For every wonderful thing there’s someone out there determined to destroy it. Case in point? Bike thieves. Sadly, every cyclist is all too familiar with the paranoia that you almost are required to possess when you lock your bike up outside somewhere. Here’s a look at theft and sting operations to get bikes back from this year so far in the Seattle, WA area. Is bike theft a big problem where you live?
TO THE PREPARED THIEF, every bike rack is a buffet. You think a cable lock will keep your beloved wheels in your life. The thief knows a simple pair of aviation snips cuts through that cable like butter. You’re convinced a locker-style combination lock will outsmart a crook. He pops it in seconds with a shim—just slides it in between the body of the lock and its fishhook tip, and your bike is his. (A good bandit can make a shim in about five minutes with nothing more than a beer can and a pair of scissors.) U-locks? Routinely opened with a Bic pen jammed into the keyhole. Even with that rare unbreakable lock, a bike is no safer than its anchor; outside Guthrie Hall at the University of Washington sits a metal rack that bike thieves have sawed straight through.
The components, meanwhile—the lights, seats, handlebars, derailleurs, and brakes that turn a frame into a ridable bike—can go for hundreds of dollars each on the black market. With no serial numbers, these parts, unlike frames, are untraceable. “As long as you’ve got the proper tools,” Justin, a University Avenue fixture who has swapped stories with more than one bike thief and asked that his last name be withheld, explained, “you can just walk up to a bike and be like, ‘I want those rims, I want those handlebars, I want that seat.’ ” A buffet.
Not that your bike is safe indoors. Whitney Rosa, a customer service manager at a medical firm and self-described “avid bike commuter,” thought the locked communal storage room of the Capitol Hill condo building where she rented an apartment was secure until her $8,300 Seven Mudhoney disappeared on December 31, 2011.
Her ride, with its custom titanium frame painted like a pair of blue and brown argyle socks, became one of 824 reported stolen bikes in Seattle that year, according to city data (by 2013 the number rose to an annual 1,121, three per day on average). Had police given it to her straight, Rosa would have learned that only 1 percent of stolen bikes make it back to their owners. And thieves rarely get caught in the act. Someone leaning over a bike to unlock it looks pretty much the same to passersby as someone leaning over a bike to hack or cut its lock. And as Rosa now realized, inside storage isn’t necessarily better.
“The garages are such a soft target, and they’re typically [easy] to get into and chock-full of stuff you can steal,” says Bryan Hance, who runs the online antitheft database bikeindex.org. “One idiot with [the right tools] can get in and get a lot of valuables really fast, really quietly.”
Still, Rosa filed a police report and waited for the cops to solve the caper. And waited. It would be nine months before she received word of her bike’s fate. When she did, it wouldn’t be from the Seattle police.
THE ACTUAL NUMBER of bikes stolen in Seattle last year was likely far greater than the reported 1,121. A study in Montreal found that while about half of the city’s cyclists had been victims of bike theft, only about a third (one-sixth of all cyclists) reported their theft to police. Here, where biking, like espresso and drizzle, is part of the city’s essence, an estimated 4.1 percent of commutes are by bike, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The city’s rife with pedal power—weekday commuters, recreational cyclists, bike messengers, fast food deliverers, and pedicabs.
Look hard enough in nearly any neighborhood and you’re bound to see the lonely skeleton of a bicycle stripped to the frame like a carcass. Downtown has a high concentration (one reported theft per day during the first half of August), as do the U District and Fremont, but the locations of bike thefts are literally all over the map, with no part of the city left untouched.
And it’s probably going to get worse. The city is pouring as much as half a billion dollars into bicycle infrastructure over the next two decades in hopes of thinning auto traffic and pollution. A boost in cycling plus growing economic inequality equals a situation primed for increased bike theft.
Justin, our University Ave source—twentysomething, buzzed reddish hair, a valiant attempt at a goatee—recalls once finding an apparently abandoned bike stashed behind a bush in the U District. After waiting for an hour to see if its owner would return—“I boarded around a little bit, smoked some weed”—he said to himself, “Fuck it.” He grabbed the bike and started rolling downhill. Before he’d gone more than a few blocks, a guy on the sidewalk waved at him to pull over. “And this guy’s like, ‘Hey, you wanna sell that bike? How much you want for it?’ And I’m like, ‘Twenty bucks and like a bag of weed right now.’ ” The buyer counteroffered $10 and a gram of marijuana. “Deal.”
“It’s all drugs,” says Hance of bikeindex.org. “Bikes become a sort of currency. You can rip off a bike and trade it for a $50 bag of drugs pretty easily, and then that guy turns around and trades it to another guy, and so on.” One UW police report describes the arrest of a man busted for selling stolen bicycles via Craigslist. A search of his sedan revealed clothes, toiletries, cellphones, and tools for stealing bikes. An utterly spartan existence—save the meth pipe in the glove box.
SPEAKING OF CRAIGSLIST, when it comes to bicycle larceny the famously uncorporate site is, according to Hance, “a nightmare.” The classifieds emporium’s glowing blue hyperlinks represent a well-traversed highway for stolen goods, largely due to its management’s distaste for both self-regulation and external auditing.
Craigslist did not respond to multiple requests—via email, the website contact form, and Twitter—for an interview or a comment for this story.
But Tom Fucoloro did.
“You would never set up a Craigslist sting to get your Xbox back,” says the founder of Seattle Bike Blog, which covers everything from greenway infrastructure to traffic fatalities to theft. “A bike is something really personal,” he adds, scratching his beard. “There are all these little details that make it specially yours. You have adventures with your bike.”
THAT EPHEMERAL BOND led Fucoloro to madly pedal down an alleyway on a winter night in 2013 in an attempt to reclaim a friend’s cream-colored Soma road bike. Hours after it was nicked outside Zeitgeist Coffee in Pioneer Square, Fucoloro had spotted the bike on Craigslist. When he and the friend contacted Seattle police (in person, after trying and failing to use the department’s phone tree), the cops brushed them off. As Fucoloro later reported on his blog, SPD told the friend to call 911 once he had physically seen the bike and the suspect.
So they set up a buy.
Fucoloro played the purchaser, planning to take the bike on a test ride that he’d never come back from while the friend called the cops. What they didn’t count on was that police would take their sweet time showing up, or that the thief would only let Fucoloro test ride in an enclosed alley—which is how he found himself straining to pedal forward as the seller, enraged, grasped Fucoloro’s sweater and dragged him to a stop.
“Get the fuck off my bike, dude! Get the fuck off my bike, dude!” the seller shouted. The two men were close enough to embrace: Fucoloro frozen to the handlebars, one leg half extended over the frame, the seller behind him and to the left, frantically yanking the bike up and down.
Then the screwdriver came out. “I’m gonna—I’m gonna fuckin’ stab you with this,” the seller babbled.
“As soon as I saw the screwdriver,” Fucoloro says, “I said, ‘Okay, I’ve made a series of bad decisions.’ ”
Weighing his options, Fucoloro dismounted. “That bike is stolen,” he said. “Stolen my asshole,” the seller replied, trotting down the alley.
When an SPD cruiser finally showed up “a couple cigarettes later,” police informed the dispirited blogger that the alley where he’d almost gotten screwed was technically outside city limits, in White Center. So Fucoloro called the King County Sheriff, then set up another buy using a different cellphone.
Fucoloro later recalled the conversation on his blog: “ ‘You don’t have a beard, do you?’ the guy asked. ‘No, clean shaven,’ [Fucoloro] lied. ‘Good, ’cause there was this crazy guy with a beard who just tried to take my bike.’ ”
A few minutes later, King County Sheriff officers had both the seller and the bike in custody.
For Fucoloro, the capture isn’t so much a victory as the lesser of two evils: Most bike thefts are “acts of desperation,” he says, and this was no exception. He only wishes that he hadn’t been driven to take such risks in reclaiming the bike. “I don’t really think that vigilante justice is a good thing,” he says. “It would have been really great if the Seattle PD had shown up…[but it was] as if they just left me out to dry.”
FILCHING AN ENTIRE BICYCLE and trying to sell it whole, however, is amateur hour. Any bike thief worth his shim knows you’ve got to liquidate the rolling booty via parts. “It’s really easy to work with a bunch of thieves in your neighborhood,” Bryan Hance says, “and say, ‘Hey, you bring bikes to me, I’ll give you cash or dope.’ And then you quote-unquote ‘improve’ them by taking the seat off, taking the pedals off, doing a paint job.”
Welcome to the chop shop, where seasoned mechanics chop several bikes up into their constituent parts and reassemble those components into new creations, effectively camouflaging the product. “It’s not supercommon, but one of those guys could have 300 bikes in his backyard,” says Hance. (In June 2014, a woman in California was caught with 139 stolen bikes and frames.)
Here in Seattle, police say they’ve busted one chop shop running inside a used bike store. Eric Patchen, owner of Belltown’s Bicycle Pull Apart, was arrested in March for allegedly trafficking stolen property, released with a warning, and raided by police a month later.
All told, SPD has recovered four different stolen bikes from his shop. According to sergeant Chris Hall, the architect of the bust, the shop could still have other bikes whose serial numbers never made it into the police database, since “the vast majority of [victims] don’t know their serial number.”
Sergeant Hall—stout, balding, mellow—says that for years he’d heard rumors about Bicycle Pull Apart. Once he began digging he found that more than half the store’s purchases or pawns last year were from convicted felons—“almost all for property crimes or drug crimes.” Pawnshops and similar used goods stores are required by city law to keep online records of their transactions, including serial numbers and customer ID info. Several of these customers’ names were entered incorrectly, and one entry listed the wrong serial number for a stolen Litespeed Tuscany worth $835. “Upon seeing the imprinted serial number,” Hall wrote in his arrest report, “I can only conclude it was intentionally mistyped as the number was clear.”
The inside of Bicycle Pull Apart is a bike punk’s dream: Old bikes in various stages of repair flood the floor; spokeless wheels, handlebars, seats, chains, rear and front racks, derailleurs and other varied cycling accoutrements carpet the ceiling and walls. Patchen’s dog, Porkchop, silently pads around the shop floor, a gentle mastiff mutt who nuzzles up to customers.
Sitting at a nearby cafe on a recent afternoon, Patchen wears the expression of a man leaning over the edge of a cliff. Beneath blocky black spectacles and what looks like a quilted fedora, the 40-year-old’s boyish face is flecked with graying stubble; his muscular frame hunches slightly forward. In Patchen’s telling, he’s an up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur who has overcome bad credit and hostile landlords to bring affordable biking to Belltown. He says he does everything he can to filter out stolen bikes from the flow of legitimately used ones that are Bicycle Pull Apart’s lifeblood.
“It’s overwhelming how much [used] bicycle product is out there,” he says, “good, bad, and ugly, and it comes across my door every day. Do stolen bikes come to my shop? As far as I know, I do the best I can to make sure they don’t. But you can’t catch every single thing.”
He insists his shop is an easy scapegoat for lazy cops. “There’s been a rash of theft all over the place” in recent months. “And that’s what kills me. [The police] know who these people are. They know who’s stealing these bikes.”
Convincing others of his version, though, has been a challenge. “At some point you just Occam’s razor the whole thing and walk away,” Hance said in an email, pointing to some bizarre rejoinders Patchen has lobbed at online critics. “Stolen bikes in the shop + shitty reputation + super aggro response + inconsistent stories = Case closed.”
Patchen is awaiting trial, but punishment—deserved or not—has arrived early. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen here,” he says. “I’m really at death’s door here. The money’s gone, you know, with the lawyers, and the customer base is” gone too. “I’m moving out of my place in a few days, and essentially I don’t have anywhere to go,” he says. “So if I’m some mastermind, I’m really a shitty mastermind.”
“I HAVE FOUND YOUR STOLEN BIKE.” Whitney Rosa thought she was looking at the subject line for spam. It was September 2012, nine months after her $8,300 Mudhoney vanished from the storage room of her Capitol Hill apartment, and she was on a work trip in Los Angeles. She almost deleted the email, assuming it was a ruse by an especially clever bot that had noticed some of her posttheft web traffic.
“Hello!” the email continued. “I have spent the entire day trying to find the owner of this bike!” The sender, a scrupulously honest bike buff in Maryland, explained that he had bought the used frame on eBay. Wary of purchasing stolen goods, he asked for the bike’s serial number during the online auction. The seller, streamline6868, had emailed back that they were “in the mountains, out of cellphone range” and did not have the serial number with them, but assured the Maryland buyer that “the bike has not been reported stolen, and…the serial number is clear.”
False and false. When the Maryland buyer received the frame he checked its serial number with the manufacturer. After they told him it had been reported stolen, he contacted Seattle police, eBay, other customers, and (via Hance’s stolen bike website) Whitney Rosa.
Streamline6868 responded: “It has come to our attention that you have broken a serious eBay policy and contacted past buyers regarding transactions they completed with us. This is harassment & a serious eBay policy violation… Please stop playing vigilante.” The email ended with a desperate threat: “I also noticed that you sell Baltimore street signs on your eBay site, which I am sure that you know is illegal.”
Tipped off by the Maryland buyer, Rosa began investigating streamline6868. She tracked the account back to a home three blocks from her own in Capitol Hill. Police told Rosa they were well aware that the couple who inhabited the house, Rabindranath and Tanya Darling, were moving hot merchandise. But they didn’t have enough evidence for a bust. Frustrated with the cops’ inaction, Rosa banged out an email to the neighborhood news blog, Capitol Hill Seattle, outlining her case against the Darlings. But CHSdidn’t have anything solid enough to publish.
Fortunately for Rosa, the Darlings were also allegedly fencing electronics, allowing the owner of a stolen iPad to track his missing tablet to the same apartment via an iPhone app connected to his iPad’s GPS. This gave police probable cause. On November 2, 2012, two weeks after the Maryland buyer tipped off Rosa, the cops served a warrant to search the Darlings’ apartment and adjacent shed, which allegedly turned up, in addition to methamphetamines, a trove of merchandise that required more than three police vans to haul away, including DJ equipment, electronic pianos, scuba gear, a saddle, Tiffany jewelry, and a Rolex watch. Oh, and under a tarp in the yard, a pile of bicycles.
To the prepared thief, every bike rack is a buffet. Locks deter, but so long as there’s profit to be made, they won’t prevent a theft. Addicts whose bottom line is a fix ally with websites whose bottom line is clicks, while legit secondhand stores struggle to cull their wares. A few riders like Whitney Rosa and Tom Fucoloro hit on just the right mix of luck and determination to reclaim lost mounts.
For most though, a bicycle becomes a sunk cost the moment it goes missing. If you love your bike, write down the serial number, take some photos, register online, and buy a lock commensurate with its value. And if you ever do find yourself staring at a bike rack in disbelief, the frayed ends of your lock dangling like entrails, remember: You weren’t the first.
And you won’t be the last.
This story appeared in the October 2014 issue of Seattle Met.