THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Craigslist posting leads to arrest in bike theft

Somerville man held without bail

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 11, 2011

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When a local college student had his Trek bike stolen from the Boston Common late last month, he probably figured he’d never see it again. But on a hunch, he scrolled through the used bike listings on Craigslist, and there it was, picture and all.

The nerve.

Eager to turn the tables, the student contacted Boston police, who had a detective pose as a prospective buyer and meet the person attempting to sell the bike at Boston Common on a recent Friday. Police promptly arrested the man on larceny charges, even though the bike he was trying to sell turned out not to belong to the student, who police said did not want to be interviewed.

For cyclists who say bike thieves are rarely caught, the arrest was gratifying.

“I’ve heard of it once or twice, maybe,’’ said Pete Stidman, director of the Boston Cyclists Union. “That’s awesome. Nothing like the stupidity of a thief to help you out.’’

Nicole Freedman, Boston’s director of bicycle programs, was delighted by the arrest.

“That’s fantastic,’’ she said. “It’s very unusual to get them back.’’

Freedman said the city is encouraging people to register their bikes to make it easier to recover them if they are stolen, and that some 600 have done so in the past year and a half.

In addition to trying to sell a stolen bike, police said the 30-year-old suspect — Matthew Berry of Somerville — was carrying a pair of bolt cutters in his messenger bag, along with some pliers and Allen wrenches.

Police believe Berry may be responsible for more than 20 bike thefts in recent weeks and had used the extensive bicycle listings on Craigslist to unload them.

“He’s been doing it for a couple of years,’’ said Sergeant Detective Michael Talbot, who helped lead the investigation.

Berry was arraigned last Monday in Boston Municipal Court, and pleaded not guilty to charges of larceny over $250 and possession of burglarious tools. Berry had five outstanding arrest warrants to his name, and open larceny cases in Somerville and Brighton, authorities said. He was held without bail.

A lawyer representing Berry declined to comment.

Police said thieves’ use of websites like Craigslist to sell bikes has grown more common. “In their mind, it’s low risk and higher pay’’ than pawn shops or other resale venues, said Talbot.

Police had received numerous reports about bike thefts at the Boston Common and Beacon Hill areas and said the investigation showed how seriously they take the complaints.

One bike thief told investigators he often posts descriptions of bicycles on Craigslist to gauge buyer interest, then steals what he needs, police said. The bikes are often worth $500 and up, but he was selling them for much less, Talbot said.

Stidman said bike thieves often target universities, because the racks are often somewhat secluded and college students tend to use less secure locks.

“Coming in, they don’t always know the drill,’’ he said. “It’s a shame because it usually ends their biking career in Boston.’’

Once considered a cyclist’s nightmare, Boston has made sweeping improvements, and last year completed 20 miles of bike lanes and installed hundreds of new parking spaces. In the past three years, bike ridership has doubled, officials say.

Police do not track bike thefts, but say that the odds of recovery are usually long. Still, investigators have had some success by contacting suspicious sellers through Craigslist.

In October, a victim told police he had spotted his stolen bike advertised on Craigslist for $200, and after responding, arranged to meet the seller. Police arrested two suspects who arrived, and officers were able to recover the victim’s bike.

In a similar case in June 2007, police conducted an undercover sting to recover a stolen bike advertised on Craigslist.

Cyclists say the website is a popular destination for used bikes, often at steep discounts that seem like a steal — and in some cases might be.

“As with everything else on Craigslist, it’s caveat emptor,’’ said David Watson, executive director of MassBike, a cyclists’ advocacy group.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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