Chasing my stolen bicycle - Page 2

Enter the urban underworld of open-air chop shops, steal-to-order thieves, and brazen fencing networks, where San Francisco's most pervasive crime is ignored by the authorities

He also ran the Bike Hut, which teaches at-risk youth how to repair bikes. And he's in a band that plays a tune called "Schwinn Cruiser."

Despite their different perspectives (the city's police and biking communities are not the best of friends), McCloskey and Veysey painted remarkably similar pictures of San Francisco's black market for bikes.

In the wide world of illegal activity, bike thievery seems to occupy a criminal sweet spot. It is a relatively painless crime to commit, and city officials do little to stop it. As McCloskey readily admitted, bike theft is not a priority for law enforcement, which he said has its hands full with more serious crimes.

"We make it easy for them," McCloskey said of bike thieves. "The DA doesn't do tough prosecutions. All the thieves we've busted have got probation. They treat it like a petty crime."

Debbie Mesloh, a spokesperson for District Attorney Kamala Harris, said most bike thieves are not prosecuted, but that's because they are juveniles or they qualify for the city's pretrial diversion program. The diversion program offers counseling in lieu of prosecution for first-time nonviolent offenders. Bike thieves qualify for it if they steal a bike worth $400 or less. Mesloh said the District Attorney's Office prosecutes felony bike thefts, but it doesn't get very many of those cases.

"The DA takes all cases of theft seriously," Mesloh wrote in an e-mail.

As for the police, McCloskey was equally blunt. "You can't take six people off a murder to investigate a bike theft. [Bike theft investigations] are not an everyday thing. No one is full-time on bike theft. As far as going out on stings and operations, I haven't heard of one in the last year. Bike theft has gone to the bottom of the list."

McCloskey's comments were particularly interesting in light of the conversation I had with Veysey, whom I met at the Bike Hut, an off-kilter wood shack near AT&T Park that appears as if it might collapse under the weight of the bicycle parts hanging on its walls. Veysey has a loose blond ponytail and greasy hands. He wields a wrench and apocalyptic environmental rhetoric equally well.

"Bikes are one of the four commodities of the street — cash, drugs, sex, and bikes," Veysey told me. "You can virtually exchange one for another."

Veysey believes bike thefts are helping prop up the local drug market. It sounds far-fetched, but it's a notion McCloskey and other bike theft experts echoed. The National Bike Registry, a company that runs the nation's largest database for stolen bikes, says on its Web site, "Within the drug trade, stolen bicycles are so common they can almost be used as currency." Veysey believes the police could actually take a bite out of crime in general by making bike theft a bigger priority in the city.

Perhaps bikes are so ubiquitous in the drug trade because they are so easy to steal. McCloskey and Veysey said thieves often employ bolt cutters to snap cable locks or a certain brand of foreign car jack to defeat some U-locks. The jack slips between the arms of the U-lock and, as it is cranked open, pushes the arms apart until the lock breaks. A bike-lock maker later showed me a video demonstrating the technique. It took a man posing as a thief less than six seconds to do in the U-lock.

As with any other trade, McCloskey and Veysey said there is a hierarchy in the world of San Francisco bike thieves. At the bottom, drug addicts (like the one Veysey believes stole my bike) engage in crimes of opportunity: snatching single bikes. At a more sophisticated level, McCloskey said, a small number of thieves target high-end bikes, which can top $5,000 apiece. In 2005 police busted a bike thief who was specifically targeting Pacific Heights because of its expensive bikes.

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