Cycles of crime

There is an organized element to Boulder’s bike theft problem; BPD says it’s making progress, but bike shop owners feel robbed of justice


It was around four in the morning when the stolen box truck came smashing through the garage door of Sports Garage Cycling on Spruce Street. Around 12 high-end bikes, parked on racks in front of the door, were completely destroyed by the vehicle as it came barreling, back-end first, into the shop. Alarms started going off and Boulder police were dispatched to the scene. 

But by the time police arrived, the burglars were already gone. According to Brad James, the store’s owner, the criminals knew exactly what they’d been looking for and had come in with a well rehearsed game plan. They’d loaded the truck with $2,000, $3,000, and $5,000 bikes, and made their escape in just under five minutes. 

That was in October 2019, and James says in total he lost over $200,000 in product that night. And his was not the last shop to get burglarized this way—in December 2019, Cenna Custom Cycles was likewise broken into and robbed of six high-end custom bikes; in January 2020, Boulder Cycle Sport was robbed twice in one month, for a total of $137,000 worth of bikes; the Specialized Experience headquarters was hit in December of 2020 for $160,000; Louisville Cyclery, Trek, CycleWorx and handful of other bike shops in Boulder County were all robbed in a similar fashion. Security camera footage from stores captured their smash-and-grabs in progress, and show many of the masked burglars employing nearly identical tactics.

“It’s a totally professional group. They had actually been in the Denver area,” James says, referencing a very similar string of burglaries that had ripped through Denver’s bike shops just prior to and after his own robbery. “They literally just go from city to city.”

Two years after his store was robbed, James, as well as many other victims of these smash-and-grab shop burglaries, don’t feel as though Boulder Police have done enough to investigate these crimes or pursue the criminals. In at least one instance that all of them seem to remember, Boulder police let the burglars escape from the scene of a crime. They didn’t pursue the perpetrators as they drove away from the smashed-up shop, because police say their policies prohibited the action. That still baffles shop owners like James. 

The Boulder Police Department (BPD) says it’s made a lot of progress on Boulder’s bike theft front, however. On Thursday, October 14, BPD Chief Maris Herold held a town hall where she and Boulder’s Community Service Officer Mitch Trujillo updated Boulderites on all the progress BPD has made to curb these shop burglaries and other more common forms of bike theft that occur within city limits. They’ve worked really hard, they say, to help educate Boulder’s bike shops and individual bike owners on how to keep their cycles safe from would-be burglars, petty thieves, and opportunistic crime. 

“And the results are clear,” Chief Herold said during the October 14 virtual town hall. “We’ve seen double-digit reductions in bike theft since [2020].”

Last year was particularly bad for bike theft just about everywhere in the U.S. Bryan Hance, one of the founders of the nonprofit bike registry Bike Index, calls 2020 “the perfect storm” for bike theft; between the pandemic driving demand for bikes up, people being laid off of work, supply chain problems, and police enforcement scaling back, there was an “insane spike” in the number of bikes they saw stolen. And he says he’s seen a lot more organized, professional burglaries—like those that occurred in Denver and Boulder.

“We still have a lot of the individual crimes, but we’re seeing a lot more of these apartment-type hits and store hits and straight up burglaries as opposed to somebody cruising by a garage and snatching a bike,” he says. Hance references a burglary at Denver’s Point21 apartments that occurred on October 25, where burglars gained access to the apartment’s bike storage room and cleaned the entire place out—making off with 12 bikes.

“It’s not one guy sneaking away with one bike from one garage,” he says. “These fuckers have trucks now.”

In Boulder, bike theft, including burglaries and individual theft, spiked by 46 percent in 2020. In any normal year, around 700 bikes are reported stolen to BPD. Last year, though, it was over 1,000, adding up to a total of $1.57 million in stolen property, according to police. That is particularly disconcerting, since it’s estimated less than 25 percent of stolen bikes get reported to police. 

Things are getting better in Boulder, though, according to Officer Tujillo.  

“We’ve seen a 35 percent decrease between January 1 and September 30,” Officer Trujillo says, adding that since 2018 they’ve seen a 26 percent decrease. This year, Officer Trujillo says, they’ve only had 541 bikes reported stolen in thefts and burglaries so far. 

And the smash-and-grab burglaries have virtually ceased in Boulder, Officer Trujillo says. 

That’s all been accomplished through a combination of education campaigns on securely locking bikes, cooperation with local bike shops, and a registration program BPD has initiated in partnership with Hance’s nonprofit. 

BPD, CUPD and local bike shops have all partnered with Bike Index to help curb the number one problem in recovering stolen bikes—few are registered to their owners. In fact, Officer Trujillo says only three out of 10 bikes recovered by BPD are registered. 

Boosting that number is Bike Index’s whole mission, Hance says. The non-profit has helped recover over $13 million worth of cycles stolen from both shops and individuals since it launched in 2013. BPD now encourages residents to register their bikes with Bike Index because it’s a national registry and not just local to Boulder. So if a Bike Index registered bike is stolen, there’s a much higher chance it will be found, even if it’s moved elsewhere. Boulder Police now distribute weather-resistant, eco-friendly information cards on improperly secured bikes that encourage people to register their bikes with Bike Index. The cards also offer friendly instructions on how to lock a bike properly and even offer a 20 percent discount on a u-lock at participating Boulder bikes stores. 

“We have made a dent in recovering [bikes] locally with our program, and we really, really want to get people to register their bikes,” says Sergeant Brannon Winn with BPD. “It’s incredibly frustrating because we see all these abandoned bicycles or bikes that look like they’re in chop shops . . . we think they’re stolen. We have reason to believe they’re stolen. But if we can’t prove that they’re stolen, there’s literally nothing we can do about it.”

Registration solves that problem. When police discover a cache of stolen bikes, or a chop shop where they’re being stripped or retrofitted for resale, if the bikes are registered, police can reunite them with their owners fairly easily. If not, however, it’s almost impossible. 

BPD is also implementing a “bait bike” system, planting unlocked bikes around town to tempt and track individual thieves who steal them. 

On the smash-and-grab burglary front, Officer Trujillo says BPD has worked with local bike shops to help identify security weaknesses and “target harden” their businesses. They encouraged mechanical tweaks such as lighting changes, security camera system upgrades, and shatter-resistant window films, and procedural changes like locking all of the bikes up after closing, to slow a potential robbery. 

“We’re seeing a huge decline in the number of reports, and I really do think it’s because of our efforts and the help that we’ve been getting from the community,” he says. 

Two local men were arrested in December of 2020 in association with the Trek and CycleWorx bike shop burglaries. However, no arrests have been made in association with the vast majority of Boulder’s other smash-and-grab burglaries. The burglars who hit the Sports Garage, Boulder Cycle Sport, and Specialized Experience have not yet been caught.  

But in at least one of Boulder’s bike shop burglaries, the police did catch those criminals—unfortunately, when they did, they had to let them go. According to several sources, including Officer Trujillo, Sergeant Winn, James of Sports Garage, and others, during one early morning robbery in Boulder, police arrived on the scene just as the burglars’ infamous box truck was pulling out and driving away, full of stolen bikes. 

A chase ensued, but it didn’t last very long. BPD couldn’t pursue the escaping criminals because operational procedures prohibited it, they explain. 

“The majority of the agencies, if not all the agencies, have some kind of a pursuit policy in place that prohibits them from pursuing vehicles in [many cases],” Officer Trujillo says. “They could potentially pose more of a risk if we actually pursue them at [high] speeds and their reckless behavior increases.”

“We had to end the chase because it was just too dangerous,” Sergeant Winn says. “We would have been in serious violation of our pursuit policy.”

Of course, that delays the investigation, according to Sergeant Winn, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s over. These cases are still very much “active.”

“We don’t just stop investigating because they were able to flee from us in a car,” he says. 

The question that remains for many is, where are all of these bikes going? Just in Boulder, between 500-1,000 bikes are being stolen a year, accounting for millions of dollars in stolen property. In Denver in 2019 it was over 3,000 bikes, according to DPD’s own numbers. Those bikes are not all being resold in this area—otherwise more of them would be turning up online, on, or, on Facebook Marketplace, or in pawn shops along the Front Range or elsewhere in the state, according to James. 

“You can only sell so many stolen bikes on eBay before you get whacked. Right?” He says. “I think most of them leave the country and end up in Mexico or South America.”

That’s a theory that was shared by the other bike shop owners, and also by Boulder Police and detectives themselves. In February of 2021, Chief Herold told Bicycle Retailer, “There’s some evidence to suggest that high-end bikes are ending up in Mexico.”

“It varies,” Sergeant Winn says. “But there’s certainly a pipeline into Mexico, and into other states where they can be resold.”

That speaks to a professionally organized element to some of the bike theft rings operating inside of the “Boulder Bubble.” There are plenty of opportunistic thieves who need transportation or some fast cash, there’s also a level of bike theft that’s sweeping the streets, neighborhoods, and apartment complexes, swiping unsecured bikes off racks or out of open garages. But there’s a third tier of professional burglars who operate much differently than the others. 

Sergeant Winn says that the last group is the most dangerous, because they’re likely involved in more than just bike shop burglaries. Criminals of that caliber do this kind of thing for a living and could be out in the community committing much more serious crimes.  

“The guys that are doing this are doing other things too,” he says. They’re committing felonies, burglarizing homes or other stores, stealing cars or perpetrating violence. “Being able to impact [bike theft] is going to impact a lot of different types of crimes.”

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