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As Web Fuels Bike Thefts, Victims Turn Vigilantes

By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

By the time he got the call last month, Martin Moulton had given up on his stolen $3,000 bike.

The caller, a friend, had been browsing through bike ads on Craigslist when he spotted Moulton's 2005 Cannondale with its unmistakable, custom-ordered Spiderflex saddle.

"Adam," as the poster identified himself, wrote that he was selling the bike for a friend who had left town. "My friend needs the money, which is why the price is so low," he wrote. "First serious offer gets the bike."

It was going for $1,000. Moulton feared it would go fast.

Dissatisfied with the response he got from D.C. police, Moulton planned a vigilante take-back operation over the next few days that took him to Georgetown, not far from the shop where he bought the bike.

In doing so, he scratched the surface of the region's stolen-bikes underworld, which police and bike store owners say has become increasingly sophisticated as expensive bikes have flooded the market and Internet sites have provided platforms to sell them easily and at high prices.

"It used to be that stolen bikes were more of a crime of opportunity," said Denise D'Amour, co-owner of Capitol Hill Bikes. "People saw a bike that wasn't locked very well, and they would grab the bike and run. With the advent of Craigslist and eBay, it looks like more expensive bikes are being stolen in a more organized way."

D.C. police Lt. Michael Smith said that although the department doesn't keep statistics on the subject, bike theft in the region appears to be on the rise. "It's gone up significantly because there's a market on the street for bicycles," Smith said. "They're killing us."

Although Montgomery County police statistics show little change in the level of bike thefts, Metro Transit Police, who track thefts from Metro stations, reported 25 bike thefts in May and 32 in June -- roughly double the numbers from the same months last year.

Police say most bike thefts go unsolved because many victims do not report the crimes or have unregistered bikes and few promising leads. With the Craigslist lead, Moulton became one of the few people in the region who have a stolen bike story with a happy ending.

The odds of recovering a stolen bike are slim, says Bryan Hance, a self-described computer nerd who created a Web site, http://www.stolenbicycleregistry.com, that allows people to post photos and descriptions of stolen bikes for free. Since he started the site in 1999, about a dozen people have recovered their bikes. A small number, admittedly, said Hance, who has had eight bikes stolen. But the site consumes little time and has reunited at least a few owners and bikes.

"You steal someone's bike, and God have mercy on you if they ever find you," he said. "It's something so insanely personal. People have a more personal connection to their bikes than their iPod."

Bike shops have also been hit. Montgomery police arrested two college students on felony theft charges last year after they walked into City Bikes in Chevy Chase, dropped off fake IDs and took off for a "test ride" that never ended.

"Off they rode into the sunset with two bikes worth more than $7,500," said police Sgt. Michael Hartnett, who cracked the case. "The IDs were really good fakes, and they talked the talk."

In the days that followed, a similar theft and a few attempted bike thefts occurred at stores elsewhere in the region. Hartnett soon found ads on eBay for bikes like the ones stolen from City Bikes. The ad had been placed by a University of Colorado student who was home in College Park for the winter break. Hartnett obtained a search warrant for the student's house and found the bikes. The Colorado student and a friend, who went to school at Johns Hopkins University, were convicted.

"You'd think they knew better," Hartnett said.

Moulton, 41, an avid biker who doesn't drive or even have a license, has had three bikes stolen and two destroyed in accidents. He wasn't exactly mourning the loss of the Cannonade, which had been stolen while locked outside his gym near Dupont Circle, when he saw the ad. But the thought that someone out there was about to make $1,000 and had the nerve to sell it locally and in public outraged him.

He asked friends to contact the seller to find out where he was and, he hoped, to buy some time.

He soon discovered that the police department had lost the report he filed when the bike was stolen. He called the mayor's office and eventually got in touch with Smith, the lieutenant, who in turn got in touch with investigators in the district that covers Georgetown. They told Moulton that they weren't sure how soon they could set up a sting. Moulton felt he was running against the clock.

"I thought someone else would grab it," he said "We had to act fast."

So Moulton, who is by no means scrawny, enlisted the help of a friend and set out to confront the seller with evidence that the bike was his. Once they were face to face with the seller, he planned to call 911.

The police intervened at the last minute, Moulton said. An undercover vice officer met the seller at a residential street in Georgetown while Moulton waited nearby.

Adam, reached last week on his cellphone, said he was selling the bike for a friend who works at a pawn shop in Prince George's County.

"I had no idea it was stolen," said Adam, who declined to provide his last name or identify the pawn shop.

He said he provided police with a statement and surrendered the bike. He said he was never charged and has not heard from police since the sting. A police spokesman declined to comment.

Moulton said he also did not hear from police again. He wonders what happened to his bike during the year it was gone and marvels that it surfaced in Georgetown, rather than in his own, more crime-prone neighborhood, Shaw.

Which is not to say the Shaw area is immune to bike theft.

Nicholas McKenna was fond of his Iron Horse 6.8 mountain bike. The $2,000 bike was stolen in April from his garage near Ridge and Fourth streets NW. McKenna, 26, felt he had a decent chance of catching the crooks, particularly because he had installed a tracking device on the bike.

He called 911, but officers were delayed in finding his house because, he said, the dispatcher confused Riggs and Ridge streets.

McKenna activated the Global Positioning System device in emergency mode and soon was able to track the bike on a map on his computer. The device worked for about 55 hours before the battery died.

A few days later, after mapping out the path his bike had traveled, he set up an amateur surveillance operation in a residential area close to his house. The first day yielded what he considered probable cause -- McKenna saw strewed bike parts and teenagers riding a pink scooter -- but no smoking gun. Then, during the second day, there it was, a few blocks from his house, being ridden in plain sight.

"As additional proof of how stupid these kids are, stickers were left on the bike bearing this website's address," McKenna wrote in a blog on the humor site he runs, http://www.nbdinz.com. "Of course, they could be fans."

He posted to the site startlingly clear photos of a man riding what he said was his bike, and he filed a police report. Police have followed up on his tips to no avail, McKenna said.

After the GPS battery expired, McKenna gave up hope. "I'm sure it was dropped off at some bike store," he said.

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