Starfish, the 6-foot-tall fiberglass seahorse that has gained the adoration of the community since its theft from the front of a Prince Frederick restaurant in June, is coming home.
Two days after authorities offered an amnesty deal to the people who stole the statue, the seahorse turned up in front of Calvert Middle School on Tuesday morning -- freed from its abductors, dumped in the hedges near the cafeteria and into the arms of a grateful community.
"Now we have it back. Everybody won," said Detective Sgt. Michael Moore with the Calvert County's Sheriff's Office, who headed the search for Starfish and devised the amnesty plan.
The return of Starfish marks a joyful conclusion to what probably began as a prank by youths, Moore said. It also marks a rare effort by the sheriff's office, the state's attorney's office and the media to get out the message that Starfish's homecoming was overdue.
The statue was created as part of a countywide art project by Calvert Middle School students. The statues, designed by staff members at the Calvert Marine Museum, were funded with 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 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 planned daytime theft.
The larceny quickly attracted the attention of the local media. School officials and children mourned the loss of what they called their pride and joy. It weighed on the mind of Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans (R), who said he asked about the status of the investigation daily.
But with no suspects and no leads, Moore said last week that he was trying a new approach. A message was issued to the thieves: Return the seahorse in good condition by the end of next month, in time for a November public auction benefiting Calvert County school arts programs, and you will not be arrested or prosecuted.
Much to everyone's surprise, the plan worked, and authorities said they intend to honor their end of the bargain, saying the case is closed. Evans said deputies didn't try lifting fingerprints from the seahorse. He called the case "administratively closed," meaning it was closed without an arrest.
As to what happened to Starfish in the past two months, Evans said, "we'll never know."
Nancy Highsmith, principal at Calvert Middle School, pointed to Starfish's base at the school Tuesday, showing where someone had unscrewed four bolts that held the statue down. "I'm just glad they didn't destroy him," she said.
Head school custodian Mark Reynolds, who arrived at work at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, spotted Starfish in the dirt, but at first did not recognize the statue in the pre-dawn darkness.
"I thought someone had thrown some trash in the hedges," Reynolds said.
Melissa Daman, events coordinator for Annmarie Gardens in Solomons, said officials with the Calvert Marine Museum plan on refurbishing the statue before displaying it in its original spot in front of Adam's Ribs.
This time, however, it'll be harder to steal; new, more secure bases have been installed on all the statues, said Stacey Hann-Ruff, director of Annmarie Gardens.
As for the auction, Daman said she wouldn't be surprised if Starfish fetched a decent price. "I would imagine that it would make a pretty good amount of money just because of its notoriety," Daman said.