated and involved in the case, Newell said. Salvino went to an array of pawn shops and antique stores searching for his stolen items. He also helped Newell by tipping him off to anything that he uncovered in his independent investigation.
But Salvino asked questions that law enforcement couldn’t answer. The suspects in Salvino’s case, it seems, had also stolen firearms – a crime that warrants an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. And once the federal government takes over a case, local law enforcement is careful not to step on any toes.
In the fall, officers recovered and returned some pieces of his equipment and other miscellaneous items found at pawn shops. They also arrested several people in conjunction with the cases, including Chad Hendrix, who was sentenced in Missoula County District Court last week.
But still, the majority of Salvino’s equipment and the clock were missing.
“That’s what hurt the most,” he said at Hendrix’s sentencing. “I want the family clock. … I want the family clock back.”
In response to Salvino’s emotional plea, Hendrix told the court the clock was across the street at a pawn shop. But Salvino had already made the rounds and checked all of Missoula’s pawn shops. It wasn’t there.
During Wednesday’s phone call, the mysterious man told Salvino he read the story about the clock in Tuesday’s Missoulian and was struck by it. He said his family had also emigrated from Europe to Missoula and he identified with Salvino’s attachment to keepsakes from the old country.
Someone had given him the clock as a Christmas present, but the elderly man didn’t divulge who that person was and refused to tell Salvino his name.
Nevertheless, the man knew he had to do the right thing and return the clock to Salvino and his mother, Anna.
So he dropped the antique off at the police station, where Joe and Anna claimed it Friday morning.
“That was awfully nice of that man,” Anna said later at her home. “He could just as well have been silent and not done anything.”
Anna, 79, sees the clock as a physical manifestation of her family’s survival across the years. She remembers waking up to millitary officers and tanks in the field across from her house the day the Nazis invaded Holland. Her parents were crying, she said.
On Friday, she pointed to other memorabilia around her small Rattlesnake Valley home, keepsakes her family used during the German occupation – including the scales her father used to weigh tobacco sold on the black market. The scales also were stolen from Salvino’s storage shed, but were returned by law enforcement last fall.
The clock itself was hidden from the Germans. The occupying force would melt copper and reuse it as artillery, Anna explained. Somehow the clock – with its copper pendulum – escaped notice and hung in her family’s home until several years ago, when she went to visit.
Her brother said she should take a clock home. She packed that clock and another antique clock into a large suitcase and hauled it across the Atlantic, through Canada, and over the border. It hung on the wall in her home until she moved it to the storage unit to make room for her son, Joe, who moved home from California in 2009.
After it was stolen, she was devastated. It was like “some part of your life is missing.”
“I didn’t think I would ever see it again,” she said.
Thanks to her son’s persistence and detective work, it’s hanging on the wall in the exact same spot as before.
“I was not going to let the legacy of that clock come to an end under my watch,” Joe said.