05 October 2011

The New York Avenue bicycle thief caught in the act

Last night, after stopping at the grocery store on my way home, I came face-to-face with the New York Avenue Metro station bicycle thief. I suppose the odds of it happening were somewhat high, since I spend so much time biking to and from the station, but I never would have expected our interaction to happen the way it did...

I alighted from a Glenmont-bound red line train just after 6:30 p.m., and left the station to walk to the Harris Teeter down the block. After getting a couple things at the store, I walked back to the station to get my bicycle. I stopped at the newspaper boxes near the station's M Street entrance, grabbed a paper, and began walking to the other entrance where my bicycle was parked.

When I was about 100 feet from the bike racks, I realized one of the bikes was moving like it was being jerked back and forth. The front of the bike was obscured by one of the station's concrete support pylons, so I couldn't see why this was happening. The person who was shaking the bike to see if it was locked up stepped into view, and started removing the rear wheel from the bike. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but only a moment until I knew that I was witnessing a bicycle theft in action.

What surprised me was that the thief was a kid. He couldn't have been more than 10 years old.

I walked right up to him and asked him matter-of-factly, "What are you doing?" The kid replied that he needed a rear wheel for his other bike. He claimed this bike was his, and that the lock was broken, keeping him from taking the whole bike home. I called him out on his story, but he insisted the bike was his and that his dad had bought it for him at "the bike shop down the street."

"What street? What bike shop?" I demanded.

"Over there, by Safeway," he said. The only bike shop that came close to fitting that description is BicycleSPACE in Mt. Vernon Triangle. They don't sell the bike pictured above, though. I wanted him to tell me what brand his bike was, and he turned his head to look at the bike.

"No way!" I shouted, putting the paper in front of his face. "You can't look at the bike to answer that. You don't have a clue, and that isn't your bike."

At this point, we stared at each other for a second. It felt like five minutes. Part of me wanted to grab the wheel, yell at the kid, and tell him to get the hell out of there. But some rational part of me thought he'd give up the game and leave. That didn't happen.

He insisted again that this was his bike, and said, "I even have a lock like this," while pointing at the bike's lock. Of course, he should have said the lock was his lock, not like his lock. At this point, a good interrogation might have gotten him to trip up and really contradict himself, but he's a kid! We stared at each other again, and I asked, "You're absolutely sure you're telling me the truth?" He nodded and started to walk away with the rear wheel.

I knew that if I touched the kid, even in an attempt to detain him for the police, I'd probably end up being charged with assault. I did pull out my phone to call the police. He knew exactly what I was doing, and started to run. While I was on the phone with the operator, I hurriedly unlocked my own bike, intending to follow him and figure out where he lived.

I got the bike unlocked, ended the 911 call (with the operator telling me there wasn't much they could do), and took off in the direction the boy had run. When I reached M Street, I asked a woman there if she had seen a boy with a bicycle wheel running by. She directed me towards Harris Teeter. When I got there, I asked the same question to some people standing there, and they pointed towards North Capitol Street.

As I moved down the unit block of M Street NE, I saw him crossing North Capitol Street and turning down the alley behind the Sibley Plaza Apartments (the large apartment building on the southwest corner of M and North Capitol). By the time I got there, he was gone. Again, I asked people who were sitting and standing around if they had seen the kid. All responded with a negative.

I biked through the plaza and parking lot between the apartments and the Sursum Corda cooperative, looking for a sign of the boy. Finding nothing, I went back to the station and talked to the station manager, letting him know what I saw. He mentioned that he'd like to start parking his bicycle at the station, and would love to see whoever is stealing bikes get caught. He also said that it's likely that police would only arrest someone if they saw them in the act, or if someone could make a positive identification of the perpetrator.


So, in the end, I have no idea if this kid is responsible for every bike theft and vandalization at the New York Avenue station, but I know this one was his doing. I spent a couple minutes looking at his face, though. I know exactly what he looks like. The police have my phone number, and if they wanted to pick up a couple 10-year-olds from around the area and ask me to choose one, and if they were to investigate this crime and identify suspects, I'm sure I could give a positive identification.

The broader question here, of course, is why are little kids stealing bike parts? What can be done to stop this behavior? I have my doubts that punitive action against their parents would alleviate the situation.


  1. Maybe if Mike Hill was still out here this young man wouldn't be running wild...


    For the broader question... come on man, this is the city... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qH2mPNRO8Q

  2. I don't understand why you didn't call the polilce sooner.

  3. Anonymous (at 12:51): You raise a good point. When I got there, the kid didn't have the wheel off the bike yet. I guess I thought someone seeing him and being able to put a face to everything would convince him to stop what he was doing and walk away, meaning no crime at that point. Clearly, I was wrong.

  4. taking a picture of him in the act would help, wouldn't it? that would give the police the proof they so desperately are looking for. (not saying you should've thought to do that; disbelief is a powerful thing. but maybe next time, for all of us.)

  5. Anonymous (at 4:37): Absolutely, a photo would have helped. The camera on my phone requires a steady hand, and I bet anything I took would have come out so blurry it wouldn't be helpful to any investigation. :(

  6. Haven't children always been the chief perpetrators of bicycle theft crimes? Even when I was growing up in the suburbs it was mostly kids doing this stuff.

  7. Well, good for you for doing *something*. Kind of an unusual situation, who knows what the right way to react would be, and how many people would come up with it on the spot. A lot of people would just not get involved. I probably would have done something stupid like tell the kid it was my bike or try and grab the wheel from him.

    Also, I wonder if that kid was stealing on behalf of someone else? Seems a little Oliver Twist, but is someone is making money off of these thefts, it stands to reason that having a young kid do the dirty work means you're less likely to get caught.

  8. Dave: I had the same "Oliver Twist" thought as well. I was kind of worried that might be a little too "conspiracy theory"-ish, so I didn't mention it in the story, but that was nagging at the back of my head. If this kid is the one who's done all the damage at the station lately (another wheel was missing as of this morning!), he's pretty well organized for his age.

  9. It's really sad in a way. This kid and his parents and his peers would likely agree that he shouldn't be doing this but, or course, it's not a "crime" and there should be no actual punishment. This would cover a lot of petty theft and vandalism. Until we get past that attitude, I don't know where to go with it.

    I'd like to say that the kid should be home reading a book or doing his homework as he continues on his trajectory to a business degree at UVA. The reason why he is out stealing bike wheel instead would make me even more depressed. Raise the pie higher!

    And, yes, I had my bike stolen in DC (who hasn't?) and no longer park it in places that are accessible to the public.

  10. You shouldn't be afraid of getting charged with assault. He's in the middle of committing a theft he's not going to report you. Not to mention why would they believe him if he did, as long as you didn't bloody him up to bad anyway.

  11. Hopefully gentrification speeds up and these hood rats get pushed out of the area.

  12. Frankly, I would've tripped the kid and stopped him. Screw the assault charges: the kid was stealing stuff. Stop him, pin him down, trip him, whatever - the law, in this case, will be on your side. Grab the wheel, even - a tug-of-war is something you'll win against a kid.

    Granted, it would help if there had been witnesses to back up your story. Were there witnesses?

    Still, good eye and great job chasing him - that's moxie, man!

  13. Geoff, can you describe how the bike was locked? Quick release wheels? Anything securing the wheels? The photo makes it look like a large u-lock around the frame and front wheel, but it's a little too low res to tell for sure.

    I'm fairly paranoid about bike theft, and have gone out of my way to replace the quick release on my bike with skewers that are much more difficult to remove (and make changing a flat a huge pain). That's not to say I'm home free by any means, but I wonder how much effort this kid would have put into stealing something if it were more difficult to do so.

  14. Rob: You got it right, there's just a u-lock around the front wheel and frame. The back wheel was quick-release with no lock.

    It's a pattern that has repeated itself many times with bike theft at this station - those who take the little bit more effort to secure the main parts of their bike (I use a cable through one wheel, and u-lock through the other and frame, wrapping it all together) don't have a problem. Every bike that I see with only half the bike locked up, as it were, ends up getting torn apart.

    I think that crime like this is such an "opportunity"-type crime that forcing the perpetrator to spend an extra minute to do anything discourages and deters them pretty effectively.

  15. That's interesting. Someone who knows to loop the u-lock through the front wheel ought to know to secure the back wheel somehow (removing it and securing it through the u-lock would work if there's no cable available).

    In any case, I've often wondered about this sort of thing. I've read that "the club" doesn't actually do anything to lower auto theft in high crime neighborhoods. The thieves just look for a car without one, thus shifting the theft away from one car and toward another. If all bikes were better locked, would it actually lower crime? Or would it just shift the crime to whichever bike is "easiest" to get?

  16. I would have taken the wheel, and gone to the Metro station kiosk with it.

  17. also, the noma bid should be asked to pay for a camera there...

  18. The mistake you made is you asked him a question, and gave him an out. David Murphy made a comment above about the idea of saying it was your bike, but thought that that would probably be a stupid idea. I disagree.

    FWIW, I've actually been in two similar situations, and managed to get the wheels/bike back both times. The first was in Atlanta in 2000, and a twenty-something was just finishing removing both wheels from a bike in front of a bar. It was morning, and I was riding to work. Something didn't look right, and I got off my bike and yelled, "Hey! That's my friend's bike!!". This was of course not true, but his reaction to that statement told me everything I needed to know. He tried some lie and I said bull#@#%, and he handed them over, apologizing, and took off. I left a note on the bike for the owner, took off his seat and post, and the owner got it all back later that day.

    The 2nd instance was a couple of years ago. I helped my neighbor build up a beater bike. He had an emergency one day, and left it unlocked on his lawn. Of course it disappeared, I spotted it 7 months later. Having worked on the bike, and it being a mix of parts (some from me), I knew it was the bike. The guy riding it had stopped and was using a pay phone. He did not seem like a threat to me. I came up angry, and to simplify the situation I assertively exclaimed that that was MY bike. He immediately said, "I just found it over behind the high school...(blah blah blah)", which might very well be true, but it was still my friend's bike. I threatened to call the cops, and he told me to just take it.

    Now this certainly doesn't work for all situations, but you need to listen to your gut. I do think saying that it's your friend's is preferable to saying it's your own. Most of these people are opportunists, but I wouldn't doubt for a minute the possibility of something a bit more organized. I mean come on, you have seen "Bicycle Thief", right?


You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?