Berkeley police warned community members Wednesday about an increase in stolen vehicles near Grove Park and announced the arrest of two men in connection with one recent incident.

The auto theft uptick near the South Berkeley park began in early May, with at least eight vehicle thefts reported in less than two months, Officer Byron White told Berkeleyside on Wednesday. In many of these incidents, police said, thieves targeted people who had set down their personal items, including car keys, while they engaged in recreation.

Car theft reports have seen a rampant rise in Berkeley this year compared to 2020: They were up nearly 60% from Jan. 1 through June 6, 2021, the most recent data available. There have been more than 450 vehicles reported stolen in Berkeley in 2021 compared to 285 over the same period in 2020, according to BPD data.

Over the weekend, police arrested two men in connection with one of the latest incidents. On Saturday at about 5:30 p.m., a man who had been playing basketball at Grove Park, near Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street, realized some belongings he had placed nearby on the ground had been stolen. His keys were gone and, he soon realized, so was his SUV, said BPD.

Fortuitously, police were able to track the stolen SUV because the owner had left his cellphone hidden inside it while he played ball: “Unbeknownst to the thieves, the cellphone was actively pinging/tracking at Pleasanton Mall near the Macy’s.”

Police in Berkeley spoke to police in Pleasanton and learned that the stolen vehicle had been used during a grand theft at Macy’s, BPD said. Pleasanton police obtained photos of the stolen vehicle and its occupants, which they shared with BPD.

Collis Williams Jr. Credit: BPD

Police tracked the car to the 2200 block of 35th Avenue in Oakland and found it parked near a market. Inside the market, police said, they located the men from the suspect photos — identified as Collis Williams Jr., 25, of Pittsburg and 19-year-old Berkeley resident Keeric Johnson — and arrested them at 10:40 p.m.

When officers searched the stolen vehicle, they found the owner’s belongings as well as items taken from Macy’s, police said. Williams and Johnson were arrested on suspicion of vehicle theft and possession of stolen property.

Keeric Johnson. Credit: BPD

As of Wednesday, both men had been charged by the Alameda County district attorney’s office with three felonies: vehicle theft, receiving stolen property (the SUV) and grand theft. Williams also was charged with committing a new offense while out on bail, according to court records online.

Both men remain in custody at Santa Rita Jail and are being held on $45,000 bail, according to court records online. They are scheduled for their next hearing Friday at the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin.

According to court records, Williams also has felony charges from a pending 2019 case in Alameda County alleging cocaine and heroin sales.

Johnson was just charged June 10 in Alameda County with misdemeanor battery, according to records online.

On Wednesday, BPD advised community members to keep a close eye on their belongings or take extra security measures if they plan to visit Grove Park.

“We encourage everyone to consider keeping their personal belongings with them or leaving the items with a trusted person,” BPD said in the prepared statement. “For vehicle keys, consider keeping your keys on a lanyard or long keychain that you can wear on your person.”

Featured photo credit: City of Berkeley

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...