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MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee man whose stun gun was used in the theft of a $5 million Stradivarius violin in January was sentenced Thursday to 3½ years in prison.
Universal K. Allah, 37, pleaded guilty in May to being party to felony robbery, a charge with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. His attorney and family asked for leniency, noting that Allah loaned the weapon but didn’t participate in the attack.
Milwaukee County Judge Dennis Moroney was not moved. He told Allah that being party to the crime makes him just as culpable as the man who carried out the attack, especially since Allah knew his acquaintance planned to use the weapon to steal a rare musical instrument.
“You knew what was going on. You knew he was not capable of getting a gun, he wasn’t eligible to get a gun. Yet you helped him get armament to hurt another human being,” Moroney said, anger evident in his voice. “You’re not exactly a Boy Scout in this operation, let’s be frank.”
The instrument, which is almost 300 years old, was missing for nine days before police recovered it in good condition. Moroney said the crime was an attack not only on the concertmaster from whom it was taken but on the Milwaukee community as a whole.
Before sentencing, Allah apologized to the court, the violin’s owner and the concertmaster to whom it had been loaned.
“I just want to humbly apologize to you for making this mistake,” Allah said. “This is a total setback within my life. I plan on changing my life, changing everything from this point on.”
Moroney seemed more influenced by the statement of Frank Almond, the concertmaster who was attacked with the stun gun Jan. 27 in a parking lot after he finished a musical performance. Almond said he wasn’t seeking revenge or retribution, but that a severe penalty was “critical.”
Almond said he was lucky he didn’t suffer a career-ending arm or wrist injury when he crumpled to the icy pavement that night. He was also alarmed to learn how closely the perpetrators had been stalking him and his family for years.
“They knew where I lived, they knew the names of my children and other details of my day-to-day life,” Almond said.
Moroney ordered Allah to pay restitution to Almond to cover about $3,500 in lost wages, $400 in violin repairs and about $140 for his ambulance bill.
The other man charged in the attack is Salah Salahadyn. Prosecutors characterize him as the aggressor in the crime. He had a previous conviction related to art theft, and court documents described him as the mastermind who’d been plotting for some time to carry out his “dream theft” — snatching a Stradivarius from a musician in broad daylight.
Salahadyn, who was also charged with being party to felony robbery, pleaded not guilty in February. His public defender, Alejandro Lockwood, had requested a second plea hearing, a step that usually means the defendant will change his plea. But the hearing Thursday was postponed after Lockwood asked to be allowed to withdraw from the case.
Lockwood provided little explanation in court except to say that Salahadyn didn’t agree with his decision, and that Lockwood had a conflict of interest. He recommended that Salahadyn retain counsel who wasn’t a member of the public defender’s office.
Moroney wasn’t pleased by the late change, calling it a “game.” He speculated that Lockwood couldn’t elaborate because of attorney-client privilege so he didn’t press the issue, but he grudgingly allowed the withdrawal.
Salahadyn wanted to make a statement to the court but Moroney wouldn’t allow it until Salahadyn gets new counsel.
The violin’s owner has remained anonymous. But she filed a victim-impact statement extoling the virtues of the nearly 300-year-old instrument, calling it a direct link to history.
“It is, after all, an amazing work of craftsmanship that in the right hands is capable of producing matchless, exquisite sound that expresses every emotion,” her statement said.
Many Stradivarius violins, crafted by renowned Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari, are owned by private collectors who lend them to top violinists to be played in symphonies. Experts say a Stradivarius violin deteriorates if it’s not used but remains in good condition when played regularly.
Experts estimate 600 to 650 Stradivarius instruments remain, or about half of what the master produced. Although they can be worth millions of dollars apiece, they’re rarely stolen because they’re catalogued so well that a thief would have a hard time selling one.