EUGENE, Ore. -- Bikes are going faster than ever in Eugene, with more than 406 reported stolen in 2018. And that’s only the thefts that were reported.
KEZI 9 News anchor Matt Templeman rode along with Eugene police, who go undercover to crack down on property crimes, to find out why it happens so often and why there’s so little police can do about it.
On a Thursday night, most of the police headquarters were quiet, and most staff had gone home, except for seven laying out their plans for a long night of dangling bikes in front of the bad guys.
After discussing locations to plant the bait bikes and reviewing what’s needed for a solid, clean case, they moved their office into their cars for the next five hours.
Sgt. Wayne Dorman told KEZI 9 News the bike theft problem is worse than most would know.
Why are the bikes stolen?
“A lot of it for transportation,” Dorman said. “A lot of them for money. Drugs fuel quite a bit of it.”
And bikes on the street are a bargain.
“You may have a six or seven-hundred dollar bike and they’ll sell them on the street for fifty bucks and be happy to do it,” Dorman said.
He said stopping it has become a huge challenge because the consequences are light and proving a case is difficult. Investigators have to prove the person riding a stolen bike either stole it or knew it was stolen.
Another challenge is that stolen bikes are quickly traded and hard to recognize as parts are swapped, reducing the bike’s value and creating another problem: bikes worth less than $1,000 are a misdemeanor.
So police created the bait bike program. They bought three bikes, all worth more than $1,300, and planted a GPS device on each, allowing detectives to track their movement.
“So this way we can combat it,” Dorman said. “It’s our bike, so we know it was stolen. We can track them. We know when they were taken, where they were taken from. So it’s a really clean, easy case for the district attorneys to prosecute.”
In a recent sting, the three bikes were placed at a bike rack between Safeway and Hirons on East 18th Avenue, the Eugene Public Library and a nearby restaurant. All three were left unlocked.
“We get a lot of reports by people who ride up to the store, they’ll put their bike in the rack right there, and run in for just a minute, and their bike will be gone, so we try and duplicate that,” Dorman said.
After placing the bikes, the waiting game begins. Nearly an hour in, there wasn’t even a nibble.
“Usually it’s busiest between 9 and 10,” Dorman said.
Over at the bait bike at Hirons, a man spent a good 15 trying to determine if the bike was free game or a free ride to jail.
“He’s taking a good hard look at it now,” Dorman said the night of the sting operation.
Just as it seemed the man was about to hop on, he was spooked by a police stop across the parking lot.
At almost the same time, the bike at the library was on the move.
“Still not getting a GPS hit,” Dorman said, as they rushed to track it down before it could be torn apart.
There’s always the risk the thief finds the GPS and removes it.
“You want to give them a call and see if you can look through the video,” Dorman said.
Minutes later they had pictures of their suspect, and within minutes, Dorman spotted the man a few blocks away.
“Yah, I got caught up on the one-way, trying to get back around,” Dorman said.
A nervous suspect knew he was being watched and dipped into a store while the team moved in.
“Well it was the gray pants,” Dorman said. “And he had his backpack off to the side ... and his shoes matched, and I thought it’s gotta be him, but I was going the wrong way.”
After about 10 minutes of denial, the suspect gave them loose directions to where the bike was. With another tracker, they narrowed down their search to a garage several blocks away.
Eventually, police recovered the bike and made their bust, and then it was time to set another trap. It was a small victory as they continue to fight a huge problem for Eugene, and a big money-maker for the bad guys.
The hope: the bait bike will make them think twice before biting the next time.