Chasing my stolen bicycle - Page 3

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
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The thief said he wore natty golf shirts and khaki pants to blend into the neighborhood.

The Internet has revolutionized bike theft, just as it has done for dating, porn, and cat videos. McCloskey said thieves regularly fence bikes on eBay and Craigslist. In August 2004 police busted a thief after a Richmond District man discovered his bike for sale on eBay. Police discovered more than 20 auctions for stolen bikes in the man's eBay account and an additional 20 stolen bikes in a storage space and at his residence.

When bikes aren't sold outright, they are stripped, or in street vernacular, chopped, and sold piece by piece or combined with the parts of other bikes, Veysey said. He said people occasionally showed up at the Bike Hut trying to sell him these Frankenstein bikes. But by and large, McCloskey and Veysey said, bike stores are not involved in fencing stolen bikes. However, McCloskey said bikes stolen in the city often are recovered at flea markets around the Bay Area. He believes thieves ship them out of the city to decrease the chance of being caught. The National Bike Registry reports bikes are often moved to other cities or even other states for sale.

The idea of Frankenstein bikes was intriguing, so I told Veysey I was going to look into it. He suggested I make a stop first: Carl's Jr. near the Civic Center. I was slightly perplexed by his suggestion, but I agreed to check it out.

FAST FOOD, HOT BIKES

"Welcome to the San Francisco Zoo — the human version," said Dalibor Lawrence, a homeless man whose last two teeth acted as goalposts for his flitting tongue. His description of the place was brutally apt: a homeless man banged on one of those green public toilets, shouting obscenities; a woman washed her clothes in a fountain; and several crackheads lounged on a wall with vacant stares.

I was at the corner of Seventh and Market streets. City Hall's stately gold dome rose a short distance away, but here a whole different San Francisco thrived. Men slowly circulated around the stretch of concrete that abuts UN Plaza. Every so often one would furtively pull out a laptop, a brand new pair of sneakers, or even — improbably enough — bagged collard greens to try to sell to someone hustling by.

Seventh and Market is where the city's underground economy bubbles to the surface. It's a Wal-Mart of stolen goods — nearly anything can be bought or, as I would soon find out, stolen to order. McCloskey estimated as many as three in seven bikes stolen in San Francisco end up here. The police periodically conduct stings in the area, but the scene seemed to continue unabated.

I made my way to the front of the Carl's Jr. that overlooks an entrance to the Civic Center BART station. I didn't know what to expect or do, so I apprehensively approached three men who were lounging against the side of the restaurant — they clearly weren't there for lunch. I asked them if they knew where I could get a bike. To my surprise, the man in the center rattled off a menu.

"I've got a really nice $5,300 road bike I will sell you for $1,000. I've got another for $500 and two Bianchis for $150 each," he said.

I told him the prices he listed seemed too good to be true and asked him if the bikes were stolen. People gave them to him, he explained dubiously, because they owed him money. I asked him about my Fuji, but he said he didn't have it.

I walked around until I bumped into a woman who called herself Marina. She had a hollow look in her eyes, but I told her my story, and she seemed sympathetic. She sealed a hand-rolled cigarette with a lick, lit it, and made the following proposition: "I have a couple of friends that will steal to order — bicycles, cosmetics, whatever — give me a couple of days, and I will set something up."

I politely declined. McCloskey said steal-to-order rings are a common criminal racket in the city.

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