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WE ASSUME the worst, don't we? Too many jerks, too many crooks, too many nuts, too much dope, too much depravity, all of it flowing just beneath our lives, then erupting and gushing, drenching us with cynicism and affirming our worst fears about people. You know what I'm saying?

I'd like to have a dollar for every "Honest Jack" and "Honest Jill" story that's come my way over the years, delivered, for the most part, by people who are genuinely stunned that their fellow human beings could be nice, selfless and straight up. We assume the worst, don't we?

When 12-year-old Devin Partlow told his mother that someone had walked away from a bus stop with his school-issue baritone horn, she assumed it was the handiwork of a thief. After hearing the story, so did I.

"Hey, thief!" I wrote in this space three weeks ago today. "Do the right thing for once in your life. Come out from that crack you slithered into - and I hope you didn't scratch the baritone when you slithered into that crack - and give it up (or at least pawn it off). That thing is of no use to you. And Devin needs to practice. Have some decency. Have some humanity. Be a person."

All right. So my prose was ridiculously hyperbolic. I was just trying to be provocative. I wanted to goad the thief into a demoniacal rage. I wanted to rattle his cage. I wanted to hit him where he lives. I wanted to ying his yang. I wanted him to come out, come out, wherever you are.

And he did.

But here's the thing: He's not a thief.

That's the part we had wrong because we assumed the worst.

So now the man whose name I never mentioned wants me to clear his name. He's not a thief. Repeat: Not A Thief.

Joe Stokes, who lives on Argonne Drive across from the place where Devin Partlow left his baritone, says he grabbed the instrument (in its bulky case) from the bus stop bench after it had been there for more than 30 minutes.

"If I didn't grab it, someone else would have," Stokes says. He says he took the baritone to his apartment across the street and locked it up.

He was in a rush. In fact, he was running late to make an appointment at Sinai Hospital.

Twenty minutes later, Stokes came back outside, crossed the street and stepped into an MTA bus. As he took a seat and the bus started to move, he noticed well-dressed boys (including, presumably, Devin Partlow) scrambling out of a nearby alley and excitedly looking for something near the bus stop.

Stokes says his appointment was too important to miss; he was on the last bus that would get him to Sinai Hospital before 6 p.m. So, he decided against stopping the bus, getting off and speaking with the boys. He figured the baritone's owner would return to the area later and post a "lost" notice with a phone number.

Unfortunately, he never saw one. (Devin's mother, Billie Partlow, says she did hang a lost-baritone notice near the bus stop but someone ripped it down shortly afterward.)

A few weeks went by. A friend, who had clipped and saved it, showed Joe Stokes the April 7 column I'd written about Devin Partlow's missing baritone. Stokes was incensed - downright indignant - that I had assumed theft in the matter.

He and I finally hooked up last week. He gave me the baritone and I returned it to Devin Partlow at his mother's house in Northeast Baltimore.

"Make it right," Stokes says. "I did not steal it."

Devin Partlow tells the story a little differently.

On the day he lost the baritone, he was on his way home from Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden. He got off the bus on Argonne Drive. He placed the baritone on the bus bench, then walked a little friend home. He told his mother he returned to the bus stop just a few minutes later - not 50 minutes later - and the $1,900 brass-finish Conn baritone (Serial No. 400906), property of the Baltimore City Public Schools, was gone.

Well, whatever.

Joe Stokes didn't sell the baritone, didn't hock it. The Conn sat in his apartment until he figured out what to do with it. And last week he put it in my hands, and a few hours later I put it back in Devin Partlow's hands.

Neither Devin's mother nor I thought the boy would see his horn again. We assumed the worst. The worst didn't happen.

And let that be a lesson.

Class dismissed.

This Just In by voice mail at 410-332-6166, by e-mail at TJIDAN, or by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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