Some burglars appear to be aiming at high-end bicycles. Owners could do more to get them back.
Employees Adam Gorski, left, and Marcy Levine consulted a map for a good route to Scandia, Minn., while on the job at Freewheel Bike Co-op in Minneapolis. Gorski’s Trek Madone 6.9 SSL in the foreground cost him about $8,000. He keeps it inside his house when at home and inside the shop when he’s at work.
In the hunt for high-end bicycles, thieves have gone beyond lurking around bike racks. Now they're driving down alleys, breaking into garages and loading their increasingly valuable loot into trucks and vans.
In Minneapolis alone, more than 1,000 bikes were reported stolen since January, up 12 percent from last year. The percentage of bikes stolen in burglaries -- typically from garages -- rose from 25 percent in 2011 to 34 percent since January, said Doug Hicks, a crime analyst with the Minneapolis Police Department.
The crime is becoming more lucrative. The average value of a stolen bike in the city was $450 in 2006, but jumped to $625 this year, Hicks said. He said he's seen one stolen bike whose declared value was $20,000.
A slew of garage burglaries last month in southwest Minneapolis that targeted expensive bicycles prompted some in the business to say that it's a crime of the times that's happening across the metro. A basic higher-end bike, for example, can cost about $1,500, with parts and accessories going for hundreds of dollars, according to Ashanti Austin, a worker/owner at the Hub Bike Co-op in Minneapolis.
"It's all about dollars and cents, and there are folks who know this," she said. "They're heavily informed. They know exactly what they're doing."
Despite what Austin and others say, police in the Twin Cities say they're not aware of organized rings of bicycle thieves. Still, they admit it's a difficult crime to investigate, and many bicycle owners fail to do the most effective thing to get their bikes back: write down its serial number.
Sgt. Paul Paulos, a St. Paul Police Department spokesman, said he doesn't think most thieves know how valuable the bikes are. "Most of the people who do take the bikes have no idea what they've taken," he said.
Suspected bike thieves are usually charged with possession of stolen property or a comparable offense unless they confess. Police would need to "catch them red-handed" to charge them with theft, said Tony Paetznick, deputy director of the New Brighton police.
Austin said the Hub receives at least one call a day about a stolen bike, and most are reported taken from a garage. Hicks said recent garage burglaries where thieves took high-end bikes while leaving behind less expensive ones seem to indicate that they might be "shopping" for bikes.
David Lower had two bikes stolen Tuesday afternoon from his garage in south Minneapolis. The garage opens with an automated keypad that allows re-entry for several minutes after it's used, so the thieves probably waited near his house until he came out to take out the recycling, he said. Lower said it looked like they tried to steal a third bike, but left it behind because it was locked to itself.
Neither had cost more than $1,000, but as a bike commuter, Lower relies on them to get around. He recovered the serial number from the shop where he bought the bikes, and said he now plans to lock his bike to the wall. "I'm angry, but what can you do?" he said.
Austin said it's common knowledge that thieves work in networks in which they target expensive bikes, break them down in chop shops and sell the parts. They drive around in unmarked vans and SUVs, carting high-end bikes from one place to another. If a bike gets stolen from someone's garage, the thieves have probably checked it out several times by that point, she said.
In May, the Los Angeles Times reported on the arrests of a group of thieves that stole more than 200 bikes worth a total of around $250,000 from across Southern California. The thieves looked on Craigslist and bike websites for people who were selling expensive bikes, then found their addresses and stole their bikes. They sold them to a Los Angeles bike shop where they were stripped of their valuable parts and resold.
Erin Young, a mechanic at Freewheel Bike Shop, said he knows from working in the industry that those bikes are probably getting shipped to other cities like Chicago if stolen by professionals. They wouldn't try to sell them in the area because the owner and bike community are looking for them. If thieves don't ship the bike, they'll sell it part by part, Young said.
Pawnshops must hold onto any item for 30 to 60 days, depending on the city. Last year, pawnshops bought 5,300 bikes in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, and police confiscated 160 of them after they showed up as stolen in the Automated Property System (APS) database, according to John Elder, manager of the Minneapolis Police Department's Intellectual Property Initiative who oversees APS.
Without a serial number, a recovered bike has little chance of being reunited with its original owner. Some have turned to Facebook's Stolen Bikes MPLS page, where victims post photos of their lost rides in the hope that someone will see them.
Dozens of recovered bikes filled the Minneapolis Police Property and Evidence Warehouse last week. Two long rows of bikes on metal racks lined part of the warehouse, with no clear distinction as to their condition or type. A road bike was parked next to a mountain bike, while a children's bike sat haphazardly between the aisles. Some bikes had missing seats and parts, covered up by plastic bags.
When the unit finds bikes that are missing parts, a technician works to restore them if salvageable. Kerstin Hammarberg, property and evidence unit supervisor, said the unit picks up about 2,000 bikes a year. She said a "fair amount" are probably stolen, but without a serial number, a picture of the bike or some unique feature, she can't hand them over. As a result, the department holds several auctions each year to help clear out the warehouse. They'll hold the next one Thursday.
Masako Hirsch • 612-673-4263