With bicycle thefts now common in NYC, one man set up a sting operation to recover his stolen bike
by Sean Creamer
Paul Panus’ story is one that begins like many bicycle thefts, with a nice bike and a cheap lock. After his bike was stolen, Panus, a 33-year-old IT project manager and skateboarding and cycling enthusiast, seemed destined to become just another statistic in the ever-growing rash of bicycle thefts currently plaguing New York City.
Through a combination of tenacity and cunning, however, Panus found his wheels and brought the thief to justice.
The bike is a Jamis Coda, a sleek, flat-handlebarred “road racing [bike] without the racing emphasis,” according to the manufacturer, that Panus purchased in late March of this year for around $600. Only three days after Panus bought his new set of wheels from Chelsea Bicycles, it was stolen from outside the skateboard park at Pier 62 in Chelsea.
“I got to Chelsea at about 11 o’clock in the morning,” said Panus as he sat on his recovered bike at the scene of the crime one recent afternoon. “I happened to peek my head over the fence at about two o’clock, because it was a brand-new bike, and I noticed that it wasn’t there. The bike wasn’t there and the lock wasn’t there.”
Panus questioned his fellow skaters to see if anyone had spotted the bike-napper. Unfortunately, no one had seen the thief, but he received a tip that would prove pivotal.
“Some people told me to report it to the [Hudson River Park Trust] lost and found. I never did, but then someone suggested I check Craigslist, and that is what I did for the next three days, looking for a Jamis Coda bike,” Panus said, as he drew a heavy- duty lock from his bag and snapped his bike frame to a signpost.
Panus began his search on a Saturday and scoured the Internet for three days until he found what he believed to be his ride.
“It was a generic description of the bike, with a picture from the actual website, so it wasn’t a photo of the bike,” he recalled. ”But that is what made it seem fishy to me, because if you’re selling the bike, why don’t you take an actual picture of it?”
While the NYPD didn’t provide data on the number of bike thefts that occur in the city each year, the bike community in New York City has noted a rise in such crimes and many say it is now a common occurrence. Will Huff, who has worked as a bike messenger for 10 years and is currently a salesman at Spokesman Cycles, has had three bikes stolen over the last few years.
Huff said the rising popularity of road and high-end fixed-gear bicycles has skyrocketed demand for stolen parts. “We can sell a bike one week and have it get ripped off two days later,” said Huff as he restocked a line of premium steel bike locks.
Huff was surprised to hear that Panus had gotten most of his bike back; usually when a bike is stolen it will be stripped of its components, with each one sold individually to bike messengers and aficionados who search for specific parts. While the buyers of the stolen parts may be cycling enthusiasts, Huff said he thinks the thieves themselves steal for a very different reason.
“Most of them are junkies,” alleged Huff. “Once you know how to do something, that is how you make your money. There is basically a steady flow of professionals going around stealing wheels, brakes and whatever they can get their hands on.”
Huff then brandished a heavy-duty bike lock called “The New York Fahgettaboudit Mini,” which weighs 7 pounds. Hefting the lock up and down to display its size, Huff noted, “They can all be sawed through. The only way you can protect your bike is to lock it in a place that is well-lit and well-traveled. People are generally lazy and will lock their bike up in front of their house, which is where most thefts will happen.”
On the day of the theft, Panus locked up his bike at Chelsea Pier 62 at 23rd Street, a renovated pier that is home to a skate park with a bike rack near the entrance. It is heavily traveled by tourists, skateboarders and cyclists and is located right next to a leisure cruise line.
Despite all of this, Panus’ bike was stolen in the middle of the day, almost right under his nose.
“Bike thieves will watch an area and take notes on which bikes are locked up and how often the owner comes back to the bike,” said Huff.
The ad that Panus believed to be selling his bike was a generic one. The bike was being sold out of Jersey City at an asking price of $350, and the post contained a picture of the bike from Jamis’ website.
“It was the only ad I saw that was the same model as my bike,” said Panus. “The bike is not that common.”
Panus decided to email the thief directly, posing as a potential buyer. Acting on impulse, he sent that first message without any idea of what his next move would be.
“It seemed kind of fishy to me,” Panus said of his conversations with the thief. “He did not post a photo of the bike itself and would not give out his number.”
In his email communication with the thief, the seller touted that the bike was more or less brand new and that Panus could have it, provided he met the seller in Jersey City or Hoboken.
Before another potential buyer could swoop in, Panus acted fast and consulted a pal who is an NYPD officer. The friend advised Panus to talk to the officers at the 10th Precinct, the jurisdiction in which the bike was stolen, before meeting up with the thief.
“I went in and I gave them the ad from Craigslist and told them the situation,” he remembered. “They said, ‘Are you sure this is your bike? Do you have anything to identify it with?’”
He told the officers that he could tell if the bike was his by checking its serial number, which Chelsea Bikes provided him. Similar to a vehicle’s VIN, bicycles have serial numbers the manufacturer uses to catalog each one produced. The only remaining hurdle for Panus was that his bike was being sold out of New Jersey, outside of the area covered by the NYPD.
“They told me that if I could convince the guy to come into the city, to bring the bike into the city, that they would be happy to set up a small sting operation,” said Panus.
They told Panus that if he could get the thief to come to Chelsea with the bike, the police would set up undercover officers who would make the arrest, once Panus had identified the bike as his own.
Armed with renewed vigor and a plan to take down the crook, Panus contacted the suspected bike-napper and told him that he wanted to buy the bike, but only if the seller would travel to New York City. Panus greased the seller’s palms and promised more money if the man made the trip out to Manhattan.
“I told the guy, ‘Listen, I work and live in the city; it is going to be hard for me to get over to Jersey.’” he said. “‘If I give you $50 more, will you bring it to the city?’”
The man quickly agreed to the new terms. Panus called the cops to tell them he was meeting the seller in front of the Starbucks at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue. Bear in mind that Panus found the bike on Craigslist, contacted the crook, brought in the police and baited the target to come into the city all in the same day—only three days after his bicycle was first stolen. All that was left to be done was wait for the man to show up.
“The NYPD brought in three officers. One sat in the Starbucks while I waited out front for the man and two sat in an undercover car designed to look like a taxi,” Panus said.
While they were waiting, Panus got a call from the crook, saying that he had just gotten off the PATH train and would be there soon. A Hispanic man in his mid-thirties, “a normal guy who did not look like a thug,” Panus recalled, rode up on the bike, and Panus initially thought he might have the wrong guy.
“Immediately, I noticed that the seat was different, the handle grips were different and the pedals were different,” Panus said. “But I looked the bike over, pretending that I really wanted to buy it, and I flipped the bike over and began turning the crank to make sure he didn’t think something was up as I double-checked the serial number, which I had memorized.”
“Sure enough, the serial number matched,” Panus said, smiling. “And then I threw my hand in the air.”
The undercovers sprang from their concealed locations and immediately cuffed the crook. Panus said the man was utterly shocked when the three officers converged upon him. His only response was a confused “What?”
Panus returned to the station with the undercover cops and the crook to finish up some paperwork. He watched as the man was booked on charges of possession of stolen property, since there was no way to prove that the man who was trying to sell the bike was the one who had stolen it.
“Basically, that was it. I filled out some paperwork and they let me ride away with my bike right then and there,” Panus said. “I didn’t want anyone to get away with this. I’m glad I was able to get my bike back and catch the guy.”
For those hoping their bicycle doesn’t succumb to the same fate, Huff has one simple piece of advice: “The only real way to keep your bike safe is to take it inside your home. It does not matter what kind of lock you use.”
Huff himself is the victim of multiple bike thefts. Some were stolen and never seen again, but there were several instances where he had to play dirty to get his gear back.
“Once I had a bike stolen and I found it chained somewhere a few weeks later. I went up to it, put my own lock on it and waited for the guy to come back,” Huff said. “Sometimes you have to get rough to get your stuff back.”
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