(Photos by Portland Police Bureau – Forensic Evidence Division)
Slabtown, the former bar and music venue at NW 16th and Marshall used to be known as a fun place to see punk rock shows. But ever since it shut down last year, the location has been known for something else: stolen bikes, drug dealing and shady activity.
Reports about bike theft in the apartments above Slabtown have been coming into the police for about two years now. In October of last year an employee at Western Bikeworks contacted the PPB after seeing two bike “handoffs” right outside the building. After the bar closed for good, the activity ramped up. Yet despite numerous tips and suspicions the Portland Police Bureau never got the break they needed to enter the property and make a bust.
That all changed on July 30th.
Officer David Sanders, one of two PPB officers empowered by Chief Larry O’Dea to work on bike theft as part of the Bike Theft Task Force, was on patrol a few blocks away that afternoon. He had responded to a bike theft call.
“Through my involvement with the BTTF [Bike Theft Task Force],” he shared with us in an email last week. “I knew 1033 NW 16th is a hot spot for criminals to gather and I knew that the community has been increasingly complaining about this location and giving us useful information on the criminal activity there.”
“It was the most organized and entrenched bicycle chop shop I have seen downtown to date.”
— Officer David Sanders, Portland Police Bureau
Sanders referred to the apartments above Slabtown as “havens for criminals” and a “den of thieves.” He knew from sources and tips that drugs were dealt out of the apartments and it was a place where stolen bikes were regularly trafficked.
When Sanders rolled up to the location, he saw men he recognized from past stolen bike arrests and complaints. As he talked to the suspects, one of them said he got the bike he was on from someone in the apartments.
At this point, Sanders still didn’t have the proof or search warrant he needed to walk into the apartment to investigate. Then he got lucky. He looked up and saw two people walking down the stairs from the apartment. They were the owners of the building. They told Sanders that squatters were trespassing on the property and they wanted them to leave.
“They also confirmed that there were bikes and parts everywhere inside,” Sanders added.
This was Sanders’ big break. With permission from the building’s owners he finally got inside. Here’s how he described what he saw: “It was the most organized and entrenched bicycle chop shop I have seen downtown to date due to the magnitude and duration that it has been used as such.”
Photos from inside give us a peak into what happens to stolen bikes…
As you can by these police photos, the entire apartment was trashed. There were also obvious signs of a chop shop. There were bikes and parts scattered everywhere, some of them organized into baskets. In one of the images you can see a large plastic bag full of bicycle lights. There were also cans of spraypaint and a painting area where bikes would be stripped down and modified to avoid identification.
Sanders said he also observed what he called “obvious stolen bikes” with U-locks still attached and frames that had been mangled and cut in the theft process. Another telltale sign of bike theft were cut cable locks and a bike helmet with its straps cut. There were also baskets of parts that had been stripped off.
Sanders estimates hundreds of stolen bikes have come through this apartment.
Two people were hiding inside the apartment and Sanders arrested them for warrants on unrelated crimes. While he believes the chop shop was run by a known “thieving street gang” it doesn’t appear that a major bike theft ring leader will be pinned to these crimes. That would take more time and investigation than the PPB is able to devote to it.
The Slabtown bust resulted in two truck loads of stolen bikes and parts. Sanders tried to remove as much of the higher-end goods as he could and the property division is still processing them.
in the property room.
(Photo: David Sanders, PPB)
Sanders chalks up this successful operation to the power of a connected and cooperative community, his expertise on the bike theft beat, his official mandate to pursue the problem, and a bit of luck. If the building owners weren’t there that day, the apartment might still be a chop shop.
“This type of cooperation is exactly what we need in the community and it makes our job much easier,” Sanders said during a recent interview.
While Sanders would have liked to make a stronger conviction related to the stolen bike activity, he’s happy that this notorious location is out of service.
He said someone recently tried to pry open the newly-locked door but was unsuccessful.
“Word has spread quick among those on the street,” said he added, “and I think they got the message that this is no longer the location to do their dirty work.”