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Biking is the hot new trend in Tampa Bay -- so is bike theft

St. Petersburg police Detective Sandra Minor stands among hundreds of bikes in the department compound. Minor heads the property crimes division, and one of her jobs is to reunite stolen bikes with their owners. [LARA CERRI  |  Times]
St. Petersburg police Detective Sandra Minor stands among hundreds of bikes in the department compound. Minor heads the property crimes division, and one of her jobs is to reunite stolen bikes with their owners. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Jun. 30, 2017

TAMPA — Lindsey Cox was ecstatic when she got her first "real" bicycle.

It was 2010. She bought the all-chrome BMX cruiser with soft baby blue components for $300. Her mother helped her get it for her 18th birthday. She loved it.

About six months later, Cox popped into a coffee shop in Centro Ybor after a hot ride one afternoon. She forgot her lock. But she just wanted a cold drink before making the trek home.

She sat outside with her bike. The barista waved her in. She grabbed her iced coffee.

When Cox turned around, a stranger had mounted her BMX.

She dropped her coffee and ran out the door after him. She chased him down Seventh Avenue screaming at the top of her lungs.

Her bike was gone. She thought she would never see it again.

And she didn't — for five years.

In 2015, while attending graduate school in Jacksonville, she got a call from Tampa police: Somehow, some way, she got her bike back.

Now she's helping others get theirs back, too.

Turns out, there's a lot of people out there who had their bikes stolen, too.

Cox's story has become an all-too common tale across Tampa Bay. Biking is more popular than ever, and so is stealing bikes. Thefts are rampant, according to law enforcement. Bike thieves, young and old alike, are prolific, creative — and determined.

Bikes are stolen all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's a teen looking to get somewhere by snatching an unsecured bike. Many such bikes are found ditched in alleys just hours or even days later.

Some — adults, mostly — steal bikes to make quick cash. They rip them from bike racks and sell them for pennies on the dollar at pawn shops and on the streets, or trade them for drugs.

Then there are the professionals: groups of adults and teens who will swipe every bike in sight. They can steal dozens of bikes, sneaking into parking garages, climbing over fences, cutting lock after lock. Some target high-end bikes. They know what brings in the most cash.

There's no particular pattern to bike thefts. Law enforcement said that makes it hard to locate and recover stolen bicycles. It's a feeding frenzy.

St. Petersburg police Detective Sandra Minor, 55, who runs the department's property crimes division, pointed to one recent crime spree: 68 bikes stolen in nine parking garages around downtown St. Petersburg from November to December. They were worth $50,000.

"There's kids, there's adults," she said. "The guys we arrested downtown for stealing bikes out of parking garages were in their 30s and 40s."

[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge]

Data from the bay area's three biggest cities shows how busy police have been:

In Tampa, there were 930 bikes reported stolen in 2015, a 39 percent jump from 2012.

In St. Petersburg, bike thefts have increased four years in a row and peaked with 1,276 in 2014. That number dipped to 1,202 in 2015, a slight drop of 6 percent, or 74 bikes. Clearwater also saw a steady rise from 2012 to 2014.

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But then something baffling happened in all three cities in 2016: bike thefts dropped substantially. It fell 22 percent in St. Petersburg, down to 936 reported thefts. Tampa saw a 23 percent decline to 709 thefts. Clearwater's reported thefts fell in 2015 and 2016.

What happened? Minor said her officers are busier than ever dealing with stolen bikes. So to her this is a sign that the problem is getting worse: People have become so used to losing their bikes that they don't even report them stolen anymore.

"We still have almost 1,000 bikes (missing) and honestly, I just don't think people are reporting it anymore," she said. "I get calls all the time from bike shops of people going in and saying their bike was stolen, and the shop employees tell them to report it, because they haven't."

Thieves can go to a lot of trouble to dupe unsuspecting cyclists.

They've gone so far as to set up dummy poles that can be lifted out of the ground if someone secures their bike to it.

Another factor feeding bike thefts is that cyclists are lax about locking up their bikes.

Many also leave their bicycles unattended and unlocked in open garages, on porches and in front of businesses, sometimes for days. And when owners do decide to secure their bikes, police said they use thin cable locks, which can be cut through with ease.

"If a lock is insufficient and thin, they'll use bolt cutters and cut right through it and just walk off," said Steve Stokking, manager at St. Pete Bicycle. "No matter the bike, you should be using adequate protection. Using a decent lock, and using it no matter what is crucial."

Stolen bicycles are also often stripped of parts and identifiers, like baskets and bells, and many owners don't know their bike's serial number and rarely register them with law enforcement agencies.

Out of the 936 bikes reported stolen in St. Petersburg last year, Minor said only 87 owners gave their serial numbers to police. A bicycle's serial number is similar to a VIN number on a car; each bike has its own.

"We could have 1,000 bikes stolen and we might find 100," Minor said. "It's really tough."

While a stolen bicycle may not seem significant compared to higher-profile crimes like burglary and car theft, keep in mind the stakes: that bicycle could be the person's only mode of transportation.

It could also be their livelihood.

"Not everybody has a bike just for recreation," Stokking said. "For a lot of people, it's their only way to get to work, or to the grocery store."

So how did Cox get her bike back five years later?

She had the serial number when she filed the police report in 2010.

And her beloved BMX? It may have never left the neighborhood.

Cox said Tampa police stopped a man riding the bike in College Hills, about 2 miles from the coffee shop. When they ran the serial number, her name popped up.

The five-year reunion inspired Cox to create Find Stolen Bikes (Tampa & St. Petersburg, FL) in January 2016, a Tampa Bay-based Facebook group dedicated to assisting local cyclists locate stolen bicycles.

Cox, 25, said forming the group was a no-brainer.

She was inspired by a similar Facebook group in Jacksonville. So when she came back to Tampa and saw the area didn't have one of its own, she created one of her own.

The group now has over 600 members who share photos and descriptions of missing bikes. Police officers like Minor visit the page regularly to solve bike crimes.

"If anybody is going to recognize your bike, it's going to be the people who ride, too," Cox said. "Who better than other cyclists?"

Contact Samantha Putterman at sputterman@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @samputterman.

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