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Super Hot Wheels

[whitespace] Brad Goodwin
Janet Orsi

Bicycles Built for Two: Detective Brad Goodwin of SCPD believes that if the community were more concerned with bike theft, this police warehouse would be empty.

Up to a half-million dollars' worth of bikes is stolen in the city of Santa Cruz every year--mostly to finance drug habits

By Mary Spicuzza

H AZY WINTER SUNLIGHT seeping into the dark warehouse from its half-open door illuminates every color and type of bike imaginable. Vintage cruisers with wire baskets, titanium-frame mountain bikes, glossy lowriders and rusty 10-speeds lean in tight rows from wall to wall, and several seemingly brand-new BMXs hang from the ceiling. Extending from a shelf of confiscated skateboards on one wall to random electronic equipment stacked across the room, a growing pile is taking over the musty room.

This remote storage shed on River Street isn't a bicycle theft ring's headquarters. It's just one of the Santa Cruz Police Department's several holding pens for unclaimed recovered stolen bikes.

"The trade of stolen bikes is a huge, lucrative industry in Santa Cruz," says Detective Brad Goodwin, investigations officer for the SCPD, looking out over the sea of bicycles.

"We see a bike or two a day come here," adds Marilyn Ellenwood, who watches over the forgotten goods for the SCPD Property Department.

This warehouse is the destination for only a small number of the bikes reported stolen in the city of Santa Cruz each year. And it contains a mere fraction of the bicycles lost to a local epidemic of theft.

Nobody knows the total number of bicycles that disappear due to theft. Police get reports of about 500 missing bikes a year, valued at $300 to $500. But the one or two bikes reported stolen each day represent about half the actual number. Most bike thefts--about 60 percent--go unreported, according to police.

As many as 1,250 bikes vanish each year, according to estimates, costing victims upwards of a half-million dollars annually.

"After a bike was stolen from our shop, one officer told me that every year, more money is lost to bike theft than bank robberies," says Dave Gittleman, a co-owner of Another Bike Shop. "In one robbery, we lost $10,000 worth of merchandise. But, because bank robberies are higher profile, they go after the bank robbers instead."

Detective Goodwin estimates that one-third of heisted bikes were either unlocked or poorly locked--fastened with a cheap chain, with the lock securing only a wheel, or with a Kryptonite-style 'U' lock attached to an unstable object. Thieves have also been known to clip or break locks within seconds, lift bikes off signposts or strip unlocked components.

Anyone who's gotten ripped off will tell you a theft can happen in just a few minutes, anywhere a bike is left unattended. Hot spots for bike theft include downtown's Metro bus station, the corner of Bay and Mission streets (where many UCSC students park their bikes), quiet side streets downtown, and racks outside the Boardwalk.

The fate of many stolen bicycles is as much a mystery as just how many bikes are involved. Where hot bikes go depends on who swipes them and whether they get caught.

Successful recovery rates don't look good.

"I'd say about a half of 1 percent of bikes reported stolen are recovered," Detective Goodwin says. "That's one out of 200 bikes."

Bike the Bullet

I T WOULD BE ODDLY encouraging if the frequency of thefts could be attributed to the popularity of alternative transportation in Santa Cruz. But those on the front lines attribute the trend not to how many people ride bikes, but to how many people are hooked on illegal drugs.

"Santa Cruz has an extremely high drug-addict population, and it's very easy to trade stolen bikes for drugs," Goodwin says. "Money, bikes and gold. Heroin addicts always tell me those are the top three things dealers are looking for."

Todd Landsborough, owner of the used bike shop Santa Cruzers, agrees that drugs play a major role in the local bike-theft story.

"Drug addicts--mostly heroin junkies--are responsible for 90 percent of bike thefts around here," Lands-
borough opines.

David Takemoto-Weerts, a former UCSC student who has worked as bicycle coordinator at UC-Davis, says the majority of thefts there are committed by petty criminals. He suspects that the same is true in Santa Cruz, and he says that makes solutions harder to find.

"To a junkie, any bike is a fix," Takemoto-Weerts says. "They usually go for whatever bike they can get their hands on the fastest. Quality doesn't matter, so even people who buy cheaper bikes to avoid getting ripped off still lose bikes."

Last year a big bust went down at a local homeless shelter, where police arrested several people involved in a bike- theft ring. Twelve to 15 disassembled, stolen bikes were confiscated. Heroin was again involved.

Bike shop owner Gittleman says the addicts may be hooked up to an organized ring.

"When a man who stole a $2,000 bike from our store was arrested, he told police where in Beach Flats he'd taken the bike to get heroin," Gittleman says. "Apparently the cops knew the place as a fencing location, where they gather bikes before shipping them out of the area. Police told us they don't see it as a serious enough crime to warrant going in and retrieving the bikes."

Police say they believe a theft ring may be responsible for most local professional jobs, which involve high-end bikes that are reportedly shipped to Mexico for sale to the country's wealthy. Detective Goodwin and others at the SCPD believe the group is made up of Mexican nationals who have ties to the drug trade in town--mainly heroin and methamphetamines.

"We often get reports from border patrol about pickup trucks full of stolen bikes caught en route to Mexico. Probably 20 to 30 percent of Santa Cruz's missing bikes end up there," Goodwin says.

Metro Center
Robert Scheer

Wheelie well-Spokan: Downtown's Metro Center is a notorious hot spot for bike theft. Bicycles, gold and cash are the favored currencies in Santa Cruz's heroin trade.

System Failure

B ICYCLE OWNERS ARE required by law to register any bike, but few people actually do it because the system is seen as ineffective. It's unanimous that current methods just aren't working, but not everyone agrees on a path to solutions.

Goodwin and his investigations team anxiously look forward to the implementation of a new policy bringing stricter regulations for local used-bike shops.

The policy will upgrade and enforce the already existing secondhand dealers' license required for any shop selling used merchandise, including bikes.

"Many of the stolen bikes end up at the various used-bicycle shops around town, one or two problem shops in particular," Goodwin says. "They don't usually check serial numbers or registration or anything."

The new license will require pawn dealers to give receipts, demand proper registration for the merchandise and require merchants to hold used bikes for 30 days. This policy will also hold shops accountable for any stolen merchandise found inside.

Police have submitted their request to city officials and are now waiting for implementation.

Used-bike shop owners don't share the police department's optimism and don't like the new policy.

"There's no advantage to us dealing in stolen bikes," says Anthony Brown of Dave's Recycled Bikes. "My shop doesn't want that reputation. We already do everything we can to avoid dealing in anything that's been stolen."

Frank Male at 7th Avenue Bike Shop also feels he's doing enough already.

"I take a photo of everyone with their bike before they sell it and keep a copy of their driver's license on hold. My shop isn't big enough to hold each bike for a month."

As at most used-bike stores, folks at Dave's and 7th Avenue deny that they encourage bike theft. They cite numerous tales of helping people recover stolen goods, and just as many stories of being victimized by bike thieves themselves.

Tom Sullivan of Sullivan's Bike Shop on Seabright Avenue still laments losses he incurred when robbers rammed a truck into his shop and stole several thousand dollars' worth of bikes.

Shop owners feel cops are pointing the finger at them when it's police policy that's failing.

"Police programs against bike theft are a joke," Brown says. "They won't run serial numbers over the phone. Police insist used-bike shops bring in each bike in person to check if it's stolen. They're not encouraging shops to even call them at all.

"The police are assuming dishonesty. They need to stop treating bike shops like we are the guilty party."

Frank Male also decries the policy of refusing to check serial numbers over the phone, and believes the SCPD could do more to prevent bike theft.

Cops acknowledge more could be done but attribute the lack of theft-prevention programs to limited funds and community apathy.

"It's unbelievably hard to generate public interest over the issue," Goodwin says. "People are far more concerned with residential theft or violent crimes."

Braking the Cycle

R EGARDLESS OF WHERE hot bikes are going, locals are wondering whether their unattended bicycles will ever be safe. "There has never been a really aggressive bike theft-prevention program enforced in Santa Cruz, at least that I've ever seen," says Julie Munnerlyn, the county's senior transportation planner. When asked what such a program would look like, Munnerlyn and others have ideas but few successful examples to work from.

Most efforts of Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission focus on educating bike owners. A recent SCCRT pamphlet, compiled by Andy Snow and Don Speck, gives the ins and outs of safe ownership, including advice to lock a bike in a frequently traveled, well-lit area with a top-quality "U" lock. A project of Bike Secure, the flier also gives owners the lowdown on registering each bike, knowing its serial number and immediately reporting a theft.

Aside from educating bicyclists, there is little agreement about what a successful, proactive solution would look like.

Other cities, including Madison, Wisc., and Portland, Ore., have experimented with programs that make free bikes available. Such programs refurbish old bikes, paint them a distinctive color such as yellow and leave them around town for those who want to pedal to their destination and leave the bike there. In theory it reduces interest in student bikes around campus and allows nice bikes to be kept safely locked away.

Probably the most talked-about program was Portland's yellow bike program, which was launched in September 1994.

When asked how the program worked, Portland's Bike Program Coordinator Mia Birk is blunt.

"It didn't work at all," she says. "The media hype over the yellow bikes was successful, but the program itself flopped. Every time the private group sponsoring the program donated 50 bikes, most of them disappeared."

Regardless of its failure up north, some locals have hopes for a similar plan in Santa Cruz.

"There's been a lot of interest from Goodwill and the sheriff's office to donate bikes to begin such a program," Munnerlyn says. "But the yellow bike program has been proven not to work because so many of those bikes are stolen."

Other proposed solutions run from luring thieves with unlocked bikes as bait to running sting operations that could infiltrate professional groups dealing hot bikes and crystal methamphetamine.

Growing Cycles, a 3-year-old group, has several ideas in motion. One hopes to prevent theft by offering guarded valet parking at high-bike-traffic areas like downtown's farmer's market. Another helps kids from low-income families earn money to buy bikes through community service projects.

Meanwhile, bike theft will remain a daily problem. The majority of bikes now filling the SCPD's warehouse will be donated to charities. As for the others, just how many end up cruising the roads of Mexico or being swapped at flea markets continues to be a mystery.

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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