Steal this bike
Turn your back for a minute—and it’s gone. But is the city of Sacramento really the bike-theft capital of America?
Local biking legend John Cardiel is in mourning.
A onetime professional skateboarder who converted to fixed-gear cycling following a 2003 spinal-cord injury, Cardiel had his beloved Bianchi Pista Concept snatched from the front porch of his Sacramento home five weeks ago. The pro-level track racer, with its white aluminum frame, gold front wheel and green phil-wood MASH back-wheel hub, was a one-of-a-kind companion, joining Cardiel on rides throughout the world and keeping him spinning for the past three years.
“That bike has so much more sentimental value than anything I’ve ever owned,” the 38-year-old lamented. “It’s a sore subject, man.”
It’s a subject in which a growing number of flummoxed Midtown riders are gaining expertise. Bicycle thefts in the city of Sacramento have reached laughable proportions, thanks both to the rise of our oh-so-trendy cycling culture and because bikes have become a largely untraceable currency among asshole crooks and the needy.
This is the city where Lance Armstrong had his record-breaking wheels poached in 2009, after all. It’s also where a homegrown Facebook page has turned every filched Huffy or missing Denali into its own veritable Amber Alert. Where fixie kids and comely beach cruisers commiserate over losses with spandex-clad pack riders at bike kitchens around town. And where being homeless doesn’t spare you the indignity of some jerk cycling away on your rusted 10-speed.
Aficionados claim the problem is more sinister than New York’s and less guarded against than in San Francisco. The numbers say Sacramento reports more stolen bicycles than the cities of Davis and Folsom—combined.
Does all that make Sacramento the bike-theft capital of America?
“I feel like that, dude. Honestly, I feel like that,” testified Cardiel, an authority if ever there was one.
After getting trampled by a trailer during an accident in Australia nine years ago, Cardiel spent the ensuing year rehabbing his mangled spine and learning to walk again, in part by hauling ass on a street-level fixed-gear. He now runs Break Free Customs, an online bike company that specializes in making “BMX-style street rippers and track bikes.” He’s one of the culture’s most loyal converts, and so the losses hit home.
“Sacramento is just brutal. I mean, it’s ruthless,” Cardiel groaned. “Anything that’s not tied down is just gone.”
Them’s some cold hard truths, my pedal-grinding brothers and sisters. Here’s some more:
More than 1,150 bicycles were reported stolen to the Sacramento Police Department in 2011. The first half of this year has already seen nearly 700 such reports, which puts us on track for an 18-percent jump by the close of 2012. By comparison, police in Davis—a city with a more established bicycle culture—took 390 stolen bicycle reports in 2011, and 194 so far this year.
Those numbers represent only a fraction of the bicycle thefts that actually occur, according to law-enforcement officials around the region and at least one university study.
“My guess is few people report their stolen bicycles,” observed Sacramento police Sgt. Andrew Pettit.
There are good reasons for this, and they’re contributing to a fitful rise in a soft-pedaled vigilantism among victims sick of being victims. Typically mellow cycling enthusiasts are taking it upon themselves to play amateur gumshoe—cruising Craigslist listings looking for missing wheels, sharing tips and photos on Facebook, narcking on suspected poachers. They aren’t above the occasional confrontation, either.
If Sacramento is indeed Fat City for crumbum bike thieves, then the opposition is preparing its response. Watch your wheels.
Forget the police
Cardiel didn’t turn to the cops following last month’s robbery, and he’s far from alone.
When Patrick Shelley’s fixed-gear Schwinn Chicago disappeared from a back exit hallway at Midtown music venue Luigi’s Slice and Fun Garden during a Ganglians show in March—courtesy a “little punk girl” caught on surveillance video—the 20-year-old never once considered calling police.
“I didn’t think I would see it again,” he shrugged. “I just went home.”
Shelley’s casual pessimism isn’t unearned. Speak with any rider who’s had his or her bicycle stolen, and you’re likely talking to a serial victim whose lot wasn’t improved by a call to the fuzz.
Shelley’s friend, Marley Polonsky, has lost two bikes to theft, while her boyfriend has bid goodbye to three—all swiped from the Midtown area.
“We’ve had several incidents of bikes being taken,” the 23-year-old Sacramento State student sighed. “It’s not only a huge pain in the ass, but it’s almost unsettling.”
Sounding a familiar theme, Polonsky didn’t report the theft to police, saying both her vintage cruiser and her boyfriend’s single-speed road bike likely had their serial numbers scrubbed off.
Like an increasing number of Midtown victims, though, she posted news of the burglary on Stolen Midtown Bicycles. The Facebook page was created this past April with the stated goal of putting “a dent in midtown bike thievery.” It boasts nearly 860 likes—and about as many tales of loss.
Skim any selection of victim posts and you’re likely to encounter most of the emotions in the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle:
Denial: “Anyone see my Gary Fisher yet?? ☹ I miss it…”
Anger: “pretty shady to see some of these people with $500-$1000 bikes. Im 100% sure many of these of stolen because a neighbor strips them down to spray paint at night.”
Bargaining: “We need to band together. maybe set up a sting or two? Anyone interested in getting together to brainstorm ideas?”
Depression: “My beloved 2009 Schwinn Classic 7 Deluxe bicycle was stolen from my garage in Tahoe Park late last night/early this morning.”
There just isn’t a whole lot of acceptance.
We had to scroll back to May 23 to find what passes for a happy ending: “A wonderful woman bought my bike from a ‘skeevy crackhead girl’ specifically so she could find its rightful owner. She found my posting on craigslist by searching for ‘van moof sacramento’ and called me today.
“The only way to find ’em is to report ’em!”
Just not necessarily to the police—municipal or otherwise.
A UC Davis survey performed last year showed that only 31.6 percent of students whose bicycles were stolen reported the crimes to campus police between November 2009 and October 2010. The survey projected about 2,519 people had their bikes stolen during that period, yet campus officers received only 480 reports. The university’s police department has since added an online form specifically for reporting bicycle thefts, and requires students to register their bikes with the department.
The latter idea is something that Sacramento State’s police chief is trying to see realized at his campus.
“We would like to move to mandatory registration,” Chief Mark Iwasa confirmed.
Sac State’s campus police department received only 111 bicycle-theft reports last year. Of the missing bikes, an anemic 7.2 percent had been registered with the department, a small increase from 2010, when 4.5 percent of the 89 bikes stolen were registered.
“That’s still not a very high number,” Iwasa bemoaned. “So that’s been a major problem.”
Of the dozen or so suspected bike thieves campus police has pulled over this year, Iwasa estimates nearly half were let go because people didn’t register their bikes or couldn’t prove ownership.
One of those arrests occurred in May, when campus police stopped a young man for riding a registered bicycle on the wrong side of the road. Officers found bolt cutters on him, and traced the bike’s registration sticker to its rightful owner, who’d left his bike locked to a rack elsewhere on campus. University police used the bust as “a teachable moment,” wheedling students to get their bikes registered in a post on the department’s Facebook page.
And if you’re homeless and a victim of bike theft, registration or police intervention are no options at all.
The homeless network
It was an odd call, even by law enforcement standards.
On a Friday morning in early June, a 42-year-old black male with salt and pepper dreadlocks confronted a bicyclist behind the Broadway McDonald’s on 24th and X streets and demanded he give up his wheels.
“Hey, you took that bike from me,” the suspect was reported as saying, before adding, “Well, not that one, but another one.”
Into this confusing fray shuffled a 50-year-old transient with a cart, a metal pipe and a 22-year criminal history. The transient, later identified as Fidel Valentine Moralez Jr., reportedly came out swinging, and the victim decided his bike wasn’t worth a concussion.
But the victim did pursue Moralez to a spot underneath Highway 50 at 20th and X streets and phoned police. Responding officers got their man in a field near 10th Street, but the victim’s bicycle remains under new ownership.
According to Officer Mark “Batman” Zoulas, a well-respected veteran of the homeless beat, hot bikes double as illicit currency for some of the city’s homeless.
“Like cigarettes in a jail,” Pettit quipped; they’re easy to procure and simple to move.
And the clamorous parking lot of Loaves & Fishes is regularly ground zero for this particular stock exchange.
On any given day, the private North C Street charity shepherds 600 to 1,000 guests through its doors for hot meals, survival services and a glimmer of respite. The foot traffic draws an equal number of people and bicycles to the facility’s parking lot, and there are constant squabbles over swiped wheels. The kindly nun in charge of it all empathizes, but says that—for the most part—her organization can’t be dragged in the middle.
“We know of certain people who are part of that underground thing and they’ve been eighty-sixed,” Loaves & Fishes executive director Sister Libby Fernandez told SN&R. “It’s an insidious thing that we have no control over.”
Pettit says he can’t remember a single instance of a homeless person asking him about a lost bike. “I’m not saying it hasn’t happened. It probably does. But maybe there’s an element of underreporting,” he explained.
Or as Fernandez put it: “They don’t want to get beat up!”
Advocates say fear of violent retaliation is the primary reason homeless victims of bicycle theft don’t report the crimes, even though members of this community suffer the most from the robberies.
“We know how desperately our people rely on bikes, because they’re the ones getting ripped off,” Fernandez said. “It is their most valuable commodity.”
And often this commodity makes its way four miles southeast to the bike-cluttered pathways of Sac State.
“There are a number of vagrants that come onto campus that are riding unbelievably nice bikes,” observed Chief Iwasa. While that doesn’t necessarily mean the bikes were stolen from campus, Iwasa doubts they were purchased fair and square outside the university’s confines.
Pettit says his officers sometimes confiscate these bikes, then tell riders they can be claimed with proof of ownership at the department’s property room. But no one ever does.
The property room where recovered bicycles and other evidence is stored on Freeport Boulevard is less a cemetery for lost or forgotten bikes than a temporary purgatory, one that currently houses 65 spoked souls.
A precious few are claimed and brought back to the world of the bipedal; most are forsaken and moved on to a more permanent afterlife. The ones that never even make it there are trafficked through a high-speed underworld.
After burglars ransacked David Mayberry’s apartment in West Sacramento on June 20, the 46-year-old aerial-lift maintenance operator turned to Craigslist to post a reward for one item and one item only: the custom Cannondale Prophet 1 he pampered like an only child.
The thieves also took a couple of paintball guns and fly-fishing reels, some expensive cologne and about three pounds in laundry quarters, but all Mayberry cared about was the chocolate-brown road-chewer he calls his “Cadillac.”
“That bike is my pride and joy,” he said.
Craiglist’s section devoted to bikes for sale is positively booming. There were 368 individual listings for bicycles and parts on July 19 alone—and that was before 5 p.m. A sleek Cannondale Synapse Carbon 3 road bike was selling for $1,825 in Elk Grove, while someone in South Sacramento was trying to unload a shiftless Huffy Stalker for $15. Every listing claimed to be posted by the property’s owner, a crucial litmus test for those looking to make legitimate purchases.
But despite Craigslist’s best intentions, and the flagging habits of an alert clientele, circumventing the site’s scam-prevention efforts isn’t impossible.
Sac State student Polonsky says she knows several friends who have found their stolen bikes on Craigslist—and got them back. In at least one case, the person who was selling it “wasn’t actually the person who stole the bike,” she added.
The idea of theft victims arranging to meet, and possibly confront, those who burgled them makes Pettit uneasy. He’s heard of instances where amateur detectives get the well-meaning snot beaten out of them.
“That’s when you call us,” he stressed. “A lot of these guys, they don’t play by the same rules as we do. They may do drugs or be armed—their moral compass isn’t the same.”
Polonsky has been logging onto Craigslist daily since the theft of her vintage fixie, both in the hopes of spotting her bike and also to see about getting a new one. She filters the ads to search only sales by owner, and stays away from anyone with multiple recumbents to sell.
As for the oft-repeated notion that her cruiser—or parts of it—may be selling at some unscrupulous bike shop in town, the former City Bicycle Works employee is doubtful.
“I do not believe shops would,” Polonsky reasoned. “It’s quite a bit of a process” to sell your bike to a shop.
More so, at least, than selling it through Craigslist.
Dumb luck—and a shovel
About three weeks after the Luigi’s caper, Shelley and his brother happened by a D Street home where a young man was wheeling out a Schwinn that looked an awful lot like the one he’d lost. The make, the stem, the wheels—everything tracked but the color.
“Hey,” he said to his brother, “that kind of looks like my bike.” He went closer and got luckier than most victims of bike theft ever do.
The Schwinn had been crudely spray-painted a slapdash white, but swaths of the frame’s original blue were visible and the badge was unchanged. The brothers approached a skinny fellow of about 25. Shelley’s brother happened to be carrying a large shovel at the time, and the visual quickened the following transaction: The D Street resident said “some kid” had given him the fixie, then offered it back to Shelley without protest.
“I’m sure he gave it up so easily because it was two guys who cornered him, and one of them had a shovel,” Shelley said dryly.
The D Street sap’s story isn’t unusual.
Polonsky has been approached by sketchy salespeople trying to sell cherry bikes on the cheap. Cardiel’s buddy actually bought one, and he himself has been tempted from time to time, especially when a glassy-eyed dope fiend who doesn’t know the value of his hock is asking $50 for a pristine GT Cruiser.
“You know it’s worth 300, 400, 500 dollars,” Cardiel explained. “It almost gives you a ticket to buy something that’s stolen. You know you don’t want to support bike theft, because that just means it’ll happen more, but you’re thinking, ‘Shit, my bike just got stolen.’
“With the theft scene becoming so rampant in Sacramento, it’s almost like you’re a part of it.”
Becoming a part of the very scene that’s victimized you is a growing peril when the problem is this severe. And it’s tempting when the punishment for buying stolen merch is virtually nonexistent. Unless police secure a confession, or a serial number can be traced back to the rightful owner, there’s no formal justice to be had, law-enforcement officials acknowledge. And even on the off chance the thief hasn’t scraped off the digits, an investigator would need to track a number to the point of transaction to the owner’s current address.
“Can you imagine how long that takes making all those phone calls?” Pettit asked.
The short answer is too long to actually happen.
“As you surmised, there is not much investigation [or] follow-up that can be done in cases like this,” confirmed Deputy Jason Ramos, spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
The department’s Property Crimes Bureau receives more than 15,000 general stolen-property reports a year, each one assigned to a detective charged with prioritizing the ones he or she can close. In the absence of what Ramos calls “solvability factors,” hard-luck cases find their way to the bottom of a never-ending pile.
“In most instances of bicycle theft, I would imagine that there is usually a virtual absence of such [factors],” Ramos acknowledged.
Unless you’re a malcontent on a message board, most riders have achieved a hard-won peace with police preoccupation. And while they’ve been conditioned by reality to expect little from the law, they’re expecting more from themselves.
And, for the most part, law enforcement is OK with victims playing detective.
“I think as long as you’re not confronting a suspect or a possible suspect, it’s a good idea,” Pettit offered cautiously.
He also urged riders to take preemptive and post-emptive measures such as committing serial numbers and other secretly-etched identifiers to quick smartphone pictures.
“A lot of people are part of this iPhone culture now. You can really quickly take a photo of your serial number, Tweet it, Craigslist it, disseminate it to hundreds of people within a matter of minutes,” Pettit suggested. “Sometimes that’s more effective than waiting a day or two and calling the police.”
Because even when you do, those reports are typically broadcast out to roving patrol officers who may or may not keep an eye out for your pink beach cruiser with ape hangers and sparkle hand grips.
City of thieves
A hundred-and-fifty years ago, towns began cropping up on dusty spits of land where no law yet existed. The whiff of gold drew fortune seekers of every moral stripe westward, and a dozen problems for every pair of mud-caked boots that slopped through town. Robberies, beatings, rapes and murders tarnished the very notion of manifest destiny, of the assumption that America deserved to expand. As a result, the respectable and the well-to-do formed their posses and kangaroo courts, and did what they could to keep a lid on things until the real law could arrive.
That process has been flipped on its arcane head here in the bicycle-theft capital of America. The law is present in name only and a cavalry that rides steeds of aluminum and rubber has yet to arrive.
Like many in this hard-hit community, Cardiel spent the days following his theft calling friends, skimming tweaker hangouts and bike trails for his Bianchi, browsing Craigslist posts and putting up his own ads. He exhausted every avenue—save for calling the cops.
Polonsky, Mayberry and a thousand others uploaded their stories to the network cloud and are praying for word from the Internet gods. But they’re also hitting the streets.
“These thieves aren’t the brightest,” Polonsky said. “I’m hoping I may see mine riding by, but I think that’s doubtful.”
It happened to her friend Shelley, one of the lucky few. Maybe that’s why the 20-year-old rejects the notion that Sacramento is already lost to the takers.
“I don’t think it’s become accepted,” he said of the thefts raging through Sacramento. “If you’re going to steal a bike, you’re basically going to be considered a dirtbag.”
The city has many dirtbags—it’s true—but can also lay claim to riders whose only sin is a scorned faith that people won’t be thieves.
Shelley took his fixie back from someone who probably knew he possessed stolen goods. But what if that scenario went down another way, and the D Street-hipster rejected Shelley’s claim?
He considers this alternative reality for a silent moment, and then cracks:
“I would’ve hit him with the shovel, I guess.”
Your move, dirtbags.