In a town where it’s not uncommon for someone’s mountain bike to be worth more than their car, professional bike thieves have become undaunted by bike locks and garage doors.
Despite being an otherwise safe and friendly town, bike-riding Bend residents have learned to watch over their precious assets as the Central Oregon town became a haven for professional bike thieves.
“This beautiful, utopic bubble we have, there is some darkness to it once and a while,” Dan McGarigle, owner of Pine Mountain Sports, said of bike theft in Bend. “Our job is to let those people know, let the darkness know, that they aren’t welcome here.”
McGarigle added that he has lived in areas with higher crime rates, but has only had a bike stolen in Bend.
From 2013-15, bike theft rates steadily increased, and in 2015, the Bend Police Department opened 384 bike theft cases with a total stolen value of $467,000. To curb the rustling, the department got creative and in 2016 implemented a bait bike program, leaving GPS-equipped high-end mountain bikes unlocked around town in high-traffic and high-theft areas, waiting for opportunistic thieves. While bait programs tend to bring controversy, the success in Bend is inarguable. In the first year, bike theft cases dropped to 161, with a collective value of $196,400. So far in 2017, the department has recorded 121 cases.
Whether it’s through word of mouth or media coverage, Bend Police Chief Jim Porter said the program has clearly led to a decline in bike thefts.
“Our job is to prevent thefts,” Porter said. “This is not a small issue. We’re not talking about $60,000 worth of bikes being stolen. We’re talking about nearly a half-million dollars.”
To roll out the program, the department asked Pine Mountain Sports to be a partner, supplying the high-end bikes for use as bait.
“They didn’t have the inventory of bikes that they needed to be able to catch people that were committing felonies,” McGarigle said. “Well, I got a whole store full of bikes.”
Since the program started, 21 bait bike cases have been passed on to the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. The office declined to prosecute one, and two other cases were dismissed after initially being charged. The rest were successfully prosecuted as felony thefts. Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said his office uses discretion when charging these crimes and has dismissed cases for juvenile defenders who do community service, and dropped charges against defendants who were trying to take the bike to a secure location, such as the police or a bike shop.
Sentences for those who stole bait bikes vary, with the bulk of defendants getting small jail sentences and probation. But five of the 18 prosecuted cases have resulted in prison time due to Oregon Ballot Measure 57, which increases sentences for repeat property crime offenders. Prison time for those caught with bait bikes has ranged from 13 months to 28 months, according to Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office statistics.
Hummel said the program has been a solution to a significant problem in Bend, and he thinks the punishments are fair.
“I don’t feel bad that people who are stealing expensive unlocked bikes are convicted of theft,” he said.
Andrew Doyle, a defense attorney at Crabtree & Rahmsdorff, said overall, he doesn’t object to the philosophy of the program but doesn’t think the sting operations should result in prison time.
Doyle said he disagrees with the use of bikes valued at more than $1,000 because that elevates the crime to a felony, which can increase the sentence for someone with two or more low-level property crime convictions.
“Bam, he now goes to prison when he otherwise wouldn’t,” Doyle said. “So that’s what leaves the dirty taste in my mouth.”
Hummel said if the bait bikes are too beat up, he would worry the program would catch someone who genuinely thought the bike was abandoned.
Porter said the department uses high-end bikes because that is what often gets stolen in Bend.
“If we were going through a series of car thefts and the people were focusing only out Audi A8s, I would not put a bait car out there that’s a Volkswagen Bug,” Porter said.
Doyle recently defended Toby Taylor, a homeless man who stopped in Bend in August while attempting to walk from Portland to Arizona. The case went to trial Oct. 3. Jury selection showed why this method of crime enforcement can rub some people the wrong way. One juror said she didn’t like the idea of baiting someone. Another said they were OK with police using the method to stop a theft ring, but didn’t want someone who would otherwise not commit a felony theft to be enticed due to opportunity. Three out of 24 potential jurors said they had concerns about the program and about 10 said they didn’t think getting caught on a bait bike was necessarily always a theft.
During closing arguments, Doyle tried to play to these concerns.
“Are we creating crime?” Doyle asked the jury. “Is that what we are doing?”
The jury ultimately decided the Bend Police Department was not creating crime, handing down a unanimous guilty verdict after 20 minutes of deliberation.
Porter agreed with the jury, saying the notion of police creating crime is absurd.
“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” Porter said. “We did not create $400,000 worth of crime in bicycle thefts. The Bend Police Department responded to a civic need.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org