Nov. 9, 2011, 5:11 p.m. An old purple mountain bike was locked to a rack outside of the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, a downtown community center where the homeless can grab a free hot meal. I eyed the bike from the food line and thought about running over, clipping the lock and riding off. Instead, I decided to stand in line with the others, waiting for my turn to get inside. I needed to find the guy who stole my bike.
In my short existence, I’ve had too many friends fall victim to bike theft. It doesn’t matter if you lock it up or keep it inside at night; if some asshole wants to steal your bike, it’s as good as theirs. So after a while, I stopped caring about how to prevent bikes from getting stolen and began wondering about what happens to bikes after they’re gone. Who steals bikes? Why? And where do they go? Eventually, these questions led to me to an editorial meeting at the City Weekly offices.
“Yup, I’m gonna attach a GPS to a bike and just … let it get stolen,” I said to City Weekly editor Jerre Wroble.
“Well, then what?” she asked from across her desk. I really wanted this story, so I sat up in my chair and scanned my brain for the correct answer. Unfortunately, all I could muster up were random scenes from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. “I … uh … I have no idea.” I secretly figured it would more than likely end up in a pawnshop or in the river. But the concept of tracking a stolen bike around the city was exciting no matter what the outcome was. I suppose my answer was good enough, because a week later, I ended up with a check for $50 to buy a bike.
Getting The Goods
I needed a small, reliable GPS for this project. So after a slew of phone calls and endless e-mails, AT&T agreed to send over an Impulse 4G smartphone and a Garmin GTU 10. They agreed to lend the gear for this story, but routinely queried if I would be returning the GPS, asking questions like, “Are you going to contact the police to get the bike back?” I responded with a simple, “Nope.”
This is not to say that I wouldn’t contact the police in any other circumstance. After all, they deal with this crap all the time.
“You know, a lot of times, people will steal a bike just to use it to get from one place to another, even if it’s a piece of junk like a Huffy. Then they’ll just dump it in a backyard,” says Mike Hamideh, a detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department. “That’s why it’s so important to record your serial number and register your bike with the city. We recover a lot of bikes every year, and the ones that don’t get claimed end up at the Bike Collective.”
Since I needed a cheap bike, this seemed like a good place to look. After all, if you want to get a bike stolen, why not use a bike that’s been stolen before? When I stopped in at the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective on West Temple, I laid out my plan to a volunteer, and he gave me his take.
“Yeah, most bikes that people steal are stolen because they look valuable—not because they necessarily are valuable,” he said. “Hispanics love bikes that look sweet but aren’t.”
I thought about how people have a predisposed idea of who steals and who doesn’t. I just wanted a bike that someone—anyone—would steal.
He pulled out a few options and my eyes were drawn to a small purple Roadmaster, complete with 18 speeds, shocks and an oversize seat. “That’s the one,” I proclaimed aloud. I paid the guy $50 and rolled it out to my car.
Practice Makes Perfect
The GPS is meant for tracking people’s kids, cheating spouses and disobedient puppies. It’s packaged with idiot-proof software that works with a smartphone or a laptop, but the best thing about it is the size. It’s tiny, roughly the size of Tic Tac box. And it needed to be, especially if I were going to properly conceal it somewhere on the bike.
Before I set it loose, I tested it out on a car driven by my girlfriend, Nicole. Using my laptop, I set up what’s called a geo-fence around our house. When her car left the triangulated zone, I got an alert on my phone and was able to track her movements while sitting in the living room watching Cheers. This was going to work out just fine.
Even though I was pretty comfortable with the GPS, and I felt pretty good about the bike, I didn’t want to screw this up. So I brought onboard my old buddy Chris Martindale, a local private investigator with whom I’ve worked in the past. Martindale is an expert on GPS devices, stakeouts and all around bad-assery.
I brought the bike and the GPS over to Martindale’s house on a Sunday afternoon so he could take a look at what we were dealing with. “I think it’ll fit right under the seat,” Martindale said while holding the GPS in his hand.
“Won’t someone notice it?” I asked.
Martindale shook his head. “When’s the last time you looked under your bike seat? Even if someone did notice it, they won’t know what it is, and it’ll be too much of a pain to remove.”
He was right, and after some maneuvering, we figured out how to fit the GPS snugly under the seat. We wrapped it in plastic and electric tape and when we were finished, it looked like an extension of the seat.
The next step was deciding on where to set up the bike. We ran through a number of possible locations and finally chose the Salt Lake City Main Library. Little did I know this was where I was going to be marinating for 17 hours.
Oct. 26, 2011, 5:32 p.m. The anticipation was high. It was the inaugural stakeout, and we figured the purple Roadmaster would be stolen within minutes. We positioned the bike next to a streetlamp at the northwest entrance, leaving it unlocked so any opportunist could walk up and hop on. Martindale watched from across the street in Washington Square. Nicole and I camped out in the car in front of the library.
We had a clear view of the bike and watched as people came and went for the next couple of hours. At one point, a teenager in full-body tiger paint walked up to our car holding a sign. “I need money to go back to Africa,” the sign read. “Get outta here!” I yelled from the confines of the car. He stood there for a few minutes staring at us. “Come on, you’re jammin’ me up!” I shouted. He was standing near the bike, acting as a deterrent to any possible biters. He stared at us for a good minute or so. Frustrated, I snapped his picture and we decided to call it a day. We’d been there for roughly four hours, it was getting cold, we were getting hungry and it was starting to get dark. I knew that if I left the bike at the library overnight, it would probably get stolen, but I needed to document the moment of theft. We packed it up and brought it home with us.