The signal went out late on a Friday afternoon. From various points in the South Bay, a Special Investigations Unit comprised of eight detectives from three different police departments were simultaneously alerted via text message. The bait bike was on the move.
The bicycle had been chained to a rack near the Green Line station in El Segundo, where a rash of property thefts had recently been reported. The detectives had dubbed it “the bait bike” because the bicycle was secretly equipped with a Global Positioning System and a radio transmitter. When the bike moved, a signal was transmitted, and every member of the SIU team flew into action. One detective manned a computer and a radio or phone, and the others jumped in their cars and sped off towards the bike and the thief who’d just stolen it.
But this time – it was March 3, 2011 – something different was happening. The bike was moving fast but it wasn’t being spirited away in a car. The bike was heading east on the 105 Freeway. The signal indicated it was making regular stops.
The bait bike, during rush hour traffic on a Friday, was on the train.
“It’s stopping at the various train platforms,” said Lt. Joe Hoffman, the head the Redondo Beach Police Department detective bureau and the man who’d devised the bait bike operation. “Cars wouldn’t stop on the freeway like that.”
Hoffman had received the text at about 4:15 p.m. He and the other detectives were all now on the 105, following the bicycle’s progress. RBPD Sgt. Jon Naylor, who runs the operational aspects of each bait bike deployment, was monitoring the signal and directing the other detectives via phone. All the detectives had been off duty – Naylor was about to take his family to dinner – and each responded immediately.
This was the 12th time since the program was created in July of 2010 that the bike had been stolen. Eleven thieves had already been arrested. Nearly all were all “career criminals,” with established rap sheets. Often, other property was recovered when the detectives tracked the bike thieves to their homes. In some cases, other crimes – particularly narcotics – were uncovered.
“These are good crooks,” said Hoffman. “These are quality criminals. These are generally people who have stolen before and intend to steal again. So if we can get them off the streets, it has a very direct and positive impact on the quality of life of our residents.”
The bicycle left the train in Lynwood, about 14 miles from where it had been stolen. Whoever was on the bike apparently took it for a little spin – at one point it completed a circle, according to the signal – before finally heading home. Some of the detectives identified the bicycle before the man riding it pedaled it up the driveway of a small home not far from the freeway in Lynwood.
Hoffman arrived and parked about a half block away. When possible, the special investigations team prefers to follow the bike to its stopping point rather than more immediately apprehend the person who has stolen it. This way, they are often able to find other stolen property. But in a case such as this one, it made more sense to wait for the man to leave his home again; it was safer than rushing into an unknown situation.
And so the detectives sat in their unmarked cars and waited. Hoffman put a screen on his window and hunkered down. “It’s a little less obvious,” said Hoffman, who is well over six feet tall and of a somewhat ruddy complexion. “We don’t exactly look like we live in this neighborhood.”
The detectives formed a containment area and kept their attention fixed on every possible exit point from the residence. They quietly maintained radio contact, continually razzing each other while they strategized. This was a decidedly 21st century surveillance operation. At one point, Hoffman received another text on the same phone that had tracked the fleeing bicycle. The text was a photo his sister had just taken of a basketball game in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
After about 45 minutes, one of the detectives saw movement. “There he is,” he said over the radio. “He’s coming out.”
“Let’s go,” Hoffman said.
The man was riding down the driveway on another bicycle. Detective Jon Sibbald, a member of the team from the Hermosa Beach Police Department, was parked right in front of the house. Sibbald, a burly man who trains in mixed martial arts, popped out within a couple feet of the man on the bicycle. It was near dark by now, and the man looked so startled he nearly fell off the bicycle.
“Basically it was the element of surprise,” Sibbald said. “He came out on a different bike. ‘Oh well, let’s take him down.’ I just came out of nowhere and grabbed him – better then him running back into the house, into the unknown.”