Bait and swish
Bike thieves beware: Jason Cecchettini knows where you live
Local police departments are amassing an ever-expanding arsenal of high-tech tools to fight crime. DNA helps track down murderers and rapists. Tasers, beanbag guns, pepper spray and other “non-lethal” weapons can subdue violent, drugged-up suspects, as well as the occasional anarchist protester.
But you might be surprised to learn about the gee-whiz tech tools that local police agencies are ready and willing to employ against perpetrators of less-dire crimes.
Back in mid-January, Jason Cecchettini’s girlfriend’s truck was broken into near her Curtis Park home. Unfortunately for the crooks, they picked on the wrong person. Cecchettini was sure that a thief was targeting the neighborhood and that, if tempted, the villain would strike again. With the help of the Sacramento Police Department, he laid a trap.
The next evening, Cecchettini placed a fancy bike, unlocked, on the back of his pickup truck in front of his girlfriend’s house at midnight. By 1:30 a.m., the bike was gone, stolen from the back of the truck.
What the thief didn’t know was that the bike was a special “bait bike” of Cecchettini’s own design. It was equipped with a tiny radio transmitter, installed inside the bike’s handlebars. And the same handlebars were coated with a fine, invisible powder that ultimately would betray the criminal.
Using radio receivers tuned to the special frequency that the bike was transmitting into the air, the cops were able to pinpoint the exact location of the thief—only about a mile away from where the bike was stolen—within minutes. They dispensed a little shock and awe while they were at it; a Sacramento Police Department helicopter, equipped with a tracking receiver, was dispatched to hover over the house until patrol cars arrived.
No doubt discombobulated by the thundering swish of the helicopter blades and the blinding searchlights raking the house, the suspect tried unsuccessfully to stash the bike, Cecchettini said.
“He was just freaking out. He was probably only home five minutes when the police helicopters moved in,” he said.
Cecchettini tagged along with the officers, tracking the signal to a back bedroom of the house. There he found what he was looking for.
“I noticed the bed was pretty lumpy. I pulled back the covers, and there she was.” Apparently, it was the best the thief could do on such short notice. “I guess he didn’t have time to stuff it in the attic,” Cecchettini observed.
The suspect also had the telltale green “clue spray” on the palms of his hands. The powder only shows up under an ultraviolet light of a particular wavelength.
Caught green-handed, the suspect was arrested and booked in the Sacramento County Jail.
Cecchettini is president of Pegasus Technologies, a small company that specializes in auto-theft-recovery technology using radio transmitters.
Pegasus makes most of its money selling LoJack-style vehicle-recovery systems to private security companies who are hired by corporations in foreign countries like Pakistan and Kenya.
In the States, Pegasus does small bait bikes and other niche radio-tracking technology just for police departments. Much of the work the company does in Sacramento is done pro bono.
Cecchettini once put a radio transmitter inside a Meadowview man’s air-conditioning unit. It seemed the man was having a problem with a thief who kept stealing heavy appliances—window-unit air conditioners and even a stove—from his house. When the suspect was apprehended, he was pushing the booby-trapped air conditioner along the street on a hand truck that also was stolen from the same house. “He had taken the medicine cabinet, too,” Cecchettini said with a laugh.
The Pegasus radio transmitters are small, unassuming and silent. Police helicopters are anything but. Sure, the police could have just relied on the tracking gear in a patrol car to quietly apprehend the bike thief, instead of sending a helicopter to hover over a residential neighborhood at 1:30 in the morning.
Cecchettini says it’s a matter of officer safety. Helicopters are equipped with infrared cameras, and “they are better able to look into people’s backyards.” They can get to a location faster than patrol cars and are dispatched only for felonies. In this case, grand theft of the bait bike qualified. Besides, he said, the chopper took off pretty quickly after the patrol cars got there. “But it certainly was fun,” he added.