A few years ago, the good people of the 3000 block of Bloomington Avenue South in Minneapolis were mystified by a steady stream of kids on bikes who kept rolling into a neighbor’s driveway. It could have been a bike club, maybe, except for the fact that the kids all arrived on bikes, and then left — sheepishly? — on foot.
OK, the neighbors weren’t all that mystified. They called the cops. When the police arrived, according to court documents, they found more than 40 bicycles piled in the house, garage and attic. The registrations on a number of the bikes — surprise — matched those of bikes reported stolen.
The officers that day found what appeared to be a kind of modern-day Fagin — a man, aka a fence, who was sending out children (“juvenile males,” according to the complaint) to steal on his behalf. As the case wound through the courts, it proved to be a more mundane and maybe more important window into the dynamics of the city’s bike theft business.
The defendant was a 22-year-old man with a drug problem and a laptop who learned that Minneapolis is awash with stolen bikes — and, apparently, if you paid cash, those hot bikes will be delivered to your doorstep, by the dozens, no master plan or complex criminal scheme required.
When police showed up on Bloomington Avenue on that June day and found all those bikes, they read the man his rights and, as his lawyer, David L. McCormick, pointed out: “He fessed up right away.”
“Defendant admitted that all the bicycles found at the house and in the garage were obtained from various individuals who stole them and brought them to defendant to sell,” reads the original complaint. “Defendant said that he paid $20-$30 for each bicycle and then sold them on Craigslist or other websites. Defendant said that he thought it was OK, as he wasn’t the one who stole the bicycles.” The complaint added, dryly, “The defendant is in custody.”
“He really didn’t know what he was doing,” McCormick said. “He wasn’t scraping serial numbers off the bikes. He didn’t know what to do with all of them, but they” — the kids and the bikes — “just kept coming and coming …. He didn’t know the difference between a LeMond and a Schwinn.”
We are not naming the defendant — he has no other nontraffic criminal record, he met the conditions of his parole (drug testing, court costs, community service), and the felony charge of receiving stolen goods was ultimately dismissed, with time served. He also declined an invitation to talk about his adventures in the Minneapolis bike theft business.
What is more important anyway is that, as we can see from the operation on Bloomington Avenue, the battle against bike thieves is not complicated. No Bitcoin is involved. No Moldovan hackers or crooked bankers. As often as not, it’s young people feeding bikes to not-exactly-accomplished fences. The police will tell you it’s not unusual for people to open their garage, find their expensive bike gone, and in its place find an old beater bike — the bike on which the thief arrived.
Another lesson of the Bloomington Avenue bust: Within days, some of the bicycles were reunited with their owners. Those were the bikes that had been registered with the city. Thousands of bikes will be stolen this year in Minneapolis, according to the police department, and many will also end up in the city’s bike impound building. But “only a small percentage are ever returned to their owners” because police have no way to connect the bike to its home.
This is why the department schedules huge public bike auctions throughout the year, so the city can redistribute the bicycles its thieves have left behind. By the way, if you’re missing a bike, the next Minneapolis police bike auction is April 19 at the police warehouse, 6024 Harriet Av. S.
Unsettling tech update
Several days after the self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., late last month, an influential European bicycle crowd gathered in Geneva to think about this: Self-driving cars and trucks also don’t see bikes. Manuel Marsilio of the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry told Bike Biz that bikes are self-driving technology’s “most difficult detection problem” and that eventually bikes will have to “communicate” with autonomous vehicles. His proposal: bike-to-vehicle communications “beacons” on all bicycles so that self-driving cars and trucks don’t plow into cyclists on the street.
What are the chances, do you think, that Uber and Tesla will step forward to pay for that?
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears monthly. See previous columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.