Follow that stolen bike, from Virginia to Baltimore and back

BALTIMORE CRIME BEAT

September 14, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Baltimore is a blue-collar, drug and shooting kind of town. So I'll forgive you if you haven't heard of the Case of the Stolen Bicycle.

This is a caper, complete with undercover skulduggery and a police officer who mixed good old-fashioned shoe-leather detective work with modern-day sleuthing on the Internet. It took Maryland and Virginia authorities from Elkridge to Arlington and to the basement of a rowhouse in Federal Hill.

The suspect who stands charged with the crime knew a thing or two about bicycling. He raced professionally, talked his way into the inner circle of bicycling enthusiasts and, as Arlington, Va., police Officer Mike Lutz put it, "gained their trust and stole them blind."

It all started back on May 15 when, during renovations in which doors were left open and unguarded, a size 54 red-and-black, carbon-frame Specialized SL2 was stolen from Conte's Bicycle and Fitness Equipment store on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington.

Only a handful of stores are authorized to sell the bike, which retails for about $8,000. Its appearance on the street turns heads; its disappearance brought an immediate call to police from Conte's co-owner, Jody L. Bennett. Officer Lutz promptly came to take a report.

Meanwhile, Gary Lessner, who works at Avalon Cycles on U.S. 1 in Elkridge, befriended a man he met through a Volkswagen club. The man started to hang out at the bicycle shop, told people he was a competitive racer and eventually brought in the SL2 to show off.

Lessner said he liked the guy so much that he helped him land a job at Light Street Cycles in Federal Hill. But he grew suspicious about how someone who had been jobless could afford such an expensive bicycle. He said the man then showed up with another bike, for his girlfriend, worth about $3,500. Lessner said he checked with Light Street Cycles and discovered that a similar bike had recently disappeared and that the new employee was a suspect.

Lessner called around to various shops in the area. He talked to Bennett from Conte's in late August and compared the serial number from his friend's SL2 to her missing SL2. "Sure enough, they matched," he said.

Bennett, now armed with a name, went to the Arlington Police Department, and along with Officer Lutz, started searching the Internet. They found the man they were looking for on Craigslist selling bicycle parts and responded to his ad. He was selling a bicycle rack for a car. Bennett pretended she was looking for one but was worried that her high-end bicycle's wheels wouldn't fit.

They flirted back and forth with e-mail. "I started bragging about what I rode and he bragged about what he rode," Bennett said. Lutz added that the man liked to chat about his bicycle, telling him he bought it after seeing the model used in the Tour de France.

Finally, they set up a time to meet in Baltimore: Sept. 2 at noon.

Lutz pretended to be Bennett's brother and they went inside the Cross Street rowhouse. They talked with the suspect and she said he went to the basement and brought up the SL2. "I nodded to Officer Lutz and he called for backup," Bennett said. Four city police officers stormed in and arrested the man.

Police identified the suspect as Barry Pugh of the 400 block of E. Cross St. I left a business card at his house but haven't heard from him. After he was arrested, he was extradited to Virginia and released on bail pending trial. He still faces a theft charge here in connection with the bike missing from Light Street Cycles.

For Lutz, it was a rare opportunity for a patrol officer to play detective and see a case through from the initial report to the undercover bust. As a bicyclist himself, Lutz said, it is heartening to see the Specialized SL2 back at the store and up for sale and an arrest that he said could lead to a broader case of stolen bike parts being sold online.

Of course, the bike is now considered used. Bennett even has a sign next to it explaining the case so buyers will know the SL2's strange odyssey.

The bicycle is cheaper now, too - it can be yours for only $6,000.

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