ST. PETERSBURG — When officers arrived at Linda Welsh's Snell Isle home this summer to take a report about the theft of her $750 lime green Cannondale Daytripper bike, they asked a very pointed question.
Have your neighbors found any old bikes on their lawn lately?
The question seemed odd to Welsh, who'd just moved to the neighborhood. Then officers explained.
Residents in the northeast part of the city have been plagued by a bike thief with a most curious method. The thief rides into some of the city's ritziest neighborhoods on an old, decrepit bike. He leaves with a shiny new one.
But not, police say, before depositing the original one somewhere else in the neighborhood.
"That's a unique aspect to this particular situation," said Mike Puetz, a police spokesman.
Bike thefts are a pretty common occurrence in the city. On average, more than three are stolen every day. But they are up slightly this year.
Through October, the department recorded 1,005 reported bicycle thefts, according to the police department. That's about 7 percent more than last year, which saw 938 thefts during the same period.
Puetz said officers have gotten used to calls from people in neighborhoods such as the Old Northeast, Snell Isle and the areas near Coffee Pot Bayou from people who find rusty bikes on their lawns.
It's usually preceded by someone else in the neighborhood whose bike has been stolen, he said.
So far, none of the bikes — which range in value from $200 to a $4,000 custom bamboo bike — has been recovered.
"I don't know what he's doing with them because they haven't been showing up in pawn shops," Puetz said.
Investigators have tied about 10 thefts to this unusual crook since August, but there could be more.
"The bike thief, from our understanding, is just preying on people who've put themselves in a vulnerable position," said Barbara Heck, who has been sending out alerts to her Snell Isle neighbors. "These were crimes of opportunity."
Indeed, police reports show many of the victims said a garage door may have been left open during the day. In some cases, the thief got into cars, then took a garage door opener.
That's what happened to Welsh.
The 57-year-old believes she forgot to lock her car door the night before her bike was taken in September from her home on Monterrey Point NE.
Her partner also discovered a wallet missing. They called police, who began searching the neighborhood.
"Sure enough, two houses over, they found a crappy bike," Welsh said.
She put an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for the bike, which she said holds great sentimental value. It reminds her of Portland, Ore., where she was part of a vibrant biking community before injuring her shoulder. She was looking forward to riding again after her recovery from surgery.
"To have it taken, it was kind of devastating," she said.
Police have not released a description of the thief, though many neighbors said they believe it may be a man known to roam the area on a bike.
Meanwhile, Heck and other neighborhood leaders continue to spread the word.
"I'll let the police figure out the crime part," she said. "To my residents, I'm just saying: lock it or lose it."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.