Alleged violin thief also robbed a bank, prosecutors say, with note that said 'please' and 'thx'

An illustration of a violin on a yellow background.
An alleged Orange County bank robber also is accused of stealing high-end violins. (Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

The violins were expensive — and very, very old.

They included a Caressa & Francais, dated 1913 and valued at $40,000. A $60,000 Gand & Bernardel, dated 1870. And a 200-year-old Lorenzo Ventapane violin, worth $175,000.

For more than two years, federal prosecutors allege, Mark Meng stole high-end violins across the country — ingratiating himself to vendors by posing as a collector who merely wanted to borrow and try them out, then ghosting those vendors and reselling them to an unknowing violin dealer in Los Angeles.

The 57-year-old Irvine man — who also is accused of robbing a bank with a pithy thank-you note and fleeing in a white minivan — now faces charges of wire fraud and bank robbery, according to a federal complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

On April 2, 2024, a man entered the U.S. Bank on Barranca Parkway in Irvine and demanded money from a bank teller.
A man robs the U.S. Bank on Barranca Parkway in Irvine on April 2, demanding $18,000 from the teller. (Irvine Police Instagram)

The violin scheme, prosecutors allege, ran from August 2020 through April 2023.

During that time, Meng reached out to violin shops, saying he wanted to take the instruments on loan for a trial period to figure out if he wanted to buy them.

He "gained the trust of these stores by representing himself as a collector, and in some cases, he purchased violin bows before asking for violin trial periods," the complaint reads.

In each encounter, he allegedly kept the instrument beyond the trial-basis period, "provided excuses" for the delay, and negotiated a price for the violin. He then would send the violin shop a check that would bounce — after which he would send a new hot check, pretend he mailed the instrument back and the mailer carrier lost it, or simply stop communicating.

Meng allegedly stole at least four violins, including a 1903 Guilio Degani worth $55,000, as well as a bow by esteemed bow maker François Lotte valued at $7,500.

In October 2023, Meng was questioned by agents from the FBI regarding the stolen violins.

So, prosecutors say, Meng was aware he was under federal investigation when, on April 2, he allegedly robbed a U.S. Bank branch on Barranca Parkway in Irvine.

According to the federal complaint, Meng was wearing latex gloves, a baseball cap, dark sunglasses, a blue bandanna covering the lower half of his face, and a "USA" T-shirt. Prosecutors say he slid a note to the bank teller that read: "$18,000. — Withdraw. Please. Stay Cool! No harm. Thx."

The teller told prosecutors that he "appeared to be shaking and nervous," according to the complaint.

When the teller said she did not have access to that much money, he allegedly said: "Give me whatever you have!"

She opened the cash register and gave him $446, the complaint says.

Meng then allegedly fled in a white Toyota Sienna minivan.

A bank employee returning from lunch captured cellphone video footage of Meng entering the vehicle, the complaint says. Footage also was obtained from surveillance cameras.

The U.S. attorney's office said in a statement that the FBI's Art Crime Team investigated Meng with assistance from the Irvine and Glendale police departments.

Meng was arrested April 11 by Irvine police. He told a detective that on the day of the robbery, he went to a casino, Starbucks and Costco.

As detectives searched his home, where they found the "USA" T-shirt, a tenant who lived there told police that Meng liked to gamble.

If convicted, Meng would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.