Bikes locked up on the boardwalk at Pacific Beach Drive on a sunny and busy Sunday in summer. / Photo by Thomas Melville
Browse NextDoor social media any given day along the beachfront and, next to mentions of lost dogs and cats, you’ll find notices posted about stolen bicycles.
In recent months, the number of purloined bikes along the coast has gone from commonplace to alarming.
And the San Diego Police Department, presently at historically low staffing levels even with seasonally enhanced summer beach patrols, is having trouble keeping up, which has led some frustrated residents in especially hard-hit areas for bike theft, like Pacific and Mission beaches, to take matters into their own hands in attempting to reclaim their stolen bikes.
Such was the case recently with PB resident Brad Wickliffe.
A former bouncer, Wickliffe had his bike locked up along the beachfront while participating in a yacht-racing event from San Diego to Mission Bay. Afterward, he returned to find his cable-locked bike had been stolen “in broad daylight.” The thieves even took his lock.
A common-enough story, it typically ends with the victim(s) filing a police report or chalking it up to experience and bad luck.
But Wickliffe took his recovery efforts one drastic step further. He immediately began searching for his stolen bike on Craigslist, where he eventually tracked down the perpetrator, who was reselling his stolen property.
“My bike was stolen on Sunday morning, and I was checking Craigslist every day until I saw it there Tuesday morning,” Wickliffe said, noting his bike was distinctively customized. This made its thumbnail description “jump out at you.”
So Wickliffe set up a face-to-face meeting in National City with the alleged perpetrator, whom he said “gave me a big BS story about owning (the bike) for a year. There was no doubt it was my bike.”
When the time came for Wickliffe to purchase his own stolen bicycle, he managed to sneak up behind the alleged thief and render him unconscious before calling police and turning him in.
“The guy even had a backpack full of lock-picking tools,” Wickliffe said, adding the man he incapacitated “clearly had needle-track marks on his arms.”
Wickliffe said police took him into custody after a background check revealed he had prior warrants out for his arrest.
“The whole NextDoor neighbor thing is really good because the more people know your bike’s been stolen, the more likely you are to get it back,” reflected Wickliffe. He added the incident has caused him to seriously reconsider GPS-enabling his bike so its whereabouts can be more easily tracked.
Wickliffe realizes his personal success story in having successfully recovered his own stolen bike was just a drop in the bucket considering all the bikes never recovered by their owners.
“These guys (thieves) don’t have much to lose,” said Wickliffe. “I’m just hoping incidents like mine will help them to move on.”
For himself, Wickliffe said of the experience, “I enjoyed the vigilante thing. It was less paperwork – more fun.”
“We don’t advise people to confront criminals, because you never know whether or not they’re armed,” said San Diego Police officer Dan Neifer of Northern Division’s beach team, which is involved with the department’s bait bicycle program.
Neifer noted deterring bike theft is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons.
“There is a very small window of time involved with bike theft,” Neifer said. “Within 10 minutes of being stolen, that bike can be in two or three pieces and in a car – or a house.”
Neifer noted crooks can repaint stolen vehicles, “chop and change them out,” do any number of things to alter and disguise them.
And unlike Wickliffe’s case, many bike thieves are smart enough to store stolen bikes for a period of weeks or months before attempting to resell them on Craigslist or elsewhere.
But the bike bait program the police employ has some proven results. Neifer explained how it works.
“We put GPS on a bait bike that’s locked up in plain view in a public bike parking area,” he said. “When that bike is removed, it sends a text message alerting police.”
Neifer said there’s generally only a four- to eight-minute interval for police to arrive and interdict the suspected thief. But fortunately for those whose bikes have been stolen, that’s time enough.
What can people do to prevent their bikes from being taken?
Unfortunately, Neifer said, he’s unaware of an absolutely pick- or cut-proof bike lock. He also advised against locking bikes in public bike stalls overnight, even well-lighted ones out in the open, noting that “after hours once the bars close there are only cops, cats and crooks out on the streets, which are desolate.”
Neifer said the safest place for a bike, especially an expensive one, is inside your home or locked up on your property. GPS is helpful to have. And it’s always important to record your bike’s serial number to help police track it should it ever be stolen.
Above all else, report a bike theft to police. Neifer added it's also extremely helpful to have a good photograph of your bike to accompany a detailed description of it, noting any individual markings or details to help distinguish it.