Museum Robbery - Venable Saddle Recovery - Silence
Posted by Bill Evans (+27) 8 years ago
The reason I am writing this is to fill in a little information about the saddle that was stolen from the Range Riders Museum; but more importantly about the man who won it. Herm Venable the rodeo champion is now a forgotten name to most people, but not too long ago he was well known in Miles City and around several states as one of the best bronc riders ever to come out of Miles City. Throughout the 20s he won competition after competition all over Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming. He won prize saddles, silver spurs, gold watches, wooly chaps, and expensive hats. I don't hold myself to be an expert on this part of his life because my only view back into his world is by a dimming memory of what he, his brothers, relatives and his friends told me when I was a boy. He was an Oklahoma orphan at thirteen and worked pretty much as a man from that time on. He came to Miles City to move in with two of his older brothers J.M. and Norm who had recently moved there. Both brothers were trying to make it in the horse trading and cattle business. They and some older men carefully taught Herm how to handle and break green horses. In a short time, he began to stand out as one having real skill with handling rough horses. He and his friends would compete among themselves and he began winning consistently in the pine log corrals in the Pine Hills. To make money he began chasing and catching wild horses to sell in Miles City. I was told that he would rather do that than eat. The break-neck speed, dust, sweat and smell really were his food. Catching wild horses was not for the faint of heart. It took skill, high levels of testosterone and no fear of death or serious injury. His brothers and friends told me he had an incredible horseman's athletic ability enhanced by an absence of fear of both men and horses. In the summer months there was always the chance to also go to the various rodeos within several hundred miles to win some prize money. He became a consistent winner in the arena with a side bonus of recognition and respect among men at the horse sales, bars, and rodeos. This sudden attention did not escape the eye of some "professional" riders. Things at the arena and at the corrals began to change. He was winning prize money that they had planned to win. He told me a number of times that "it is one thing to win the prize money in the arena but it was another thing altogether to be able to keep it when you were behind the chutes". To save face, defeated past champions or poorer riders tried to get even physically and get his prize money when they were out of sight of the crowds behind the chutes. So to be a successful competitor over time meant you had to be both good in the arena in front of the folks and also out of their sight, defending your prize money with your fists. Turned out, he was good at both.
Because of the prizes, the crowds, and the promotion, winning at the Miles City Roundup meant you were pretty much at the top of the pile. It allowed you to be friends with a small elite group of men like Yakama Knutt or Chick Hannon who went on to be Hollywood stunt men or Les Stroud the famous stunt rider and roper, Paddy Ryan another top rider, Owen Crosby with movie star looks and abilities, and Ed McCall the famous roper.
By the early twenties he had won the respect of the older men who studied and respected a winner because they knew what it took to get the prize money. His brother Norm also rode saddle broncs and had a team that he took all over the country racing "Roman Style Riding". This requires the rider to stand on the backs of two or three horses holding only onto the reins and racing at top speed around the track against similar riders. J.M. his oldest brother was not the rider but was more the businessman and headed up the Miles City Round-up for a number of years. The Venable brothers were well known around Miles and the rodeos of the west. Somewhere around 1925 at the end of a winning ride the pick-up man rode alongside the bucking horse allowing Herm to grasp him around the waist. The pick-up man reined away and Herm's spur hung up on a bronc's mane, as he swung his leg over the horse's neck. The two men were pulled apart and he dropped to the ground. The terrified horse bolted with him hanging from the mane of its neck. The arena men did what they could but it was slow catching the horse. On one wide turn he was swung around and hit the back of his neck on an arena fence post. The horse was finally caught and the cowboys cut him, unconscious from the mane. The crowd stood silent as he was taken to the hospital in the ambulance and remained unconscious for three days. He recovered, but the demands of a new marriage, and then a baby slowed him down. By the latter twenties and early thirties he was content being a valued rodeo judge at the various rodeos both in Montana and Wyoming.

By the time I came along in the 1940s his rodeo career was over but not his reputation. Furtnows saddlery had a huge ten foot high picture of him bucking a horse out of a chute on their showroom wall. To his brothers and nephews he was highly respected. To some degree they garnered some bragging rights just by being related. As a young man I went to work in his bar the "Texas Club" where his rodeo pictures along with those of some of his friends was displayed there for years. At different times his old friends from out of town would stop in to see him. Without prompting they would tell me how good he really had been. I also remember young cowboys who had heard of him, coming in to get his advice on how to win at saddle bronk riding. I was amazed at his reputation and their respect so many years after he retired.
He kept one of his prize saddles stored in the basement of our home hanging by a rope and it was there when he died in the late 60s. As mother aged she was trying to figure out what to do with it and decided to loan it to the Range Riders Museum. She thought that perhaps it would be better appreciated there and dad's name would be remembered a little longer that way.

THE THEFT
Whenever I took the two day trip to drive to Miles City I usually stopped in to see Dad's saddle at the museum to ensure that it was being taken care of properly and to visit a little with the folks out there. On one of those trips in 1994 I had just gotten to town and was told by a friend how sorry they were to hear that my father's prize saddle had been stolen from the museum two years prior. Why didn't I know about it? I was stunned and went to see my sister who lived in town to see what she knew about it. She was as surprised as I was, not having been notified even though she lived right there. I went out to the museum and asked the curator about it. Yep, he said it had been stolen along with another prize saddle from 1914, some prison-made horse-hair bridles and reins, spurs, a quirt, a bull whip, a rawhide rope and other things. He said, "Apparently they hid in the building and after it was closed up they came out from wherever they had been, cut the alarm wires to the police station and then made off with the goods". So, I said, "you had a security system for the building with motion detectors and entry alarms?" "Oh hell yes, he said, we had a state-of-the-art deal in here. The Sherriff's office came out, took finger prints and made up a report on it and everything." Well, I said, with motion detectors in place how did they get from their hiding place to the wires up near the ceiling without tripping the alarm? The conversation went south from there with some unprintable language directed at me indicating that this conversation was over. It was clear that they either didn't have a motion detector or the system had not been armed. I didn't have a chance to ask what the museum had done to recover the saddle so I thought, perhaps the police could bring me up to date on the status of investigation, and so I left and went there.
At the police department I identified myself to the desk clerk and asked if I could get a copy of the police report of the robbery at the museum two years ago. She knew nothing of the robbery but left and came back shortly with a police officer. After some time he recalled that there had indeed been a robbery but he didn't know much about it. The officer who he thought investigated the break-in and robbery was part-time with the department and at the State School and was not working that day. "When he comes in he can dig the report out of a box in the garage and make a copy for you; we would not have a clue to know where to look, but he would." I thanked him and told him I would be looking forward to getting it. "By the way, can you tell me what you have done to recover the items? Well, he said I'm not too familiar with that case, but the deputy will be able to fill you in on that." I thought to myself, how do the full-time officers know what to look for if you don't know what is missing, and any paper work is buried in a beer box in the garage? Oh well, I thought, we will see what comes up. I gave them my cell number and left.
Several days later, I got a call from the Sheriffs office telling me that they had found the report and that I could come down and pick a copy up. I sat down with the officer who had done the original investigation. I said, "Boy, two prize saddles, horse hair bridles and some other important items, that was quite a haul. I was told that you checked it all out, and took fingerprints and all." "Yes I did." Then I said, the report got filed in a box in the garage? "Yes, because we were changing all our newer records to digital format." "Deputy, when I came in a couple of days ago and asked for the report, no one could recall much about the break-in and they couldn't put their hands on the report and none of them could remember what had been stolen. Considering that no one seems to know about the robbery, and no record of it is active, it seems to me that I could have walked into this office and threw my father's saddle down on the floor and no one, other than perhaps you would have known it was stolen - right?" "Well, I guess that is about right he said." I thanked him for his time and left.
I seemed to be batting 0 but at least I had a report that I didn't have before and that was at least something to work with. Over coffee at the 600 cafe I read the report and then thought of the Miles City Star. I thought that they probably had done a front page story on a high profile robbery like this. Perhaps if I could read their article I might be able to get a new direction. I left the café and walked over to the Star. I went up to the desk and told them the story of my father's saddle and the break-in and said that I would like to read anything that they had reported on the theft. The girl behind the desk didn't have a clue that there had been a robbery so she checked with the staff, but no one was aware of any article ever being written on the break-in - "what break-in?" What?
I was frustrated with the museums attitude, the sheriff's department non-investigation to the theft and now with the local paper for not reporting on this important issue. Even if sheriff's office or the museum were not involved in trying recover the saddle at least the people of Miles City could have kept on the lookout if they had been aware of the theft. For some reason the Star had either missed this Sheriffs report or had chosen not to report the crime. I left town depressed and frustrated.
As I drove back to my home I had time to think of what I might do to find the saddle. I had no idea of how to go about such a search but I set up a part of my office dedicated to the task. I set up an EBay account with a false name so that if the saddle ever did come up I could bid on it, without disclosing my name and scaring off the seller. Two years had elapsed, so I knew that there had been plenty of time to have put it up and sell it without anyone knowing it; but I took up a vigil at the computer every morning or evening of every day scouring the internet for any strand or clue of its whereabouts. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months into years. For ten years, I stayed at it hitting dead ends at best. The saddle never came up. Finally I was reading the Miles City Blog and saw something about a Furstnow saddle on Antiques Road show. Wow, maybe that was dad's saddle. Unfortunately, it was not, but it gave me an idea to post a something about being "Bronco Bill" Evans looking to buy 1920s prize saddles; preferably one won by Herm Venable. I threw the bait and waited. Finally, several months later about 11:00 PM one evening I was contacted by an individual from Tempe Arizona who said he had had read my post. He said that he had a Herm Venable prize saddle on display in his home, but he didn't own it. He was sure the owner would be willing to sell it for the right price and would have him contact me.
A couple of days later I received an email from the man who claimed ownership of the saddle. That email was followed by many others as we negotiated back and forth. One of the early emails contained pictures of the saddle - it was the saddle for sure. I continued to play the part of a casino executive all the time trying to figure out how I was going to get it back without loosing it by some blunder on my part. He wanted to know why I was interested in this particular saddle. I told him I was a buyer of western memorabilia for an unnamed casino and knew that this Herm Venable was the top bronc rider of the 20s. A saddle won by him would be of high interest to my boss; who would pay a high price to get it. It took a number of weeks of emails to finally get him to commit to a price of $17,000.00.
I contacted the Tempe Police but it was so slow getting them to act on it. It was finally assigned to a Detective Reyes who took the case and who I worked closely with. Getting the ball rolling was daunting; they needed the Miles city police report to confirm it was stolen, copies of all the pictures and of my emails back and forth to him. They checked the seller out and got the paperwork into their system. At last they went to his house and confiscated it without incident. Strangely, they contacted him ahead of time and he was waiting for them with his attorney. They took it to the police station and it was at that time I found out the saddle had been listed as "donated" rather than "loaned" to the museum. The Tempe Police said that they had no choice but to send it to the Miles City Police Department and the police in turn would give it to the Museum. I'm sure this was a mystical experience to both the museum and the police departments to have the saddle suddenly just show up like that. Oh well, it is back to the museum at least for a little while. I had, had a dream of it being placed in a more secure museum but that was not going to happen it appeared.

So what did I learn from all this? Well for starters I have learned that there had been a number of class reunion dinners held at the museum and friends of mine told me that they had the complete run of the place with no museum employee present, and that anything could have been hauled out without notice. Others told me that they had gone out there during the week and they had just walked in with no one in sight for a considerable time.
I went back to the museum a couple of years ago, before the saddle was found to take a picture of a picture of a man called "Motorcycle Mike" who made a name for himself bailing off an old Indian Motorcycle to bulldog cattle. His name was a fixture in my home as I grew up, and I wanted a copy of his picture to add to my family story. The picture had been hanging directly over the front entrance in a frame about two feet by three feet for years. Now it is gone and the rearranged pictures would never suggest that Mike's picture had ever been there. I scoured the museum but no one knew anything of the picture ever being hung there. It was gone now as well.
It seems to be endemic around the country that things are getting lifted from these little museums all the time. As another example, I checked in at the Ekalaka museum a year ago to show my kids a rifle, pistol and gun belt that my father-in-law had donated to them. As a boy, at the turn of the century he had found them pushed back into a hole in the Medicine Rocks (now a state park). They were in good condition and he kept them for years but later donated to the museum. Now they were gone and no one knew anything about ever being there. My sister-in-law then told me she had also given a beautiful, perfect Indian needle to them and it was also gone.
In talking to a good friend of mine who is an archeologist, about these missing items he told me a story of his own. He had met an old cowboy at a Library in Lewistown who was making annotations into a copy of to a "Before Barbed Wire" by Huffman. My friend was stunned at the wealth of information the old man had, and the corrections of information he added. As he left the library he went to the curator and told them of the value of the book with annotations, and that it should be carefully taken care of and it or a copy of the information sent to the Montana Historical Society. He went back later to make a copy of the annotations and found the book gone with no record of it ever having been there.
When you think about it, it is a perfect way to get things for your own collection. The Museums are staffed usually by well-meaning volunteers, and the museum records are less than loose. Simply lift the item, and remove the donation card from the recipe box and suddenly it does not exist except on EBay. Even if it comes up on EBay, anyone who donated the item is either long dead, or like us never contacted. There is no photographic inventory of the items in the museums, particularly the Range Riders Museum, so the only description of the item is a small written memo on a recipe card. I was fortunate; my fathers name was on the saddle so I could prove it without a picture. A simple memo on a note card is not much to go on if you are looking for a horse hair bridle or a gun belt and pistol on EBay. The horse hair bridles and other items could never be identified as stolen from the museum because there is no photographic record. Also, if the there ever was a fire, these items would be really gone with no picture for future generations to study. There is no inventory of the items on hand, and no annual audit of the items. Things go missing without notice; no one including the staff is aware it is gone. In the case of the picture of Motorcycle Mike, a close in-law of mine got defensive about the museum and asked me to prove that the picture was missing and of course I could not. I could not even prove it ever was there because there never were any global pictures taken of the interior of the museum as far as I know.
I have a bad taste in my mouth over this whole deal. Why didn't the museum or sheriffs' office do something to try to recover the items? Why hadent they ran the fingerprints on the national data register of prints? Why didn't the paper run a story on it? Were they protecting the museum? When the saddle was returned, why didn't the Star run a story on that? Why didn't the county attorney follow up on it by getting the man in Tempe arrested, or at least questioned, having stolen property in his possession? Tempe police said it was up to him to start that proceeding. I end this saga as frustrated and impotent as I began it. The saddle is back where it started, but for how long? How many other items are being pilfered from the museums inventories and no one knows? Soon these little museums will have little to display other than a plywood diorama or two, some pots and pans and some old donated store front dummies dressed in period costumes. The valuable items likely will be in the hands of dealers and collators.
As a final postscript to this; on public broadcasting about a week ago, the program "History Detectives" had a segment on a Yakama Knutt saddle owned by a man who wanted the history detectives to confirm was indeed owned Yakama. I was stunned to see the face of the same man who had, had my father's saddle in Tempe - amazing! Does he or did he have the other missing items? I guess I really don't care that much any more.

Herm Venable, Jr
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Posted by Jeri Dalbec (+3138) 8 years ago
What an amazing story and much food for thought. Very interesting as to how you were able to find the "con" man. Thank you for sharing the information.
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Posted by David Schott (+16491) 8 years ago
Nice sleuthing, Mr. Venable. Glad the saddle is back in Miles City.

Sounds like someone should loan donate a decent video surveilance system to the Range Riders Museum.
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Posted by Bill Evans (+27) 8 years ago
If the Miles City Star did an article on this that might stir some activity. Robberies however, are not good press for an organization that is trying to get donations. Even though, it does seem like a double crime to have a robbery like this happen in Miles and not report one word on the issue. What else is not being reported?
I guess the museum has a security system now, but how good it is, is up for a local expert to determine. My hope is that it will keep Dads saddle in place for a little while at least.

Regarding the Police, if they ran the fingerprints that they have on record it might catch whoever did it. It doesn't take much effort or cost to run fingerprints on the internet anymore. Even now, why haven't they done that? It might scare a booger out of the Miles City woodwork, who knows?

The items in this museum are a local treasure, hard won and deeply valued, but they appear to be going away. I have no idea what the museum started out with back in the 40s and 50s; it would be nice to go back in time to see. Why not have a digital inventory of the items? At least you could identify an item if it came up for sale or was found in the back of an old pick-up or cowboy bar somewhere. It appears to be gross neglect, but maybe its just too technically challenging to take pictures without glare and in focus. Same for scanning documents.

If Miles City cares about its past, and I know they do, then someone needs to be following up and putting some heat on the backsides of those who protect the things we love and cherish.
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Posted by Amorette Allison (+11432) 8 years ago
It is all volunteer and very few of them. If you would care to donate the thousands of dollars it would take to create an up-to-date inventory, feel free to do so. We are working on it but it all takes MONEY.
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Posted by Bill Evans (+27) 8 years ago
Brilliant Amorette !

I have hyperventilated into a brown bag, feel great and am ready to respond to your reply.

Let me get this straight. The Venable family DONATES a $17,000 saddle to the Museum. The Museum "gets it stolen" and then does nothing to recover it. I personally DONATE ten years of my life to get the saddle back to the Museum at my total expense. Now you think I should DONATE thousands of dollars to inventory items going out the back door faster than they are coming in? Amorette, I can tell you that, that will not happen in my lifetime I/we have DONATED enough to the Museum already with no thanks or consideration in return.

The Museum, by its existence has taken on certain responsibilities to the community to which is serves to care for and maintain those items it has received. If the Museum is unable to assume those responsibilities perhaps it is time to consider transferring the more valuable items to some other Museum that is able to care for them, or return them so that family members can make other decisions. For the time being, just put a chain around Dad's saddle, perhaps the sound of sawing will wake someone up.

Inventory? A point and shoot digital camera would take pictures of what the Museum has now so that when somebody sees it on EBay it could be identified. That certainly would not take thousands of dollars unless you are thinking of having the government do it for you. The one catch is that you would have to have the interest to look for the stolen items, and that does not seem likely to happen because no one appears to know or care what is missing.

My beef is not with the Museum alone, it is with the Police, County Attorney, and The Star for not doing what I think is their job here.
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Posted by Bridgier (+8972) 8 years ago
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Posted by Cindy Stalcup (+591) 8 years ago
It may be the museum is reluctant to publicize vulnerabilities. I know of a library that lost some very valuable books & even had some lithos cut out of other books. That library did not want media attention for fear it would encourage more theft.
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Posted by Wendy Wilson (+6170) 8 years ago
If you donate something to a museum shouldn't you be comfortable with its security processes? If you don't look into it before donating you are taking a risk. That said, I think this situation is sad but frankly not surprising in a small town.
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Posted by Cory Cutting (+1277) 8 years ago
While sad and somewhat disgusting that people steal from these places where so much history is stored, most law enforcement agencies (particularly in the Great State of Montana) don't have the budget or manpower to go chasing down your saddle.

You said it took you 10 years to do it. Well, they certainly don't have the manpower to be looking for 10 years.

You are right, it wasn't a priority for the MCPD, CCSO, or any other agency. You know why? Because after they took the burglary (and its a burglary, not a robbery) report, 50 other things happened that day that required the 2 - two!! - officers to go on to other things. There are not droves of officers hanging around to watch ebay for things that might have been stolen.

I get your frustration, but you need to temper that with some reality of what law enforcement, particularly in a small down, has to do, deal with, and work with.

I am happy the museum got it back for the enjoyment of everyone. You yourself don't have to pay for an upgraded alarm system. But maybe you could take an active role and start a pledge drive or something. Look at it from the standpoint that it sucked that it happened, but let's work to get what's needed to protect it from happening again.
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Posted by Tongue River Millworks & Meado (+245) 8 years ago
Keep swinging Bill, your hitting the nail on the head.
Take your story to the Billings Gazette.
Add a chapter "The Reckoning".
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Posted by Buck Showalter (+4454) 8 years ago
I stopped by the grand ol' Range Riders this summer. I'd be less worried about theft and more worried about the roof leaking or the electrical catching fire. The collection is great, but the facilities need more maintenance. Maybe there is a way to tie the annual boozefest to some fundraising for the musuem?
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Posted by Amorette Allison (+11432) 8 years ago
If the Venable family is concerned, they should present a united front to the museum board and ask for the return of the saddle. If everyone in family is in agreement with what should be done with the saddle, then they should approach the board and discuss the issue.

For years, the Range Riders was very much a small town 'hobby' museum. As the membership has aged and passed away, the RR have begun to realize that the time has come to upgrade the museum but there is a huge backlog of work to be done and very little money and very few members to do it. It may not be obvious but HUGE advances and improvements have been made in the last year or two and we continue to make them.

If anyone in Miles City would like to be part of the future, rather than complaining about things that happened more than a decade ago, please, join the museum and lend your expertise.
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Posted by Bill Evans (+27) 8 years ago
First, Cory: I totally get it about the Police. I have a daughter that has been a cop for years. My wife and I are involved in a national ministry to first responders "First Responders.com" I am not into cop bashing at all. I totally get it about the overwhelming workload and low pay deal. BUT, forgetting the past, in ten years they still have not ran the fingerprints? Sorry Cory but that is called POLICE WORK. Is the work load in the bomb shelter that large? Perhaps its time for a citizen review, picking random files to ensure that they are not still being buried in a beer box somewhere. There just has to be some accountability here.

The Country Attorney had the saddle dumped on his desk along with the name of the guy who had it and to this date has never picked up the phone and said, "Hi, I am the County Attorney and I have come knocking. Where did you get the saddle? Oh, so you got it from who did you say? Thanks I will call him." and so forth until you get back to go. That's what both the police and the CA are supposed to do. If that had been done, I would not have had to sit for ten years over a computer.

Next disclaimer: I love the idea of a local museum. It is needed and has a great chance to become something really more special than it is. Amorette. if you ignore the past you are bound to repeat it in the future. Those who are involved with the museum have a present responsibility to care for items contained within. It may be a "hobby museum" but there is a present responsibility other than to blame the victims.


Don Shchott: Love your mother dearly, please tell her so for me. One of the most wonderful ladies I know in MIles City.

Herm Venable
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Posted by clancee k collins (+165) 8 years ago
AA,
I need any information on the Yellowstone Rodeo Company started around 1920 thru 1924. Anyone out there ever hear of their grandfathers being in it? It was mostly comprised of local cowhands and ex-calvary remount riders right after WWI. I have a picture of them all assembled. It only lasted a few years and I am willing to let anyone interested have a look at the picture and see if you have a relatives in it. It sounds like Mr. Venable would have been a likely candidate to participate in such a venture. Thanks for any input...
You may reach me at 234-8941, after 5m or 406-360-4254 anytime.
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Posted by mckee (+382) 8 years ago
Amorette

I enjoy your books and buy all of them, I also like the articles you write for the Star but so many of your comments in Milescty.com at times comes across very rude.
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Posted by Frank Hardy (+1486) 8 years ago
You need to install the UnRude application. Once installed it randomly inserts one of the following phrases into every sentence: Please, thanks, maybe, LuvYa, HotMama, UffDa, Maybe it's just me, On the other hand, Did I say that?, I'm sorry, Gawd I hate myself, pass the midol, I really need to get to a church, and a few others.

It really makes the whole MilesCity.com experience much more pleasant!

Mr. Venable,

I LOVED the story. It would make a great book! Just waiting to see how you get it to end with a conviction for the thief!

FH
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Posted by Wendy Wilson (+6170) 8 years ago
Amorette,

Remember, just add "my friend" to whatever you write and you're home free.
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Posted by Gunnar Emilsson (+16627) 8 years ago
Amorette:

If you would like, I could give you some lessons on internet etiquette, for I am beloved by all.

Your friend,
Gunnar
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Posted by Jeff Denton (+756) 8 years ago
Rudeness rules here, it gets better with quick judgement and lack of reading/comprehension skills. But my favorite is extreme sarcasm, that really livens things up. It gets hilarious, but it only works on a handful of topics. Try it sometime!
mc.com is my favorite source of cyber-entertainment, right up there with the Onion. Once you figure it out, there are some gems here.
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Posted by Andrea Heyneman (+6) 8 years ago
I'm a little concerned by AA's lack of gratitude and interest in having the saddle as part of the museum. Her remarks sound very ungracious for such an interesting contribution, and perhaps the Venable family should consider rethinking their loan of their dad's saddle. I'm sure it's frustrating trying to keep such a large museum going with little financial support and a small pool of volunteers, however, it's not realistic to accept items to the museum if they can't be assured of their safety. Maybe some creative networking with the computer department of the local College might yield some progress with regard to upgrading the inventory list - internships might be offered which would give students credit and provide 'free' labor to the museum. I hope the saddle is on loan and not gifted, if the family considers it there on loan. Kudos to Herm Jr for tracking down his dad's saddle!
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