Again and again, surveillance footage and photos showed a man walking into downtown parking garages and leaving with bicycles that weren’t his.
Often he arrived carrying a bag, described in some cases as a “bulging backpack” replete with portable power tools to cut locks and fences on storage areas, according to documents filed in D.C. Superior Court.
On some days, police say, the thief took more than one bike over several hours from the same location, including the garage of the Mount Vernon condominium where couple Jeanne Carey and Frank Johnson had their bikes stolen.
The couple loved their bikes, and Johnson felt he had them secured more than adequately, linking them with a U-shaped lock and then chaining them to a wall rack above their parking space, inside a key-locked garage with surveillance cameras.
But on Jan. 20, they returned from a Sunday Costco run to discover both Specialized bikes had been ripped from their underground wall rack. Carey and Johnson soon found they were among a handful of building residents in the same fix.
The couple lost $500 in insurance deductible to have their bikes replaced, but more than that, Johnson feels he lost something he was connected to, that fit his 6-foot frame and his long arms just so.
“I’m lamenting it right now. I’m sad,” Johnson said.
D.C. police accuse 53-year-old John Peter Morgan of being the prodigious bike thief, connecting him with reports that crisscrossed residential and professional buildings in Northwest Washington from January until early April.
In all, authorities charged Morgan, who police said has no fixed address, with two dozen theft counts and with destroying property and a burglary.
Police aren’t sure where the stolen bikes wound up and none has been recovered.
Morgan was held without bond after his arrest Tuesday, according to court files and Chidi Ogolo, the attorney who represents Morgan. Ogolo declined to discuss the charges against Morgan pending a May 2 preliminary hearing.
“Clearly video evidence and digital images were crucial in closing the case,” said Cmdr. Leslie Parsons of the Criminal Investigations Division.
Parsons credited detectives with collecting a string of surveillance photos and video from security cameras that in court files investigators said repeatedly identified Morgan.
In court filings, they say a witness in one incident told them a man entered a building by using a credit card to open a lock, and in another incident attracted attention when someone heard a loud noise and saw sparks flying near a bike rack, actions also caught on video.
Police showed one still photo to Robert McRuer, 52, to identify the moment his Cannondale was stolen from his Chinatown building.
McRuer said he bikes to work every day and on the night of March 26 locked up his bike after coming home.
He came down the next morning, he said, to find just his lock lying on the ground. Surveillance cameras captured the theft.
“They saw him taking my bike.” McRuer said in interview Thursday. “People who steal bikes are particularly horrible, because I feel like people who are riding bikes are doing something good.”
“You think that you’re safe with a garage,” he said. “What it makes me think is that he was incredibly systematic as a thief.”
Carey, 49, and Johnson, 43, often spend weekends cruising from their downtown condominium to Mount Vernon or exploring trails in suburban parks.
His bike of seven years was a Specialized Rockhopper, a mid-level mountain bike with front shocks, ideal for traversing wooded trails, canal towpaths and sturdy enough for the ride he took across Iowa. Her bike was a Specialized Tricross , a sleek ride that was an ideal city bike. She adorned each piece of the silver frame with reflective tape to be easily seen by cars.
Carey moved to the District several years ago, in part for a feeling of safety, after living with crime concerns for 15 years in Baltimore, where she said a homicide occurred at her doorstep. The bicycle thefts reawakened old fears, as the couple now keep their replaced bicycles inside their condo.
“I really had let my guard down,” Carey said in an interview. “Now there is that feeling of not feeling safe in our own building. I don’t like it.”
However, Carey said she was encouraged to hear police made an arrest, as she didn’t expect anyone to follow up too seriously.
“It does give me hope for the District,” she said.
Parsons advised bike owners to keep photos and serial numbers of their bicycles to help reclaim stolen property that is recovered by police. He said that victims filing reports was another essential element in stringing together these cases.
“Bicycle theft is a serious problem in the D.C. region and we are grateful to MPD for taking this person off the street,” said Robert Gardner, advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “The theft of a bicycle can be devastating. For many people, a bicycle is a transportation lifeline that enables them to get to work, appointments, the grocery store and so much more.”
When Morgan was apprehended, court documents said, he was found carrying a “Dewalt saw, screwdriver, Allenkey, Plyers and a Crowbar.”
He was arrested after being spotted by two uniformed bicycle mounted officers as he walked into the Shaw Metro station on Tuesday.