Calvert County authorities and local public art project coordinators, aware of the community's enduring ire over the theft of a six-foot-tall fiberglass seahorse from outside a restaurant in Prince Frederick, have agreed to strike a deal with the unknown perpetrators to try to recover the sculpture.
Their terms, agreed upon Friday: If you return the seahorse to the Sheriff's Office in good condition by the end of next month, you will not be arrested or prosecuted. If you don't, you're looking at felony theft charges.
The seahorse, decorated by students as part of the art project, was stolen from its display site June 25.
The no-questions-asked amnesty is a last-ditch effort to have the now-popular missing statue returned before a Nov. 19 auction in which it and 24 other seahorses are to be sold to raise money for the art departments of most Calvert County schools.
It's also an usual collaborative plan between officials in the Calvert County sheriff's and state's attorney's offices to remedy an unusual community pall caused by a roadside attraction's theft. The seahorse was created as part of the a countywide art project -- similar to the District's PandaMania and Party Animals -- by Calvert Middle School students.
The seahorse statues -- their form was designed by staff members at the Calvert Marine Museum -- were funded with $1,200 each in private donations and distributed unpainted to 25 public and private schools in the county in September as part of the county's 350th anniversary celebration.
At each school, students developed a plan for decorating their seahorse. The students at Calvert Middle School proudly christened their work "Starfish," painting it in colors inspired by Vincent van Gogh's painting "Starry Night."
Then in May the 25 statues were put on display throughout the county to raise awareness of seahorses, a threatened species in the Chesapeake Bay. They were quickly lauded by the community and tourists.
But on the afternoon of June 25, Starfish disappeared from its concrete perch at one of the busiest locations in the county: in front of Adam's Ribs restaurant on Route 2/4 in what authorities say was a brazen and pre-planned daytime theft.
After nearly two months with no leads or suspects, authorities are trying this forgiving approach.
"The main goal here is to get it back," said Detective Sgt. Michael Moore with the Calvert County's Sheriff's Office. "We are pleading with the individual or individuals who are responsible to come forward, that we are now offering an amnesty with no questions asked," Moore said.
He said he suspects that youths probably took Starfish, which weighed less than 100 pounds, as a prank and then dumped it after being spooked over the widespread local media attention the theft received.
Calvert County State's Attorney Robert Riddle said he was all for the idea of amnesty and has agreed not to pursue charges against anyone who returns the statue.
"It is an exceptional kind of case," Riddle said. "It involves the community. It's a real opportunity to get it back."
Stacey Hann-Ruff, Seahorses by the Bay Committee member and director of Annmarie Garden in Solomons, said she also agreed to the amnesty offer. The garden, along with the Calvert Marine Museum, oversaw the creation of the seahorses.
"I think this is a good opportunity to finally bring it back," Hann-Ruff said, adding that she'd be concerned if someone brought it back in shambles.
"If we're going to offer amnesty to anyone, it has to be in some kind of usable state," Hann-Ruff said. "As long as it's fixable, I don't have a problem with it."
Unless someone turns in the pilfered seahorse, Moore said, authorities will keep investigating. He asked anyone with any information about the theft to call him at 410-535-2800, Ext. 2454. A $1,000 reward is being offered.
Meanwhile, students at Calvert Middle School have not forgotten about the statue they labored over for more than seven months.
"They can't understand why someone would take student work," said Nancy Highsmith, new principal at Calvert Middle School. "It was a symbol of our school, and for someone to take it was very disheartening."
Highsmith said that among the students she spoke to at summer school, there is still a sense of disbelief. "They've taken it personally," she said.
Julianne Wiley, the now-eighth-grader who came up with the "Starry Night" theme, said she was overcome with emotions when she learned the statue had been stolen.
"I was really surprised because I didn't think anyone would do that," Julianne, 13, said Friday. "I was also somewhat flattered that they decided to steal my design, but I was also very angry. I wanted to see it auctioned."
Julianne said she is not too keen on granting amnesty to the thieves. "I think it's a good way to get it back, but I would like the person who stole it to be punished.
"I and all the students who worked so hard on it deserve to have a say if they should be punished or not," she said. "I think they should at least be fined."
This week, a cut-out replica of Starfish will appear in front of Adam's Ribs on Tuesday in the same spot where the original was displayed, Hann-Ruff said. It will serve as a visual plea to the community to make a donation to a newly formed Starfish Memorial Fund, which is designed to recoup what the statue would have made at the public auction.
The flat plywood reproduction will look like the original in every other way, said Hann-Ruff. "The replica is really nice," she said. "We're hoping no one will steal it."