More bikes are being stolen in Seattle. For police — and an anonymous vigilante out to lend a helping hand — recovering them is no small task.
Stealing a bike might be one of the easiest crimes to commit. People leave bikes on the street for days, weeks or even months. Most locks are easily defeated. Plus, the target makes a ready getaway ride.
In a growing city with a healthy minority of proud, pedaling commuters, it might not be surprising to learn that more and more bikes are being boosted.
The number of bike-theft incidents reported to the Seattle Police Department in 2015 was 1,561, nearly double the number five years ago. That number doesn’t count bikes swiped during burglaries, which are categorized separately. On campus at the University of Washington, 221 bike or bike-part thefts were reported last year, the most in at least five years. Bellevue police said they’ve seen thefts, too, particularly from downtown parking garages and storage units.
When police can’t find owners, what happens to bikes?
The Seattle Police Department last year gave 408 bikes to seven charities and auctioned off nine more.
The University of Washington Police Department sells bikes during its annual spring sale.
But if bike theft is easy, getting a stolen bike back is hard. It requires a dash of luck, a particularly dogged police officer or even a vigilante on your side.
Vigilante bike justice
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When Sierra Bronson’s bike got lifted from inside a garage at her new apartment in Wallingford, she felt violated.
The thief had broken into the garage, cut through a cable lock and waltzed out with her purple Specialized Dolce.
She called the police, made a report, talked to her landlord about better securing the garage and posted her stolen bike’s details online.
Then something unusual happened. A man got in touch about a posting he’d seen on OfferUp that he thought matched the description. He asked Bronson if she would want him to meet the seller and commandeer the stolen bike.
Bronson didn’t know it at the time, but the caller was an experienced bike vigilante on a mission to restore justice to the two-wheeled world.
She was surprised that anyone would go to the effort to reclaim a bike for someone he didn’t even know. But she accepted.
“I figured I didn’t have anything to lose,” she said.
The man went to West Seattle to purchase the bike and saw that it was, indeed, Bronson’s.
“He gave the guy (the seller) the ultimatum: Either you can give me the bike now or you can wait until the police show up and then we can figure it out,” Bronson said.
The seller gave up the bike.
Thanking him as only a college student could, Bronson gave “the bike repo man,” as she’s been calling him, a handful of beers when she picked up her bike.
“The impression I got from him, and stuff his wife said, (is) he’s kind of an adrenaline junkie. … It’s his way of giving back to the community,” she said.
A new superhero
Bryan Hance — another bike-recovery activist — calls the vigilante “Bike Repo Batman.” To extend the metaphor, Hance might be Bike Repo Robin.
He runs the nonprofit website Bike Index, where people across the country can register bikes and post bulletins if their ride is stolen. In Seattle, it assisted in 142 bike recoveries last year.
Hance’s site allows Bike Repo Batman to check a database of boosted bikes to compare with sketchy classifieds. In 2015, he said, the vigilante recovered more than 20 stolen bikes for strangers by setting up fake buys in the Seattle area, confronting sellers with proof the bike was stolen and suggesting the police might be interested.
Bike Repo Batman spoke to The Seattle Times about his hobby but asked that he not be identified so he can continue his fight.
Some of the beneficiaries don’t even know he’s looking out for them.
Douglas Brick, of Lake City, never expected to see his Volagi Viaje again until he received a call from Bike Repo Batman two months after it was stolen.
“The bike would never have been found if it weren’t for him,” Brick said.
So why did it take a vigilante superhero and not police to recover Bronson’s and Brick’s bikes?
“The impression is they (the police) don’t care; the reality is they have so much other crap they’re dealing with,” Hance said. “Do they have the resources to chase somebody (to reclaim a bike)? The answer is usually no.”
That’s changing. The Seattle Police Department’s major-crimes unit has taken particular interest in bike thieves and made several high-profile busts.
Seattle police last year took in 352 bikes that were considered evidence and found an additional 200, according to figures provided by the department. Police returned 183 bikes to people.
When SPD Detective Scotty Bach came to the unit in 2014, he said it was clear bike thefts were a pressing issue fueled by the heroin epidemic.
He said dope-sick addicts know all they need is a pair of bolt cutters to snip a lock, steal a bike, sell it for $100 and get a fix.
“It’s a small community of criminals, but they’re all intertwined, chasing the same heroin and meth,” he said. “Because it’s a hot button, because people are speaking up about it, we’re directing attention to it,” Bach said about bike theft.
At the University of Washington, which has fewer serious crimes, property crimes are a top concern now, particularly bike theft.
“Bike theft is the biggest theft problem on our campus. It has to be the biggest priority,” said Maj. Steve Rittereiser of the UW Police Department.
Of the 221 bikes reported stolen on campus last year, UWPD recovered and returned 17. Two more bikes taken during burglaries were also recovered and returned to their owners.
In a basement warehouse, the department is storing about 250 bikes. Some were likely stolen, but most had been left on campus and impounded. A few are just barren frames. They’ve had parts picked away by scavengers.
“You can’t find every bike. We make every effort we can,” Lt. Doug Schulz said. That includes checking pawnshops through a police database, searching Bike Index, asking to check other police departments’ databases, scanning classifieds and checking bike racks on campus.
Each year they arrest about 10 or 12 bike thieves, Schulz said.
SPD and UW police could use a bit of help, though.
Many people don’t take basic steps to keep their bikes safe or help police find them if stolen. Of the 221 bikes stolen last year at the UW, four weren’t locked and 127 were secured using a cable lock.
Bolt cutters can snip cable locks in seconds.
“Cable locks are useless. Just tie your bike up with dental floss,” Hance said.
Even U-locks merely delay a committed thief, Schulz said.
“It doesn’t matter what you lock it up with when you run into people with power belt grinders, old car jacks,” he said. “I don’t know a lock that can’t be defeated.”
There’s no way to completely protect a bike, but finding safe, long-term storage is a start.
“If you have a nice bike and you leave it outside in the city of Seattle, it’s going to get stolen,” Schulz said.
When it’s stolen, police have little chance without a picture of the bike and a serial number (typically found on the bike’s bottom bracket).
“If you don’t know your bicycle’s serial number, put down this article and go take a picture,” Schulz said.
Without that information, it’s difficult to track a bike down in local databases police agencies keep of recovered property.
Bach said many thieves move bikes out of King County, even out of state, to avoid police searching for stolen bikes.
Sophisticated theft rings make a national registration system like Bike Index useful to investigators like Schulz and Bach. The index allows police, would-be buyers and bike-recovery vigilantes to check a nationwide database for suspicious items.
The long road back
Even when bikes are rescued from the bad guys, it can be hard to return them to their rightful owners.
Scott Gamble, a Seattle IT manager, was leaving the Fremont cocktail bar Roxy’s last month when he saw something suspect.
“In the parking lot there is a guy who looked like he was ramped up on drugs. He had this bike and he was looking to get rid of it,” Gamble said. “It’s clearly not his bike. It’s too big.”
Gamble said he felt a responsibility to save the bike from being cut up and sold for parts.
“If it had been my bike, I hope someone would do this for me,” he said. “You do develop an emotional attachment.”
Gamble offered 20 bucks for the 30-year-old steel-frame bike, put it on his car rack, drove off and pulled over. He posted the bike’s photo on Craigslist, checked Bike Index and put up a post about the bike on Reddit. He drove to nearby bike shop Recycled Cycles to ask that a flyer be posted, and sent SPD the bike’s serial.
His good deed even got media coverage — KIRO ran a segment on Gamble’s purchase.
Despite the incredible attention, no one has claimed the bike. It’s been weeks.
“I think I’ll just donate it,” Gamble said recently. “I wish there were a happy ending on this one, but it’ll go to somebody.”