Zeroing in on the problem

Local cops say heroin addiction is fueling underground bike theft economy in Chico

Curtis Pahlka, who works for the University Police Department, in front of a cache of bikes being held by UPD.

Curtis Pahlka, who works for the University Police Department, in front of a cache of bikes being held by UPD.

Photo by Gabriel Sandoval

There’s an underground economy in Chico fueled by cash, stolen bikes and heroin addiction. That’s according to University Police Chief John Feeney, who’s seen evidence of it firsthand.

Bike thefts are nothing new in Chico, and in fact constitute the No. 1 crime affecting students. But in recent months, Feeney and other local law enforcement officials have caught wind of some intricacies in the illegal trade, in which people sell stolen bikes, in many cases in exchange for heroin to sustain their opioid addictions.

“Unfortunately, bikes are the currency in this marketplace,” Feeney said.

To fulfill custom orders, thieves may be using so-called “wish lists” of high-end bikes, he said. No physical list has been found, although multiple people who’ve been stopped on bikes attest to their existence, he said.

“I would love to come across a list sometime, but we never have,” he explained.

In addition to bike theft, Feeney said UPD has noticed an uptick in illegal drug use on and around campus. He said offenders are often nonstudents—either transients or other Chico residents—and rather than abusing meth, as was most often seen in the past, many of them now use heroin.

The issue of bike theft, infused with heroin abuse and sales, requires a “more collaborative response” between the UPD, the Chico Police Department and the campus community as a whole, he said. “This is not just a Chico State problem.”

He took it a step further, saying bike thefts have risen above just random crimes.

“I’m going to stop short of calling it organized crime,” he said, “but when you’re going to specialize in stealing bikes and you’re paying people to steal bikes, it’s a form of organized crime.”

The rest of the city seems to be seeing a similar trend. Ed Nelson, crime prevention officer for the Chico Police Department, says bike theft is “clearly on the rise.” And while he hasn’t heard of a bike wish list, he said, “I can certainly believe it.”

Nelson agreed that illegal drugs and bike theft go hand-in-hand.

“Bike theft is often fueled by drug abuse,” he said. “They use the stolen bikes to get around town … they steal bikes to trade them for drugs.”

In efforts to curb incidents of bike theft, the CPD has issued public service announcements about best locking practices and deployed its “bait bike” program, but the frequency of theft has actually increased, Nelson said. He added that he hopes the recent change to the city’s bike registration process—it’s now free instead of costing $12—will help.

UPD has a similar registration program and encourages all students to lock their bikes—and to not bring terribly expensive rides to campus.

According to UPD records, since 2015, high-end bike brands reported stolen include Kona, Fuji, Trek, Giant, Scott and Cannondale. Each of the reports classified the crimes as grand thefts because the value of the bikes exceeded $950, Feeney said. The vast majority of reported bike and bike-part thefts overall—117 in 2015, 129 in 2016 and 15 in 2017, as of mid-April—are considered petty thefts, because their value is lower.

There were four bike-related grand thefts reported to UPD in 2015, eight in 2016 and two in 2017 so far.

Looking to the future, Feeney said there will be more areas for secure bike parking on campus soon. While Chico State already has well-lit bike rack areas, strategically placed surveillance cameras and a staff of UPD and community service officers who are aware of the issue, the university is planning to install caged bike parking areas in places where thefts occur often. The cages, Feeney said, may soon be installed near student housing units for starters.

Another possible deterrent in the “target-rich environment,” Feeney said, is empowering students, helping them take a more active role in each other’s safety. To that end, the university is planning to start a program in the fall called Wildcat Watch, which will provide paid positions for students to assist police.

“They’re not going to be junior cops who are going to take action and arrest people,” Feeney said. “They’re eyes and ears.”