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.
The next three stakeouts were a gelatinous blur of sitting in the car outside of the library, Burger King coffee and getting extremely bored. Martindale was busy with actual cases so he left us on our own. We’re gonna need a montage …
Oct. 27, 2011, 6:20-9:01 p.m. Library (Exhibit A)
We moved the bike slightly closer to the street and angled it outward to entice any tempted thieves. This was pointless. I started thinking that either no one wants this bike or all the bike thieves are out of town. I ate so much that I started to get sweaty. This whole day was a loss.
Oct. 28, 2011, 2:27-7:26 p.m. Back to the Library (Exhibit B)
Thought to myself, “Hey, third time’s the charm.” This was not the case. Watched some kids in Occupy T-shirts do yoga in Washington Square Park for about an hour. Pure excitement. We sat in the car for roughly five hours and listened to jocks on ESPN Radio argue about the NBA lockout. Derek Fisher is such an idiot.
Oct. 31, 2011, 2:22-7:44 p.m. Library Solo Mission (Exhibit C)
Happy Halloween! I’m all by myself for this one. I read an entire City Weekly cover to cover. The people-watching is off the hook. Can’t tell if there are more crazies downtown than normal or if everyone’s dressed up in costumes. I find myself not even watching the bike. I don’t care anymore. Just steal the damned bike!
Nov. 4, 2011, 1:30 p.m. 400 South & 600 East
Feeling defeated, I decided this was to be the final stakeout. If no one took the bike, then so be it. I picked a new location, placing the bike up against a handrail of the Trolley TRAX stop, across from Jimmy John’s, at 400 South and 600 East. I parked my car directly across the street in the Staples parking lot.
Maybe 10 minutes after setting up the bike, I noticed a flannel-shirt-wearing, middle-age white guy scoping it out. He walked up, took a good look and glanced over his shoulder. This sort of behavior was common, but this guy was different. He was acting extra sketchy. He stood by the bike for a few seconds like he owned it and then walked away. At 1:54 p.m., roughly 10 minutes later, he returned, looked around a couple more times, casually grabbed the bike and walked it down to the other end of the TRAX stop. Jackpot. I started singing CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” and almost shed tears of joy.
He placed the bike behind the stop and sat a few feet away from it. A couple of minutes later a train pulled up and he and the bike got onboard. When it stopped at 900 East, he got off and rode the purple piece of crap north toward the Avenues.
Sitting in the car with the keys in the ignition, it was hard for me not to follow him. I decided to stay back and trust the GPS as he disappeared over a hill, leaving a little blinking circle on my phone that crept down 1000 East.
Eventually, the dot stopped near 1025 East and South Temple and shut off. “What the fuck?!” I yelled. This was my worst nightmare. Panicking, I drove my car to the last known GPS spot and pulled over on South Temple.
“I’m screwed!” I cried to Martindale over the phone. “The bike just got stolen, but I lost the signal!” Martindale patiently listened as I ranted over the phone and bitched about the GPS. “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s probably in a nearby house. Maybe in a basement or something where it can’t get a clear satellite shot.” The dot’s last mark on my phone was in the driveway of the house right next to my car. Martindale suggested that I come back tomorrow and stake it out, and maybe then I could spot the thief. After our conversation, I felt a little better, but I went home that night thinking I lost the bike and that this story was completely screwed.
A Close Encounter
Nov. 5, 2011, 2:26 p.m.
The next afternoon, I pulled up to the house and waited for any movement. Neurotically, I checked the phone every 30 seconds to see if the signal had returned. Nothing. I sat in the car for about an hour, learning more about the NBA lockout. Feeling impatient and particularly hard-core that afternoon, I decided to pull into the parking lot behind the house.
As I rounded the corner, there he was, standing at the back door, smoking a cigarette. “Holy shit, it’s him,” I murmured. We looked at each other for a moment and I nervously pulled into a parking spot. “God, I hope he doesn’t recognize my car,” I said out loud as I pretended to make a phone call. For a few minutes, I sat still in the car, pretending that I was waiting for someone. Eventually I said, “Fuck this.” I looked in the rear-view mirror, and the guy was gone. Maybe he was back in the house? I really didn’t care at that point. I knew he probably lived there, which meant the bike was probably inside.
As I rounded the corner of the house with my car, I turned into the driveway and pushed my brakes. The bike thief was standing in the middle of the driveway, blocking my car. He had his back to me and was talking on his phone, pulling long drags from his cig. I inched forward a little farther. He turned, looked at me and waved his hand in an apologetic way while stepping to the side. As I drove past, we made eye contact through the passenger window and exchanged brotherly nods.
The next day I was pumped. I now knew where the bike was, and I knew my guy still had it. However, the GPS was still off the grid. It occurred to me that he might be hanging on to it because he was trying to sell it. That afternoon, I scanned eBay and Craigslist, looking for any sign of the bike. I called the local pawnshops to see if any purple Roadmasters were for sale. To my dismay, the bike was off the grid.
To make matters worse, the GPS was running out of battery life. If I could get a signal to the GPS, I could adjust the settings to sleep mode. Meaning, it wouldn’t turn on unless the bike left the geo-fence I had put around the guy’s house. But the way things were, I had maybe a week.
I woke up early Nov. 7 and checked the Garmin website again. To my surprise, the GPS had come back to life. The little dot had moved out of the house and was now working its way around downtown. For the next couple of days, I sat hunched over computer with my fingers placed together like Mr. Burns. I wasn’t sure if the same guy who had initially taken the bike was riding it, or that the bike had changed hands. Either way, I watched from my living room as it took a trip back to the library. It cruised over to The Bay nightclub and hung out on 200 South and State Street. Then, on the evening of Nov. 9, the signal finally stopped at 200 S. Rio Grande St.
Nov. 9, 2011, 5:02 p.m.
I needed to get a picture of the bike, so my roommate Hunter and I drove past the spot and parked about a block away.
We couldn’t pinpoint it exactly, but the bike was somewhere near or in the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen across the street from The Gateway. As we walked up to the building, we spotted it locked to a bike rack near the front door.
“Well, there it is,” Hunter said, ready to leave. There was a long line of people wrapping around the building who were waiting to get inside for dinner.
“We should get in line,” I said to Hunter.
He looked at me, puzzled. “What? Why? Your bike’s right there. Just take a photo, and let’s get the hell outta here.”
I shook my head. “We need to see if my guy’s here. Maybe there’s a new owner.”
Hunter was not pleased with this response, but being the good sport he is, we both walked up and reluctantly stood in the dinner line.
As we waited, I scanned the faces. “I don’t see him. I bet he’s inside,” I said to Hunter. A guy directly behind us in line started arguing with another man who was picking through a bin of loaves of bread. “Fuck you and your mother. Ya dumb asshole. Shit.” I tried not to make eye contact with the guy screaming his face off.
“Do you believe this piece of shit?” he said, looking right at me.
“This guy, man. Do you have any idea who I am?”
I had no idea who he was, so I slowly shook my head. I prayed that he would chill out and stop yelling. He reached into the front pocket of his ragged blue trench coat and pulled out a crumpled old business card. It said something about Salt Lake City Police Department. “I’m a detective!” he proclaimed.
The “detective” started to cool off, and Hunter and I spent the next 15 minutes in line listening to him tell us about how he was a police officer and had been sleeping in Pioneer Park so that he could keep an eye on all the Occupiers.
When we finally got to the front of the line, I could see my bike up close. I’m not going to lie, it was good to see it again. I was also amazed because it was probably within a foot of where the GPS said it would be. I snapped a shot.
We were now at the front of the line. “You guys ready?” said a kind older gentleman. He signaled that it was our turn to head inside, so we stepped through the door and into the packed cafeteria.
To say this place was busy would not do it justice. It housed every type of person imaginable: teens, babies, seniors, whites, Hispanics, blacks and Asians. Everyone in that room desperately needed that free meal—everyone except the two of us.
We found a seat and looked around for my bike thief. There was no sign of him anywhere. I came to the conclusion that the bike had probably changed hands. Scanning the room, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty. I no longer cared about the bike or who had stolen it. Honestly, at that point, I was glad that someone here was using it. As we left, I walked by the bike and touched the seat. It occurred to me that the story had changed.
The next day, the bike moved to a spot kitty-corner from The Urban Lounge on Broadway and stayed there for about five days. I checked in on it occasionally from my laptop and waited for it to move, but it didn’t budge. The GPS battery was on its last breath, so I felt it was appropriate to visit the bike one last time and retrieve it.
It was 4:34 p.m., and I found it locked to a telephone pole. As I looked the bike up and down, I realized why it hadn’t moved—it had a flat rear tire. Standing there for a while, I finally decided to remove the GPS and leave the bike to whoever had locked it up. It was hard for me to let it go. I guess I had hoped this bike would go on a grand Pee-wee Herman-esque adventure. But instead, it ended up no more than a few blocks from where it started. “It’s best that this bike’s journey isn’t over yet,” I thought.
The last time I checked, it was still there. So—anyone need a bike?