When a Minneapolis custom bike painter didn't return an Elk River commuter's bike, he asked Minneapolis police for help, but he learned that contract battles are a matter for the civil court.
Kyle Torfin doesn't know if he'll ever see his vintage Trek bicycle again. It's been more than three months since he paid a custom artist $280 to repaint the royal blue bike he's dubbed Melanie, and he hasn't seen it since.
Melanie isn't just any bike. Torfin's uncle built it in the 1980s when he worked for Trek bicycle company in Waterloo, Wis. Several times each week Torfin rode the bike on his 30-mile commute from Elk River to Minneapolis.
"After logging thousands and thousands of miles on the thing, it was really showing its wear, but I became very fond of it," he said. "It's irreplaceable."
Torfin, 36, hired Dominick Hautamaki, who goes by the name Dominick Austin. But he hasn't been able to reach him in over a month. Whistleblower scheduled an interview with Austin at his northeast Minneapolis studio, but he did not show up and stopped returning calls. Neither of his businesses, D. Austin Custom Cycles and Dominick Austin's Boutique Bike Parlor, is registered with the Secretary of State's office.
Torfin's situation presents a familiar conundrum to Whistleblower: What to do if a repair shop or other business won't return an item it was supposed to service?
Torfin thinks Austin's actions are criminal, so he filed a police report accusing him of theft. But he was told there wasn't enough evidence to warrant an investigation.
Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia said these types of situations are difficult for police to pursue when the accused wrongdoer won't cooperate with investigators. "Once they enter into a personal agreement, it's hard to get the police involved because no one's really breaking the law," Garcia said. "They entered into a contract so it moves toward a civil process."
On Friday, Garcia tried calling Hautamaki, but his voice mail was full and wasn't accepting messages. "You can call him and go out there, but if he's not there, he's not there," Garcia said. "If I would have gotten ahold of him, I would have asked him if I could come get the bike."
Torfin spotted a flier for D. Austin Custom Cycles last fall, but he wasn't sure if the small business was going to survive the winter. In March, he hired Austin to refinish the bike's frame and fork. Austin insisted on an up-front payment, Torfin said. The work was scheduled to be completed in two weeks, but Austin missed the deadline.
"To his credit, he offered to paint some plastic fenders of mine for free, so I thought, I'll give the guy some slack," Torfin said.
Torfin said Austin missed three more deadlines, so in late May he asked him to return the bike. "I said I've had enough. I canceled my order and said just give me my bike back as is," he said.
Torfin went online and started appealing to Austin on local bike message boards. He even created a Facebook page called "Save Melanie." He found out Austin was looking for investors to help his struggling business when he stumbled across an open letter that Austin posted April 26 on his own Facebook page.
"I know there are a few unhappy campers out there, but I am doing the best I can with filling orders," Austin wrote. "My services will maintain high quality but will take longer to complete in most cases than a typical auto body shop ... So, to all my clients, thank you. To any interested investors, call me."
On June 17, Austin specifically addressed Torfin's situation.
"I have absolutely no intention of keeping 'Melanie,'"Austin wrote on a local bike message board. "This frame will be returned as previously discussed with Mr. Torfin. Thank you."
When Austin once again failed to return the bike, Torfin sued Austin's bike shop in Hennepin County conciliation court. But he's not sure that will help him recover Melanie. The county's letter to Austin was returned and the leasing agent for Austin's studio said he is behind in his rent and will soon be issued a 30-day eviction notice. Torfin's court date is scheduled for Sept. 14.