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Bike vigilantes

Campus students attempt to catch bicycle thief

The Maine Campus | The Maine Campus

Since Sept. 1, Public Safety at the University of Maine has reported 68 stolen bikes on campus, with a total value of $23,795. The number is nearly double the 36 bikes stolen in the fall 2008 semester.

Christopher Jander, a third-year secondary education student, was almost another statistic. A few weeks ago, Jander spent an hour and a half tutoring in Oxford Hall while his bike was locked outside. When he returned, someone had tried to break the lock on his bike to steal it.

“I use my bike daily to get anywhere and everywhere. I live off campus and don’t have a parking pass for my truck, so I have to ride,” Jander said.

His friends had similar experiences with their bikes on campus as well, but they had a plan.

What began as a joke turned into a reality when Jander and his friends Winslow Dresser and Judd Vear set out an unlocked bait bike between Fogler Library and Memorial Union in the early afternoon — hoping to catch the lunchtime crowd.

“We were just talking on a weekend evening. We were like, ‘You know what would be really funny? If we tried to get someone to steal our bike.’ Then we were talking the next day — we should actually do this,” Jander said.

The group started planning a stakeout. They would leave an unlocked bike leaning on a lamppost and wait for someone to take it.

“We actually put a lot of thought into what kind of bike to use. It was middle of the line. It was a nice bike, but it didn’t look very expensive, but it wasn’t a piece of crap,” Jander said.

If someone stole the bike, Jander and his friends were planning to chase the thief down, talk to them sternly and ask why they did it. The goal was embarrassment, not harassment.

Jander and his friends hung out around the slack line on the mall for the afternoon, keeping an eye on the bike. No one stole it.

“We were a little disappointed, but at the same time we were a little encouraged that maybe there’s hope,” Jander said.

The group had the right idea. Detective Chris Gardner of University of Maine Public Safety has noticed the library is a hot spot of activity for bike thefts. Of the 68 bikes stolen this semester, 14 have been from the bike racks near Fogler. Other thefts are concentrated around residence halls across campus. Twenty-five bikes had their locks cut.

Public Safety has been working on this issue this year: tracking and mapping thefts, investigating and analyzing cases and working to recover bikes on campus. They also provide detailed lists to Orono and Old Town police departments in case the bikes make it off campus. So far, 21 of the 68 bikes have been recovered.

“Our recovery rate has been pretty good. Usually with these kinds of cases, the recovery isn’t that good,” Gardner said.

Gardner noticed the majority of stolen bikes are taken from one place to another — a student grabbing a bike to get to class on time, getting home in a hurry, etc. Typically in these cases, the bike is ditched somewhere away from where they took it.

Gardner also suggested some of these bikes are probably being sold, especially the high-end models.

“For the most part, probably a lot of bikes are here [on campus],” Gardner said.

In Public Safety’s downtime, especially during school breaks, officers dedicate time to patrolling campus searching for bikes that have been ditched. When recovered, they are kept at Public Safety for one year unless someone claims them, and then are dedicated to Kiwanas or Green Campus Initiative’s Blue Bike program.

But even the Blue Bikes aren’t safe. The program offers free bikes to students who rent them from GCI. Students are required to lock the bikes and take good care of them, but five have been stolen this semester. Most had their locks cut.

“Blue Bikes have been stolen just as much as personal bikes,” said Michael Maberry, director of GCI.

The number of stolen Blue Bikes has increased from the past two years the program has been in effect. One was even found in a tree on Hilltop, where facilities management removed it.

The increase in bike thefts has brought a decrease in other types of theft on campus, according to Gardner. Burglary from a motor vehicle, thefts in the Student Fitness and Recreation Center and parking permit thefts are all down this year.

“We’re obviously trying to figure out what that means,” Gardner said.

Gardner was intrigued by Jander’s mission to find bike thieves and was interested in working with the vigilantes.

In the meantime, Gardner suggests always locking bikes, keeping them in residence hall basements if possible and knowing all the information about the bike. He suggests keeping the make, model and serial number of the bike on hand. The serial number allows identification across the country.

“A lot of recovering it is having information about the bike,” Gardner said.