AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jill Welch only owned her $400 bike for a month when she took it out to Zilker Park for the first time this past summer. Within hours, it was stolen.
“It was hard for me to believe that I had been (there) for two hours. It was broad daylight. It was super busy out here and that someone just took it in front of a lot of people and no one noticed,” Welch said. The Austinite’s 2016 Specialized Vita Sport was stolen Aug. 19 from the Robert E. Lee entrance to Barton Springs.
She’s one of 785 people who reported their bikes as stolen to the Austin Police Department between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 this year. APD assigned clearance dates to about 97 percent of those cases, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the cases are closed. In most instances, victims never see their bikes again.
Whenever a resident reports a bike theft to APD, dispatch sends that information to a regional detective who files a report and calls the victim if more information is needed, said Senior Police Officer Destiny Winston.
“Our goal is to solve these cases and to return those property, or the bicycles, back to the owner,” Winston said. “We do our best to investigate it and we take any type of theft very seriously.”
“Put it in your house and keep it out of sight.”
She said people are more likely to get their bikes stolen in heavily-populated areas. Nearly 150 of this year’s bike thefts occurred in zip code 78704, which is south of the Colorado River and spans from the Greenbelt to Interstate 35, according to an analysis by KXAN. The area surrounding the University of Texas campus also saw hundreds of bike thefts this year.
APD Sgt. Noel Guerin said with more individuals living downtown and commuting via bicycles, it’s natural that thefts are on the rise. “There’s no area that’s immune from bicycle thefts, by any means at all,” Guerin said.
To help catch bike thieves, APD does use bait bikes in various areas throughout town as well as other initiatives.
Peter Phelan, 41, allegedly tried to steal a mountain bike from a restricted area in APD’s downtown parking lot, according to an arrest affidavit. An officer caught Phelan on Nov. 2 before he could exit the lot with the bike. He was charged with criminal trespassing.
Guerin said they recently discovered an unlikely culprit for the thefts: homeless individuals operating a bike theft ring in south Austin.
“They were using sophisticated equipment to steal bicycles, remove the parts and chop them up and then sell them on the black market,” Guerin said. “You may have a serial number on the frame of bicycle, but you’re not going to have one on a wheel, or rim, or a seat or a special handlebar, or something like that. When those parts get disassembled … you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together.”
Unfortunately, victims “very rarely” see their bikes after they are stolen, Guerin said. Still, APD tries to make it a public education campaign, asking people to record the serial numbers on their bikes and call police if they suspect suspicious activity.
“The old days of locking it up to a bicycle rack, a tree, a street sign, those days are gone,” Guerin said. “The best thing to do is if you have a bicycle that you want to keep, put it in your house and keep it out of sight.”
Although Welch realizes there are bigger crimes for law enforcement to focus on, she said more resources need to be dedicated to preventing the crime, including officers who patrol the hot spot areas where bikes are likely to be stolen.
“It’s not a violent crime, it’s not something like that, but it’s a large amount of missing property from one location and I think it’s worth trying to do something about it,” Welch said.
Since Welch only owned her bike for a month before it was stolen, her credit card company refunded her the cost of the bike. She used that money to buy another bike similar to the one that was taken.
Welch also shelled out an extra $150 to purchase two heavy duty locks, including a U-lock. She’s since learned that a combination lock or a simple chain won’t cut it anymore. “Don’t use a cable combo lock, that would be my advice,” Welch said. “That was an expensive lesson learned.”