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Vigilante cyclists reunite owners with stolen bikes

Fed up with bike theft, Chicago cyclists are doing online investigations, setting up sting operations with police, and confronting the criminals face-to-face.

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On a sweltering August morning at Swap-o-Rama there are cries from the sock vendors of "Siete por diez! Seven packs for ten!" Most of the goods at this enormous Back of the Yards flea market are priced low, attracting bargain hunters searching for deals on cowboy boots, children's toys, phone cases, and windshield wipers. But there are also plenty of higher-end items for sale: power tools, kitchen mixers, a pair of child car seats (nestled between a chain saw and a vintage metal milk can), and bicycles, maybe a couple hundred total. In cycling circles, the Ashland Swap-o-Rama has an unsavory reputation as a place where peddlers hawk stolen bikes.

The last time I visited, in March 2011, I was in search of my own stolen bike, a nearly new Cannondale Synapse. I had heard stories about people who'd recovered bikes there, so my hopes were high. There were plenty of bikes, including a few upmarket ones, but no sign of mine. After several return visits, I ultimately accepted that it was gone forever.

That's the case with most bicycles stolen in Chicago­­­—and there are plenty. As cycling is on the uptick in Chicago (the number of people commuting by bike doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census), so is bike theft. The online Chicago Stolen Bike Registry reported about 775 thefts in 2010 and 2011, 1,098 in 2012 (an increase of more than 40 percent from the previous two years), and 1,154 in 2013. Only about 3 percent of the bikes posted on the site are later reported recovered, says CSBR administrator Kevin Conway.

Thefts reported on the CSBR, though, are merely a subset of the total bikes stolen in Chicago. "Whether we're off by a factor of five, ten, 15, 20—I have no idea," Conway says. The Chicago Police Department doesn't track bike theft specifically; it's filed under the larger umbrella of "property theft." Conway submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the CPD asking about the number of bike thefts annually; the department's answer was, he says, that a "reasonable estimate" would be upwards of 5,000.

Police don't often catch bike thieves due to the relatively low priority of the crime and the speed with which the thieves sell off the purloined two-wheelers. In response, a handful of bike theft vigilantes have sprung up, monitoring online reports of stolen cycles and marketplaces (both virtual and physical), posing as buyers, and confronting thieves face-to-face—all to reunite owners with their beloved bikes. While their efforts are valiant, they don't make an observable dent in the overall epidemic. But that's not stopping them from trying.

Conway, for one, is well acquainted with the seedier elements of Swap-o-Rama. He and CSBR founder Howard Kaplan used to visit regularly to search for bikes that had been reported stolen on the registry. Sometimes they were accompanied by bike theft victims, but often they'd go with members of the Bicycle Theft Task Force and the Bicycle Recovery Collective (the groups are now generally inactive, though some of the members continue their efforts).

"All we ever really wanted to do was make people aware that there were ways to recover their stolen bikes and empower people to want to undertake that."—Chicago Stolen Bike Registry administrator Kevin Conway

Conway and Kaplan were even aware of a thief, a guy they knew as Kenny, who according to Conway had a crew of guys angle-grinding U-locks off of bikes. The CSBR administrators had pictures of Kenny and his bike-loaded blue Toyota van. Some members of the Bicycle Recovery Collective had even confronted the salesman at Swap-o-Rama. The opener, Conway says, "would have been something like, 'You're a fucking bike thief.' And the response was, 'Yeah, I am.' He had absolutely no moral conflict."

Conway once submitted to police a security video that appeared to show Kenny stealing a bike outside the Ogilvie Transportation Center. But he recalls having to talk the detective on the case through how to play a YouTube video, and after many call-back attempts, finally gave up. "It almost becomes this bridge too far," he says.

Kenny—full name Kenneth Robertson—was caught in the summer of 2011. Police watched Robertson and an accomplice steal bikes from Metra commuter lots in Glencoe and Winnetka and followed them to a storage locker in Chicago containing 25 stolen bikes. Robertson was arrested and charged with two counts of felony theft and one count of possession of burglary tools, released on bail, and arrested again in January 2012 by the Wilmette police, who'd been staking out a Metra stop where bikes were disappearing. This time his storage locker contained 12 bikes, some worth upwards of $5,000, Conway says. "I remember talking to this detective from Wilmette, and he said, 'You know, one of these bikes is worth more money than my car.' " Robertson served two years and four months in Cook County Jail and was released in May.

Though happy to see justice served, Conway isn't convinced that catching thieves like Robertson does much to curb bike theft. "But when Kenny was at 26th and California, we noticed a lot less angle-grinder thefts," he says. The only surefire answer Conway has to reducing thefts: lock up properly. Power-tool-fueled thefts like the ones that were Robertson's trademark are the exception to the rule. Thirty-five percent of the stolen bikes reported to the CSBR were locked with easy-to-cut cable locks; 25 percent weren't locked at all. Fewer than 10 percent of the bikes were secured with a U-lock to a bike rack—the preferred method.

Conway hasn't been to Swap-o-Rama in years. In the summer of 2011, he says, he was putting in eight to ten hours a week searching for stolen bikes, an effort that ultimately became unsustainable. "All we ever really wanted to do was make people aware that there were ways to recover their stolen bikes and empower people to want to undertake that," he says. The group would find a CSBR-registered bike and call the owner. "And they're like, 'Oh, we're in New Buffalo, can you just hang on to that for us?,' " Conway says. "It just burns you out. And when people started saying, 'Thank you for this service that you're providing,' I thought, 'Fuck you. This is for all of you to start doing.' "

Not only were the trips to Swap-o-Rama a major time commitment, but Conway says they weren't making a significant impact. In July, the biggest month for bike theft in Chicago, there can be 60-plus reports a week to the CSBR, Conway says. On a good week they'd recover about six bikes at the Swap-o-Rama. Finding the bikes was "tremendously satisfying," he says, "but it didn't really slow the rate of reports."

Catching bike thieves is rarer than recovering stolen bikes, but it does happen occasionally. In a much-publicized incident in July, mechanics at Heritage Bicycles in Lakeview helped set up a police sting after a customer e-mailed that his Heritage-built bike had been stolen, which led to not only the recovery of the bike but also the arrest of two teens, who were charged with felony burglary and possession of stolen property.

Adam Glenn, the owner of Logan Square's Bike Lane, keeps an eye on the infamous Facebook group Chicago Bike Selling, where stolen cycles have been known to turn up for sale. - ALEX FRIEDLAND
  • Alex Friedland
  • Adam Glenn, the owner of Logan Square's Bike Lane, keeps an eye on the infamous Facebook group Chicago Bike Selling, where stolen cycles have been known to turn up for sale.

One of those teens was active on the infamous Facebook group Chicago Bike Selling, where the Heritage bike turned up for sale. The owner of Logan Square's Bike Lane, Adam Glenn, who monitors the Facebook group in much the same way that Conway and his comrades used to visit Swap-o-Rama, describes the teen as "one of the more regular shitbags on those pages." "We call him out on the forum, but he just doesn't give a fuck. So it was really gratifying to see him in handcuffs."

Glenn helped Web designer Chris LaFrombois recover his stolen Bianchi earlier this year by alerting him that the CSBR-registered bike had showed up as the cover photo of a teen who frequented Chicago Bike Selling. This was LaFrombois's second attempt to get it back: shortly after the theft last December the bike showed up for sale on the Facebook page. He arranged a meeting with the seller and alerted the cops, but says he was told that no officers were available. As it turned out, though, his 15-year-old neighbor was part of the group of teens who showed up to meet LaFrombois; the neighbor recognized him, he says, and once the teens realized they were dealing with the bike's rightful owner they all took off­.

LaFrombois later saw online that the bike had been sold, and had given up the search until he got the tip from Glenn. He followed the buyer for a few more months through Facebook; the teen was looking for parts for the Bianchi, which had been banged up when LaFrombois was hit by a car, and eventually put the bike up for sale. He had a friend set up a meeting to buy the bike. After LaFrombois placed many calls to police, the department coordinated an eight-officer sting. "It was quite a production," he says.

As arranged, the teen rode up to the parking lot of a Walgreens, handed the bike over to LaFrombois's friend to check out, and the police moved in and arrested the seller, a 16-year-old. LaFrombois ultimately decided against pressing charges after an attorney advised that if the case went before a judge, it would be thrown out due to lack of evidence. He says police later told him that the juvenile was assigned to a diversion program.

Since then, LaFrombois has joined Glenn and a few other people in monitoring the Chicago Bike Selling page, cross-referencing the for-sale posts with the CSBR and the Facebook group Find Stolen Bikes!

Part of the problem is that stolen bikes are usually sold quickly, says Conway, which makes police less motivated to track them down. "Bikes get stolen and flipped so fast, I have a very low expectation that the Chicago police are going to open an investigation because five bikes were stolen in Lakeview last night. By the time they get the file open, those bikes are, like, in the ozone."

Among those I interviewed for this story, I heard a similar refrain: the only way to get your bike back is if you find it yourself, either online or in person. Then, if you're determined—and you have the documentation to prove that the bike's yours—the police might help you recover it.

Glenn says that he's contacted several bike owners whose CSBR-registered bikes he found for sale online. Three or four of them were able to retrieve their property. "It's a combination of dumb luck and persistence," he says, "combing those pages over and over again."

A few weeks ago, Glenn saw a Pashley, a high-end British bike, for sale through Facebook and matched it with a CSBR bike. He e-mailed the owner but didn't hear back from her immediately, so he posed as a buyer and arranged a meeting at a northwest-side Jewel. Without the owner's involvement, Glenn knew he wasn't likely to get police assistance; he took his roommate along for backup.

"Just because you can see a bike doesn't mean it's yours. If it's just a Giant mountain bike, there's hundreds out there." —Chicago Police Department bike unit officer Michael Yzaguirre

When the seller arrived, Glenn told him the bike was stolen and he could either hand it over or Glenn would call the police. "He's like, 'Oh, this ain't stolen, I bought it off some guy,' " Glenn recalls. I was like, 'Well, you should get your money back from that guy. And kick him in the balls for me.' After a lot of cursing, he finally agreed to walk away."

Unlike Glenn and LaFrombois, Oliver Fiks, a mechanic at the Bike Lane, says that he doesn't go out of his way to wrench stolen bikes from the hands of thieves—but he regularly identifies stolen bikes brought in for repairs and alerts the owners.

Riding to work one day last summer, Fiks saw a De Bernardi track bike priced for $100 at a pawnshop in Noble Square. He bought the bike, located it on the CSBR, and contacted the owner. "I was a little nervous that he wouldn't want to pay me back for it," Fiks says. As someone in possession of stolen property, Fiks would have had to turn over the bike whether or not he got reimbursed. Fortunately, the owner was happy to pay Fiks for the bike.

Michael Yzaguirre, an officer in the CPD bike unit stationed out of Millennium Park, is a dedicated cyclist (on duty and away from work) who's sympathetic to theft victims. "I've had bikes stolen from my garage," he says. "Once you're a victim, you take it personally."

But there's still protocol to follow, and he says that's why the police can't always help people who believe they've found their stolen bikes online. "Just because you can see a bike doesn't mean it's yours." Having a serial number—and ideally, a receipt—allows officers to verify ownership. "If it's just a Giant mountain bike," Yzaguirre says, "there's hundreds out there."

One of the biggest barriers to prosecuting bike thieves, he says, is that police often can't locate the victim. Just last month, Yzaguirre and his team caught a guy trying to steal a bike near Water Tower Place. "But the witness had walked away, and we couldn't find out who owned the bike," he says. They left a note on the bike rack asking the owner to call them, inventoried the bike, and charged the would-be thief with possession of burglary tools. But the owner never contacted anyone, and the case was thrown out—something that he says happens quite a bit.

Yzaguirre used to work in the district where Heritage Bike Shop is located, and knows several of the mechanics; a Heritage mechanic called Yzaguirre when his customer's stolen bike showed up on Facebook. Heritage mechanic Ben Fietz says Yzaguirre "put us in touch with the right people, helped them care." He says the police were extremely helpful, even moving up the time of the meeting when it looked like the bike might slip through their fingers.

Sam Goldman, whose bike was stolen last October outside Innertown Pub in Ukrainian Village, managed to get help from the police through sheer diligence. For eight days after the theft, Goldman searched Craigslist and Chicago Bike Selling, looking at photos of every bike part for sale. The former bike messenger, who's now a real estate analyst, built up his bike piecemeal over the last eight years, and he's intimately familiar with every part. Finally he spotted a Facebook shot of a bike—it wasn't entirely his, but it had what he was sure were his stem and handlebars.

The seller presented himself as a guy in his 20s, Goldman says, but one of the replies to the posting said something to the effect of "I dare you to bring that [bike] to school tomorrow." Goldman's background in real estate analysis had taught him how to research people online, and he found a family tree for one of the teens that allowed him to locate his home and narrow the search to three high schools.

The next day he went to the first school on his list and saw his bike, with a different stem and handlebars, locked up to the fence outside. Goldman went inside to explain the situation. "The principal was fascinated to try and figure out how I knew to come out to this school," he says.

The administrators called in the police assigned to the school, who interviewed Goldman and reviewed the school's security tapes. Six hours later, at a nearby police station, an officer walked in with Goldman's bike. He didn't press charges, leaving disciplining the students up to the school. "I had no interest in putting the guy into the penal system over this," he says. "I have my bike back. For me that was the win."

Last November, someone again tried to steal Goldman's bike. He was hanging out with friends when a buddy looked out the window and saw a man holding bolt cutters about to snap Goldman's lock. "We chased him down," Goldman says, and found the would-be thief a couple blocks away. "He did get away, but I think we scared the shit out of him. I was coming at him with a chain in my hand from one direction, and my friend was coming from the other direction with a U-lock, and we were screaming. Hopefully that guy won't steal any more bikes."

Goldman and Fiks have discussed setting out bait bikes in order to catch thieves. "Oliver at one time had access to bikes that needed to be destroyed through manufacturer warranty, so we were contemplating putting together a bike that would ride for half a block and then fall apart. That was the level of anger," says Goldman.

Alex Wilson and Michael Bush of West Town Bikes think there's a better way. The community-oriented workshop in Humboldt Park offers a job training program that educates high-schoolers about biking and bike mechanics. "Lots of factors are involved in bike theft," Wilson says. "Employment is a big one, especially among minority male teenagers."

Bush, the manager of Ciclo Urbano­­, the retail component of West Town Bikes, says the teens he works with "live in a culture where everything is barter, and the kids may not even realize that what they're [dealing] in is stolen." Rather than lecturing, he says, "We start conversations about conspicuous consumption—how problematic it is to try to impress people with spending money, how it's much more valuable to work for something."

The long-term solution to bike theft, Wilson believes, "is investment in and commitment to young people to give them better opportunities. Will this work every time? No."

Until then, there's always a U-lock.

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