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The Case of the Missing Piccolo

BUPD detectives retrieve $5,000 instrument through eBay and old-fashioned police work

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A year and a half after being stolen from a rehearsal room at 855 Commonwealth Ave., this $5,000 Powell piccolo turned up on eBay. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In January of 2007, Julie, a classical musician, left her rehearsal room in the College of Fine Arts for just a few minutes to use the restroom. When she returned, her $5,000 custom-made piccolo was gone, case and all.

“At first, I thought I just misplaced it,” says Julie (CFA’96), who asked that we not use her real name. “I ran to the car, searched everywhere. It was very traumatic, like a lost child. You become so close to these instruments. They’re one of a kind, irreplaceable.”

Julie filed a report with the Boston University Police Department, put up reward posters, and kept an eye on eBay, but her piccolo, a Verne Q Powell hand-cut from aged Grenadilla wood with sterling silver keys, remained missing for a year and half. In the beginning, BUPD Detective Christopher O’Shea did his best to find a trail. He checked surveillance tapes from CFA – a popular target for thieves because of the abundance of musical instruments and the musicians’ habit of “claiming” rehearsal rooms by leaving their instruments out. He plugged the piccolo’s serial numbers into a national database and checked area pawn shops and music stores. Nothing. Other investigations demanded his attention, and, as they say, the case went cold.

Then, in early July, Julie spotted a Powell piccolo on eBay that looked a lot like hers. She even thought she recognized the cleaning rag and earplug displayed in the picture. But without seeing the serial numbers, she couldn’t know for sure. She called O’Shea, who got the seller’s name and phone number from eBay’s fraud unit. The detective became hopeful when he saw that the seller was local, but when he ran the number, it came back as Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere — a dead end. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles returned two addresses for the name. One was an elderly resident, whom he ruled out. The other was a woman in her 40s who lived in Revere. O’Shea sent an e-mail to the seller, pretending to be a potential buyer and asking to take a closer look at the merchandise. No response. Meanwhile, the online auction was ticking down, with 10 interested parties and the top bid a mere $484, a fraction of the instrument’s value.

“It was a race against time,” says Det. Lt. Ronald Ford, who worked with O’Shea on the case. “At midnight it was going to be bought by somebody and we may never have seen it again. We didn’t know what was going to happen if we just showed up at that apartment, but knew we had to do something.”

So O’Shea and Ford, along with officers from the Revere Police Department, knocked on the door. Without a search warrant, they were banking on the sellers’ cooperation, and as things turned out, they got it. The custom-made piccolo was one of 45 items the residents were offering on eBay at the time, and they had dozens more on deck. The sellers handed over the instrument, explaining they were merely middlemen for a thrift shop in Malden. When O’Shea checked the serial numbers, they turned out to be perfect match.

Because state law requires that thrift and pawn shops record seller information with ID verification, the detectives quickly learned who brought the piccolo to the Malden store. "And that was the twist," O’Shea says. "He was well known to this department."

Since the investigation is not yet closed, BUPD declines to name the suspect, but O’Shea describes the alleged thief, who is also a suspect in several open BUPD cases, as a man in his late 50s who has been arrested in the past for trespassing at the School of Fine Arts.

“He’s been very active.” Ford says. “Probably our number one offender. Not just instruments, but credit cards, money, anything he can get his hands on. We have video of him using people’s credits cards. He’ll dress up like a professor so he blends in. You think these people are stupid, but they’re not. They’ve made a living off some of these students. Not just at BU, but at other universities, too.”

The piccolo is still held by police as evidence of a crime, but an ecstatic Julie says it’s in decent shape, in need of a little pad work perhaps. And when she stopped by last week to identify the instrument, the BU police department at Harry Agganis Way was briefly filled with the sound of beautiful music.

“Recently, I had abandoned all hope,” says Julie. “I was so overwhelmed when Detective O’Shea told me the piccolo was in his possession, completely shocked. It was quite moving for me. It was an amazing job on the part of BUPD.”

The moral of the story? Detective O’Shea advises all students to write down the serial numbers and register all tempting items, such as bikes and laptops, with BUPD. He also suggests something that Julie learned the hard way: never leave valuables unattended, even for a moment.

To learn more about keeping your property safe on campus and around the city, check out the safety tips on the BUPD Web site.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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