Special gravel coverage

A tale of bike theft hysteria, first appearances, and trust

Posted by on December 4th, 2015 at 11:48 am

A sight almost no one likes to see.
(Photos: Shonn Preston/Facebook)

This is a story about bike theft that’s not really about bike theft at all.

It started yesterday morning when I saw a tweet showing a photo of two suspicious men waltzing calmly down East Burnside with a bike and pair of bolt-cutters.

Then a few hours later I got a Facebook message from a friend. “Did you see this shit?” he asked, and linked to a status update and photos. The images were of two u-locks that had been cut and were lying on the ground near a blue, city-issued staple rack. The rack was outside Sizzle Pie on east Burnside and 6th. Here’s what the person posted along with the photos:

“My double u-lock method is now debatable at best. Looks like an angle grinder or quickie saws-all cut. Like pets, bikes deserve indoor homing at night whenever possible.”

In the comments that followed people offered the usual horrors and laments at the state of bike theft in Portland and offered tips on how to prevent it. After I saw the post, I connected it to the earlier tweet of the guys with the bolt-cutters and started turning some wheels in my head about how we might do a story about it. I didn’t do a story right away because, sad but true, this type of thing isn’t even big news in Portland anymore.

Then a few hours later, our News Editor Michael Andersen came into the office. I asked him how he’d been doing. Not great, he said. I assumed it was the sorry state of politics and national events that was weighing him down. It was, but there was something else.

Michael then told me a completely unexpected story. It involved bolt-cutters and broken u-locks on East Burnside.

It gradually became clear that nobody was going to confront me about the bolt cutters. One man, waiting with me at a crosswalk near my house, did at least comment on them. ‘If you need an alibi, I’m in,’ he said.

It all started on Sunday when Michael wanted to catch the Timbers match at Mad Greek Deli on Burnside and 18th. After we talked on Thursday Michael wrote down what happened…

When I walked out of my house on Sunday afternoon, I discovered that my bike had a flat tire. I didn’t want to miss the game. My wife works nights. So I decided to borrow her bike. What could go wrong?

An hour later, walking jubilantly out of the celebration (Timbers won!), I pulled out the key to unlock her bike and head home. But it didn’t open — I could only get it to turn halfway. Only after I’d jiggled it furiously did I realize that I was trying to use my key to unlock Mo’s bike lock. And then it was too late.

My key was hopelessly stuck in the wrong lock.

After tracking down some oil and failing to unjiggle the key, I headed home.

Michael returned to the bike on Monday and tried to pry his key out of the lock with a pair of pliers. He succeeded. But only half-way: A fragment of the key remained inside and the lock was jammed.

He wasn’t able to get back to the bike again until yesterday (amazingly it was still there and in one piece). With proof of ownership of the bike in one hand and a pair of bolt-cutters in the other, he set out to retrieve his wife’s bike:

It gradually became clear that nobody was going to confront me about the bolt cutters. One man, waiting with me at a crosswalk near my house, did at least comment on them. ‘If you need an alibi, I’m in,’ he said.

Once in front of the deli, Michael went to work. Still no one stopped him:

It was lunchtime; the deli was busy, people coming in and out. Nobody asked me what was going on as I walked up to Mo’s bike, braced the bolt cutters against the ground and started cutting through its lock.

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Then another twist to the story. Someone finally approached Michael. It was a man, we’ll call him “B”:

He looked at me and the bolt cutters and asked “Did you just have them lying around?”

“Nah, I got them from a tool library,” I said. “It’s my wife’s bike. I jammed my key in the lock.”

I finally expected to be questioned. Instead he said, “I’m in the same boat.” And walked on.

Then he turned back. “Do you want some help?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”

So B walked back and together we leaned on the bolt cutters, while more people walked past us. SNAP! The lock broke.

Even if this guy could get a pair of bolt cutters, he could probably never do what I just did. If he pulls something like that without a white person with him, somebody calls the cops for sure.

Michael and his new friend shook hands and B started to walk away. Then he turned around and things got even stranger:

Say,” he asked. “Do you think you could do the same for me? My bike is stuck down outside Sizzle Pie.” He pointed west on Burnside.

OK, this was weird.

Did I mention that B is black, and that I am white? I did the social math. Refuse to help this guy after he trusted you and you’re being a total dick. And also: Even if this guy could get a pair of bolt cutters, he could probably never do what I just did. If he pulls something like that without a white person with him, somebody calls the cops for sure.

“I guess so, yeah,” I said carefully. “But I gotta ask. I brought along an email saying that this is mine. Do you have any way to prove it’s yours? I don’t want to be a dick, but you know.”

“No, that’s fine,” B said. He puzzled for a moment and took a pair of bike keys out of his pocket. “These are my keys. The lock rusted shut. Can I prove…? Not really.”

I made a decision.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Can you wheel this bike?”

So here’s that photo from Twitter again, with some helpful labels…

Michael and B got to know each other a bit more as they strolled down Burnside carrying bolt-cutters and wheeling a woman’s bike by their side:

We got to his bike. We snapped his lock open. No one said a word.

They left both locks on the sidewalk, where they were later photographed by someone else and posted to Facebook (see above).

As for Michael and B. Here’s how their strange day together ended up:

As we thanked each other one more time, he said, “Hold on, I’m going to give you something.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small red trade-bound paperback.

“It’s a literary collection,” he said.

B’s name was on the inside cover. He’d co-edited it.

“Thanks for trusting me,” he said.

I picked up my bolt cutters and headed home.

Michael and his “Sweet Wolverine” zine.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • redtech116 December 4, 2015 at 11:56 am

    why leave the broken locks there?
    pick up your mess!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • J_R December 4, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      You should certainly recycle it. Cut off the protective plastic and throw it in the blue bin.

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 4, 2015 at 2:23 pm

        Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about that. I was late for work for the umpteenth time this week, my hands were full and I just didn’t want to deal with it. It was dumb.

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        • Andrew Squirrel December 4, 2015 at 4:14 pm

          Go pick it up, it’s not too late, don’t be that guy.

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          • mike December 8, 2015 at 10:32 am

            What’s that smell…..? Oh that’s right, it’s the tried and true scent of Portland Smug.

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        • J_R December 4, 2015 at 7:45 pm

          “I just didn’t want to deal with it” speaks volumes. And already eight people who “like” your comment. Discouraging as heck. Kind of like the motorists who can’t be bothered to find a legal drop off spot and stop in the bike lane.

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          • John Liu
            John Liu December 5, 2015 at 7:22 am

            I imagine people “liked” Michael’s post because they agree with the “sorry” and “dumb” comments.

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          • RushHourAlleycat December 5, 2015 at 9:34 am

            I’m sure there is a nearby closet available if you like some privacy while you cry about it.

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          • wsbob December 5, 2015 at 11:02 am

            Heck…don’t sweat the bike locks having been left lying on the street. Bike locks are good steel. I’ve got a feeling there are scrappers roaming the streets that would pick them up to sell.

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  • dan December 4, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Why would they leave the trashed locks?

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    • Todd Boulanger December 4, 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Yes – I thought that odd too…littering and such. Usually most professional thieves would dispose of the cut u-lock vs. leaving it for all to see.

      This loss of the lock also makes it impossible for the lock owner to attempt to get their u-lock ‘insurance’ payment from Kryptonite/ On-Guard etc.

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  • 9watts December 4, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Crazy story!

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley December 4, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Great story, well told.

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  • Adam Herstein
    Adam Herstein December 4, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    All you really need for proof is a photo on your phone of the serial (dated before today) and maybe a picture of you with the bike unlocked.

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    • ethan December 4, 2015 at 2:47 pm

      I’ve been thinking about that lately. Now that I’m working downtown again, I see a lot of the same bikes locked to the same racks every day.

      Theoretically, I could go down and snap a picture of it locked up every day and then cut the lock off one day and “prove” it’s mine by showing the pictures, my bike helmet and one of my U Lock keys. For added believability, I could take some pictures with the helmet next to or on the bike and with a removable light I could plant.

      Of course, I would never do this. And I doubt many people would. But it is possible.

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      • John Lascurettes December 6, 2015 at 9:07 pm

        That’s why I keep on my phone a photo of the sparkly clean S/N on the bottom bracket with the original receipt (which has my name and the bike’s S/N) in the same shot — plus several wide shots of the bike and closeups of all the components.

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  • Tony H December 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    There’s a Christmas story in there, somewhere.

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  • Alex Phillips December 4, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    I wished you put in “B’s” name or at least the name of the book he co-edited. I am curious about the book.

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  • Nik Dow December 4, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    You are aware of Casey Neistat’s NYC bike theft experiment?

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  • Todd Boulanger December 4, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    So who had the 2 u-locks? Mr. B? Or were the photos of the the 2 locks just a foil for the story? (Some other lock cutter left them on the street?)

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  • Todd Boulanger December 4, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    The price [and ability] of lock cutting tools has dropped rapidly to the point where the lock cutter is cheaper than the tool to cut it. One can leave HD or LW with a basic bolt cutter for less than the price of a large pizza.

    It may have gotten to the point where one cannot park a bicycle vehicle overnight in the Central City without a good chance of theft. Imagine if this were the case for car owners…residents in the Alphabet District or hotel guests staying at the Ace coming out in the AM their locked car was gone.

    The City needs to seriously invest in secure overnight bike parking garages and perhaps policies to register bolt cutters/ axle grinders…much as spray paint cans are now regulated.

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    • Champs December 4, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      Bike share is a more elegant solution.

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    • rainbike December 4, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      If they outlaw bolt cutters, only outlaws will have bolt cutters.

      Likewise, I don’t think that a requirement to register a tool will make a difference. I’d like to see creative solutions for secure public storage (as you suggest). I regularly use Go By Bike’s valet service. In my experience, it is secure and convenient. I know that model only works in a specific situation, but that’s the kind of innovation we need for smaller hubs.

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty December 4, 2015 at 1:41 pm

      I bought a can of spray paint a few weeks ago, and fully expected to have to show ID. I did not, and when I asked about it, the guy at the counter said “no one checks, we don’t bother with that anymore.”

      So, depending on the store, spray paint is very much no longer regulated. I expect the same would happen with cutting tools.

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      • Spiffy December 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

        the key may have been that you look like an adult…

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    • John Liu
      John Liu December 5, 2015 at 7:23 am

      I didn’t realize a quality U lock can be cut with a bolt cutter.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • komanoff December 4, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Don’t keep us in suspense … what’s the title of the literary collection?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • B. Carfree December 4, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    I had a similar, if less cool, experience. My wife’s U-lock failed while her bike was locked at a pharmacy. The key just spun in the hole. We puzzled about trying to find a solution, including asking a locksmith (too expensive) and a cop who happened by (no help at all). Finally, a stranger offered to retrieve a jack from his car (old-style U-lock) and help us pop it open. We’re amateurs, so it took us the better part of an hour. Not one of the thirty or so people who walked by tried to stop us. One woman even locked her bike up next to us while we worked. It was bizarre but instructive.

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  • PNP December 4, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    This is a really nice story, but it’s a bit disheartening to see the first comments to be criticisms. That’s normal on most sites (one reason I seldom read comments), but I expect better here.

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    • Brendan Treacy December 4, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      Totally agree. Free Bike Culture from cynicism! It’s not helping anyone. Great story as always from you guys.

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  • wsbob December 4, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Key broke off in lock is a tough problem. Lock mechanism rusted may be able to be freed up with PB Blaster. Phosphoric acid (not very toxic.) also might break the rust if a way can be figured out to enclose the lock in a baggy or some such thing, to let it soak for awhile. Could be hours to do that though.

    I know that seeing them without knowing the story, I’d be very skeptical about some guy on the street working over a bike lock with a pair of bolt cutters. Andersen was prepared. The other guy, not really. So what, he’s got a bike lock key. I’d of asked for a little more than that. Even though he got a book out of the deal. Next question: Has Andersen browsed through it, and are there some good things in the literary collection in the book?

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  • Ted Buehler December 4, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Take home message — make sure you keep any ownership papers on your bikes, and know where to find them. Write down all the serial numbers. Take photos of you and your bike in various places around town. If you buy a bike off Craigslist or Goodwill, write down the serial number on the receipt and have someone take a photo of you, the bike, and the receipt at the Goodwill register.

    Then, if you ever need to “steal” your own bike you’re ready to show ownership.

    And, if someone else steals your bike and its recovered by the Portland Police, you will actually get it back.

    I’ve stolen my own bikes 3 times in the last 5 years — City Hall in broad daylight (hacksaw on cable lock), downtown at midnight (angle grinder on U Lock), and NE 42nd (hacksaw & cable).

    I’ve always had photos, but never serial numbers. So when 2 of my good bikes were stolen by other people in the last 5 years I’ve never reported them, and don’t now if they were ever recovered. :^(

    Good story, good case study with Michael having ownership papers.

    Ted Buehler

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    • Todd Boulanger December 4, 2015 at 4:50 pm

      “…’I am shocked…’ [in the voice of Captain Renault from Casablanca] there are bikes in Ted’s Bike Church that have serial numbers not entered into the holy bike baptismal book.”

      Lesson there – even the bike advo pros forget to do this important step.

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  • Ted Buehler December 4, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    Also, everyone should own a tube of lock lubricant, and use it regularly. Or just squirt some triflow in there once in a while. While this case is a mismatched key, I’ve known many people who have had the correct ey jam in the U Lock because it was rusty and just jammed solid one day in an unfortunate time and place…

    This sort of thing,
    Or just go to Winks or your local hardware store and buy a tube.

    Share it with friends and colleagues. Use it as a pick-up line. Help keep Portlanders’ locks in good working order.

    Ted Buehler

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty December 4, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      If someone tried to pick me up with a tube of Easy Entry Lubricant, I’m not really sure what I’d think.

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      • nuovorecord December 4, 2015 at 4:50 pm

        You win.

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  • Mao December 4, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    It’s nice to have a happy ending
    My brother’s ulocks kept rusting on him, one of them stuck on the frame of his bike. It took a hammer to force half of a broken key in to finally dislodge it.

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    • eddie December 5, 2015 at 7:53 am

      tell your brother he needs to oil his locks!

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  • Davey Oil December 4, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    I help run a cargo bike shop in Greenwood, Seattle. I have a lot of reasons to suspect a group of street-involved men I know from the neighborhood of being part of a ring of bike thieves and choppers. I am struggling deeply with what to do with this suspicion, where to go for help, how to deny them aid in their bike- thievery (as a bike shop, I mean), how to do so without refusing to aid all poor-looking guys, etc.

    I am very interested in stories like this one, from bikeportland. How likely is it that I am wrong about the constant flow of bikes and broken locks in the alleys of Greenwood? Not very likely. How likely is it that I am wrong about some dude who comes to the back door of my shop and asks if we have any used tubes he could use? If I assume he is a criminal just because I assume he is homeless? Pretty likely.

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  • Curtis Roth December 4, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Cool story.

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  • jenkins December 4, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    I don’t understand.
    Just because he published a zine he can’t be a bike thief?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty December 4, 2015 at 4:26 pm

      The zine is called Bike Stealer Pete, and it’s about the author’s mission to steal a bike in each of the 50 states.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • jenkins December 4, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Sounds riveting.
    Does Bike Stealer Pete do a triathlon on each of the stolen bikes?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • B. Carfree December 4, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    While the entire story is entertaining and hilarious, it also points to the possibility that Jonathon and much of the BikePortland community is a small echo chamber. This can be a good thing, but if one gets in the habit of extrapolating out from this tiny group and assuming that what is happening amongst its members holds true for much of the larger cycling community in Oregon and the rest of the US, you’re going to draw some silly conclusions.

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  • eddie December 4, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    Once I managed to angle grind a u lock off of a bike in front of Ground Kontrol at ten PM on a Friday night … the key had been lost and the owner was at her wit’s end. I offered to grind off the lock with a buddy’s grinder and the bartender said absolutely not. But a bouncer from a nearby club got involved and bribed GK bartender 20 bucks to let us use a power outlet and wrestle the lock off with bolt cutters and a grinder. All participants were heavily intoxicated and the bartender was obviously terrified. A fountain of sparks entertained everyone! The person who had lost the key to the lock was very grateful and paid us in beer.. …Wonderful Portland story.

    It is an incredibly good idea to have some form of proof that your bike is indeed yours. I just bought a new bike and actually got a certificate with it, which I will keep in case something like this happens to me.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 4, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    Put your name on your bike. Use a labelmaker or something.

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    • Tony T
      Tony T December 5, 2015 at 7:29 am

      You’re kidding, right? A label would last 10 seconds on a bike that’s been stolen.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • eddie December 5, 2015 at 7:52 am

    i am always encouraging people to have their name or some code metal stamped on their frame and components.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Mao December 5, 2015 at 11:03 am

      Just walk into a jewelry store “Hello, I would like some engraving work done. Just a name on a very precious item”.
      The watch their confusion when you roll in your leaf-covered bike.

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  • SE December 5, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Michael Andersen (News Editor)
    Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about that. I was late for work for the umpteenth time this week, my hands were full and I just didn’t want to deal with it. It was dumb.Recommended 9

    I nominate the above for “Lame excuse of the Week” award. Give him $5.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Jonathan R December 5, 2015 at 12:30 pm

      An electric engraver is better; I have both and the alphabet punches really don’t make much of a mark.

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  • craig harlow December 5, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I actually laughed out loud. Thanks, fellas :^)

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Jolly Dodger December 5, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    There’s a good story behind every broken lock I suppose. I posted the two locks on my Facebook page and thought it could be a new theft crew in town using any means necessary to get what they want-up to using power tools on the busiest street in Portland. I personally have had locks fail, but fortunately not locked up at the time. I know how to judge the veracity of a persons true intentions, but have been duped a few times in my day. Knowing Michael on sight, I would help him clip his own lock, but any random person on the street would be suspect without some proof of ownership other than a broken key and a sad face. Sorry to stir the shit pot as it were, I was only trying to inform others of a possible lock uselessness on the face of such staggering bike theft rates in p-town.

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  • Catie December 5, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    This reminds me of a bicylce that used to be a couple blocks from me. It was a public bike, looked new. Locked to the same bike rack, not moving, every time I walked by for a couple months. I wondered if someone had forgotten it, but who would have forgotten a beautiful bike like that? Maybe that was just their parking spot? There was an apartment building on the corner. I thought about reporting it somehow, but to who? “Just checking that this isnt an abandoned bike…” One day the wheels were stripped off of it. Then the next week it was gone completely.

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  • Brian E December 5, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    I had a similar situation with my u-lock and found it much easier to disassemble the bike rack. This was at the front door of the US post office. Nobody even gave me a second look. Very strange experience.

    I reattached the bike rack like nothing happened. Took the bike and lock to a Welder friend who had the tools to grind off the lock.

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  • Mike Quiglery December 6, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Reminds me of years ago in front of the Paramount (now the Schnitz). Way back when cable locks were de rigueur. I had locked my bike and lost the key. Only one key. So I walked home and brought a hacksaw and proof of ownership back, and proceeded to saw away. A few sideways glances, but no questions or comments. A cop care drove by but didn’t stop. It’s a lot worse now.

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  • Mark December 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    It’s quite simple. Possessing bolt cutters is a crime. Call a locksmith. Seeing someone with bolt cutters should be the same as seeing someone with a gun and police should respond accordingly.

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    • Mark December 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Edit…should say…possession if bolt cutters in public should be a crime.

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty December 6, 2015 at 5:48 pm

      Maybe Oregon is an open-carry state as far as bolt cutters are concerned?

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      • Nicole December 6, 2015 at 10:19 pm

        I called the police on a man very openly cutting a lock near Burnside and Grand a few weeks ago. The police called me back after pulling up and speaking with the man. The bike’s wheels had already been removed (stolen?) and were nowhere in sight, and the man with the tools said that it was an abandoned bike and that he was within the bounds of the law. No proof of ownership… but because I had not seen the man removing the wheels, he was given the benefit of the doubt and no action was taken. Now…. maybe this was all very legitimate, but it makes me uncomfortable to say the least…. especially after having my bike ripped apart just blocks away… For all you folks carrying proof of ownership, you may not need it after all!

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        • Hello, Kitty
          Hello, Kitty December 7, 2015 at 12:49 pm

          Can one legally take “abandoned” bikes?

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    • DanF December 7, 2015 at 7:49 am

      It seems like maybe you’re not aware that bolt cutters have uses beyond bike thievery.

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  • Social Engineer December 7, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Your solution does nothing to help pedestrian crossing conditions.

    Once again, add the cost of retrofitting the Everett and Glisan bridges to withstand a major earthquake, and THEN tell me how much money we would save.

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    • Social Engineer December 7, 2015 at 10:09 am

      My apologies, this comment ended up in the wrong post for some strange reason.

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  • Dan M. December 8, 2015 at 10:17 am

    This was really stupid to do without at least trying to get a cop to be there to accompany you. That deli might have been packed with cowed, unaware, or passive-to-a-fault Portlanders, but not everyone in this city is that hands-off.

    If I see someone with bolt cutters or an angle grinder going after a U-lock, I’m dialing the cops if out numbered, and if not out numbered I’m rolling on them and choking the thief out. Taking my bike is taking away access to my job and my livelihood. I’m not going to sit idly by while someone does that to another person or me. That’s perpetrating violence and damage on my or someone else’s life and I’m fighting that in kind.

    It’s dismaying that there’s a deli full of people and no one has the guts to even speak up. That’s what feeds this petty theft blight – a city of people who practice non-interference in the face of remorseless theft. Step up and at least call the cops or call someone out for committing crimes that have a serious impact. That you were chewed out let alone beaten down is pure luck.

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    • Angel Y December 8, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      I think the point of this article is that we don’t always know the full story.

      An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

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      • Dan M. December 9, 2015 at 11:43 am

        No one’s losing eyes. Many people are losing bikes and they’re not toys – they’re transit. The last thing I want to do is get in an altercation, but I’m not standing idly by while some scumbag deprives someone of their transit. I’m not going to run up on someone and start beating them, but if they’re obviously a thief, they’re not getting away from me. My mercy runs out when you take something of such consequence cavalierly and I’ll mercilessly prevent that from happening. Show bike thieves no mercy.

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  • Birke December 8, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Not sure what “rolling on them and choking the thief out” means, but I hope you don’t mean you would inflict physical violence on someone you suspected of being a bike thief.

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