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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I stalked across the parking lot of the Mission District's Best Buy. Like the hordes of people that streamed into the store, I was there to do a little shopping, but it wasn't for a flat-screen TV or an iPod. I was in the market for a stolen bike.
I bypassed the aisles of buzzing electronics and headed around the back of the store to a trash-strewn alley. It was empty except for a beat-up white van with its side door ajar. I took a nervous breath and knocked on the side.
A blond man in a sweat-stained undershirt threw open the door to reveal what looked like an upended Tour de France chase car: piles of tire rims, gears, and bike frames were scattered everywhere. The powerful stink of unwashed bodies stung my nostrils. A man in a tracksuit slumbered on a seat. The blond man looked sleepy and annoyed but waited for me to speak.
My $600 bike was stolen the third in five years from my Mission garage the night before, and it's here I was told by a bike messenger that I might find it. These guys were rumored to be bike thieves operating in the Mission.
"Hey man, have you seen a black and gray Fuji Touring?" I asked, employing a euphemism.
"No, we don't steal bikes," the man said, catching my drift. "We collect bikes off the street, repair them, and then sell them. We're like independent businessmen."
Interesting way of putting it, I thought, as I glanced at the "businessman" slumbering on a van seat. I glanced around the van half expecting to see my Fuji, but it wasn't there, so I left.
As I trudged home I stewed. I had lost more than $1,000 worth of bikes in San Francisco. Bike theft is a virtual right of passage for most cyclists in the city, and the city's thieves seem to operate with ninjalike stealth and efficiency. One cyclist told me how a thief stole his locked ride while he picked up a burrito from a taquería. He wasn't away from the bike for more than five minutes.
The city's thieves have even won a silver medal for their efforts: in 2006 the lockmaker Kryptonite ranked San Francisco as the nation's second worst city for bike theft, behind New York.
Gradually, my anger hardened into resolve, or more precisely, a mission. It would be virtually impossible, but I would set out to find my bike. The thought that my life would mirror the plot of a Pee-wee Herman movie was more than a little amusing, but I had a job to do.
In my months-long quest I crisscrossed the city, chasing down Dickensian thieves, exploring the city's largest open-air market for stolen goods, and finally landing in the surprising place where hundreds of stolen bikes perhaps yours end up. Unwittingly, I pedaled right into San Francisco's underworld.
Bike theft may seem like petty street crime, but it's actually a humming illegal industry. Consider this: thieves steal nearly $50 million worth of bikes each year in the United States, far outstripping the take of bank robbers, according to the FBI. And in San Francisco's rich bicycling culture, thieves have found a gold mine. About 1,000 bikes are reported stolen in the city each year, but the police say the actual number is probably closer to 2,000 or 3,000, since most people don't file reports.
"It's rampant," Sgt. Joe McCloskey of the San Francisco Police Department told the Guardian.
I sought out McCloskey, the SFPD's resident expert on bike theft, and another man, Victor Veysey, to give me a wider view of San Francisco's world of bike thieves and possibly a lead on where I might find my bike. Several cyclists had recommended Veysey, saying he could provide a "street level" view of bike theft.
Veysey is the Yoda of San Francisco's bike world. For more than a decade, the 39-year-old has worked on and off as a bike messenger, mechanic, and member of the city's Bike Advisory Committee. 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. 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.
"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. Police have busted thieves with shopping lists for everything from Victoria's Secret underwear to the antiallergy drug Claritin. In one case, McCloskey said, police traced a ring smuggling goods to Mexico.
A short time later a man rode through the plaza on a beat-up yellow Schwinn. He tried to sell the 12-speed to another man, so I approached him and asked how much he wanted for it. He told me $20. With a modest amount of bargaining, I got him down to $5 before telling him I wasn't interested.
Just before I left, two police officers on a beat patrol walked through the plaza. Sales stopped briefly. As soon as the officers passed out of earshot, a man came up to me. "Flashlights," he said, "real cheap."
After striking out at Seventh and Market, I figured it was time to investigate the chop shops Veysey mentioned. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) reports bicycle chop shops operate all over the city. Thieves strip bikes because the parts (unlike the frames) don't have serial numbers and can't be traced as stolen once they are removed from a bike. The parts can be sold individually or put on another stolen bike to disguise it, hence the Frankenstein bikes that show up at the Bike Hut.
When Veysey told me about bicycle chop shops, I pictured something from a '70s cop movie a warehouse in an industrial district populated with burly men wielding blowtorches. But the trail led me somewhere else entirely: Golden Gate Park.
SFBC officials said they had received reports from a gardener about chop shops in the park. When I called Maggie Cleveland, a Recreation and Park Department employee responsible for cleaning up the park, she said they do exist and would show me what she thought was one if I threw on a pair of gloves, grabbed a trash bag, and joined one of her cleanup crews. I agreed.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on a foggy, chilly morning, the crew and I picked up mechanical grabbers and industrial-size trash bags and then climbed a steep hill near 25th Avenue and Fulton Street on the Richmond District side of the park. We plunged into a large camp in the middle of a hollowed-out grove of acacia bushes.
The camp looked like a sidewalk after an eviction. Books and papers vomited from the mouth of a tent. Rain-soaked junk littered the camp, including a golf bag filled with oars, an algebra textbook, a telescope, and a portable toilet. A hypodermic needle stuck in a stump like a dart and a gaudy brass chandelier swung from a branch. Amid the clutter was one constant: bicycles and their parts.
A half dozen bikes leaned against bushes in various states of repair. There were piles of tires and gears scattered around. The noise of the crew had awoken the residents of the camp. A man and two women sprung up and immediately tried to grab things as the crew stuffed the contents of the camp into trash bags. They grew more and more agitated as two dozen bags were filled.
Cleveland said the group may have been operating a chop shop, but she didn't have definitive proof, so they were let go with camping citations. I asked one of the campers if their bikes were stolen.
"We find this stuff in the trash. There's an economy here. We exchange stuff for other stuff," he said.
Cleveland said the camp was typical of what the crews find around the park. One of the most notorious campers goes by the name Bicycle Robert. Cleveland said park officials have found a handful of his camps over the past couple years. One contained more than two dozen bikes, but Robert himself has never turned up.
Occasionally, cyclists will get lucky and find their bikes at a chop shop. Max Chen was eating dinner in North Beach one night when his Xtracycle, a bicycle with an elongated back for supporting saddlebags, was stolen. Chen didn't hold out much hope of getting it back, but he put up flyers around the neighborhood anyway.
The next day Chen got a call from a friend who said he saw a portion of the distinctive bike behind the Safeway at Potrero and 16th streets. Chen went down to the spot and found a group of guys with an RV, a handful of bicycles, and a pile of bike parts. His bike was there sort of.
"The frame was in one place, and the pedals were on another bike. Other parts were on other bikes. I pointed to all the stuff that was mine and had them strip it. My frame had already been painted silver," Chen told me.
Not surprisingly, one of the men said he had bought Chen's bike from someone in the Civic Center. Chen just wanted his bike back, so he forked over $60. The guys handed him a pile of parts in return.
A few days after the trip to Golden Gate Park, I finally got around to doing what I should have done when my bike was stolen: file a police report. Frankly, I waited because I held out little hope the police would be of any help.
It's true few people get their bikes back through the police, but that's in part because most people don't try. In fact, the police are sitting on a cache of stolen bikes so big that it dwarfs the stock of any bike store in the city.
SFPD Lt. Tom Feney agreed to show it to me, so I trekked out to Hunters Point. The police stolen property room is located in an anonymous-looking warehouse in the Naval Shipyard. Feney ushered me through a metal door to the warehouse and then swept his hand through the air as if pointing out a beautiful panorama.
"There it is," he said.
Behind a 10-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire, row upon row of bikes stretched along the floor of the warehouse. There were children's bikes with hot pink paint, $2,000 road bikes, and everything in between. In all, the police had about 500 stolen bikes in the warehouse. The bikes are found abandoned on the street, recovered from stings on drug houses, and removed from bike thieves when they are busted. Many of the bikes aren't stolen they've been confiscated during arrests or are evidence in various cases. The department can't return the stolen bikes because the owners haven't reported them stolen. After holding them for 18 months, the police donate the bikes to charity.
I intently scanned up and down the rows looking for my bike. I didn't see it. My last, best chance for finding it had disappeared. My heart dropped knowing my Fuji Touring was gone. Feney ushered me out the door, and I began the long, slow walk back to the bus stop.
The most frustrating part is that it doesn't have to be this way. Police and bicycle groups said there are some simple steps city officials could take to cut down on bike theft, but the issue has long slipped through the cracks.
Officer Romeo de la Vega, who works the SFPD's Fencing Unit, said he proposed a bike registration system a few months ago, but it was shot down by the police brass. De la Vega said he was told there simply weren't enough officers available to staff the system. Under his plan cyclists would register their bike serial numbers with police. In return the cyclists would get a permanent decal to place on their bikes. De la Vega said this would discourage thieves from stealing bikes since it would be clear they were registered, and it would speed bike returns.
With police officials claiming there are few resources to combat bike theft, it seems logical they might reach out to the community for help. But officials with the SFBC report just the opposite.
"In the past we've tried to connect with the police to jointly tackle the problem, but we haven't had much luck. We don't even know who is handling bike thefts," Andy Thornley, the SFBC program director, said.
Thornley said the coalition is willing to use its membership to help police identify chop shops and fencing rings around the city. He said the police need to do a better job of going after the larger players in the bike theft world and the District Attorney's Office needs to take a tougher stance on prosecution.
Ultimately, Thornley said, enforcement is not the key to reducing bike theft. He said the city must make it easier for cyclists to park their bikes safely. The coalition is crafting legislation that would require all commercial buildings to allow cyclists to bring their bikes inside something many currently prohibit. The coalition would also like to see bike parking lots spring up around the city, with attendants to monitor them.
Supervisor Chris Daly, who is an avid cyclist and has had six bikes stolen, said he is willing to help.
"It's clear we are not doing very much," Daly said. "I think if there were a push from bicyclists to do a better job, I would certainly work toward making theft more of a priority." *