Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: After 10 years, Old Town fish story has an unexpected happy ending

As far as fish stories go, this one’s a whopper.

It’s hard to fathom. Far-fetched, in fact.

Would you believe it involves a salmon that’s nearly 8 feet long and weighs close to 150 pounds?

And for Old Town, it’s a big catch — a decade in the making.

It was almost exactly 10 years ago when Old Town’s Soul Salmon — one of 10 such sculptures that former City Councilman Bill Evans helped bring to town back in 2001 — mysteriously disappeared from its perch in Gateway Park.

The sculpture was part of a public art effort dubbed Soul Salmon 2001. Artists from Chimacum helped distribute them across the state and beyond, in the name of preservation and salmon habitat awareness. Examples of the effort, which were individually decorated depending on location, can be found in Tacoma, just outside Evans’ Pacific Northwest Shop or in front of the Proctor fire station. One of the best-known once stood outside the Swan Creek Library, before it closed.

“It was all about restoration,” Evans told me Tuesday afternoon. “That was the whole point. … It was about getting people excited about salmon in the context of our community, and the streams and the clean water and everything that salmon need to survive.”

“It was great,” Evans continued. “Old Town, I remember unveiling that one. It was such a tragedy when it disappeared.”

At the time, the case of the missing Old Town Soul Salmon was a whodunit without an answer. Locals, including the Old Town Business District Association that paid for it and helped welcome the sculpture, enlisting the artist couple Bruce and Shannon Anderson to adorn it with tiles of colored glass and sepia-tone photographs from Old Town’s past, figured the unexpected theft was the work of pranksters, perhaps a frat-spoof gone too far.

Most assumed the fish would be returned, or soon recovered, like another of the Soul Salmon sculptures that was stolen around the same time from Puget Gardens Park in the North End.

But time passed, and Old Town’s Soul Salmon stayed gone.

“We never, ever thought it would be gone that long,” said Kathy Manke, who has owned the Spar in Old Town for nearly 30 years. “And then, eventually, we thought it would never come back. We just thought someone had taken it and trashed it.”

So you can imagine the disbelief when, roughly two weeks ago, early morning visitors at Gateway Park made the unexpected discovery.

Miraculously — and with nearly as much mystery as it had disappeared with — the fish had been returned to the place it called home. It was even in pretty good shape.

According to Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, police reports filed by responding officers indicated there was one lone piece of evidence attached: a note indicating, in Cool’s words, that “the thief had enjoyed the art and was returning it after 10 years.”

John Trueman, described by some as “Mr. Old Town,” and the president of the Old Town Business Association at the time of the disappearance, recalled hearing the news.

“I was on vacation in Minnesota when I got the call (about the Soul Salmon’s return),” Trueman said. “I was shocked.”

Trueman’s sentiments were echoed by Daren Skaanes, one of the community liaison officers that serve Sector 2. When Skaanes took over the Old Town beat back in 2010, he remembers the case of the missing fish still being fresh on people’s minds.

“I normally take the Old Town Business District meetings. … That’s kind of how I got tied in,” Skaanes says. “I had relieved another CLO, … and he was introducing me. Of course, he started talking about the fish. He said, ‘You’ve got to find their fish. These people are crazy about their fish.’ Obviously, they took ownership of it.”

Skaanes did what he could, including working with former News Tribune columnist Larry LaRue on a human interest story back in 2014 designed to generate leads on the then 8-year-old case.

The efforts proved fruitless.

Until two weeks ago.

“I came into work on Monday morning, and one of the Sector 2 officers was talking about recovering this 8-foot fish that was stolen,” Skaanes said.

“I about fell off my chair.”

Get talking to folks from Old Town about their beloved Soul Salmon, and its inexplicable return, and that’s one of three reactions you get. Needless to say, there’s also lingering anger over the theft. While Cool says the statute of limitations has expired on the 2006 theft, a case could still be made for possession of stolen property. She wasn’t sure whether Tacoma Police will pursue one.

“Why would somebody steal it? Who would do that?” Evans still wonders. “It must be a bit of a character who did it.”

Meanwhile, Trueman added: “I think it’s a good story. Just don’t make the guy who stole it look good for returning it.”

But most of all, there’s sheer happiness in Old Town these days. The Soul Salmon was reinstalled at Gateway Park on Wednesday morning — much more securely this time, I’m told — and the Old Town Business District Association is planning a celebratory unveiling event for Thursday night.

“I just think it’s pretty cool that it did come back, and somebody did take pretty care of it,” Manke told me.

“It’s a happy ending.”

A happy ending, to one heck of a fish story.