City Paper is not for tourists
Caroline Spahr buys razor wire the way some grannies buy yarn—by the spool. The tough-as-nails, 59-year-old co-owner of Heyser Cycle Center, in Laurel, likes talking about her many methods for deterring thieves who covet her million-dollar inventory. That includes 400 feet of the wire, wound concertina-style, which decorates every precipice of her half-block motorcycle empire. “It looks like a fortress out there,” she says from the inside, standing among rows of motorcycles, dirt bikes, and ATVs.
These days, razor wire is an accessory as common in bike shops as chaps, gloves, and helmets. There was a time when just riding a motorcycle made you the baddest thing on two wheels, but now D.C.-area riders deal with worse folks: motorcycle thieves. This summer especially, a brisk trade in hot bikes has hit the Maryland suburbs. Police don’t keep dedicated motorcycle-theft statistics, but retailers corroborate a crime wave. One gang, Prince George’s County cops say, could be responsible for as many as eight brazen thefts since late spring.
The crooks aren’t eyeing chrome-and-leather hogs, though. It’s ATVs, minibikes, and dirt bikes that are tempting many thieves. They don’t have to be titled or registered in many jurisdictions. They’re easier to lift. And, though such bikes generally aren’t street-legal, they can easily evade cops bound by local nonpursuit policies. If cops do chase, the micro-machines, with 50- to 125-cc engines, are perfect for snaking down alleys and cutting through open fields.
It’s all meant hefty losses for bike retailers—and they’ve responded with an industrial-strength arsenal of security measures. After Spahr interrupted five guys loading a pickup and box van with four stolen bikes outside her shop a few years ago, she went all-out on security. She and co-owner Scott Hyman swapped chain-link fences for sheet-metal ones topped with wire. Inside, an alarm system employs laser beams and motion and glass-break detectors; if the power goes down or a phone line is cut, no matter—there’s a cellular backup. Concrete posts outside are meant to stop people from driving through the walls, and an employee lives in the house next door, keeping a close eye on the shop during off-hours.
Ellicott City Motorsports, in Howard County, opted for a simpler solution: The shop has had so many bikes stolen—including 14 worth a total of $60,000 in one night last year—that it built a 10-foot-high concrete wall around the service area this April. “It is real frustrating,” says Dave Rose, the manager. “It is hard enough just to be successful in day-to-day business. To have to worry about being a detective at the same time is kind of a bummer.”
Customers have become targets, too. Glendon Sylvester battled a crew of relentless thieves at his Langley Park home for a month. Sylvester, a 39-year-old machine operator who races dirt bikes as a hobby, believes the group tagged him at the Dirt Shop, a dirt-bike dealer in College Park on Route 1. His son works in the shop, and he stopped by in May to buy a brake rotor. A few hours later, he was putting it on a Kawasaki in his living room when he heard noises from the garage. Outside, he found three kids sneaking up on the side of his house. “One of them came up behind me [saying he had] a gun and said he wanted a bike,” Sylvester recalls.
When he’d stepped outside, Sylvester had locked the door behind him, and the kids demanded the key. He said he didn’t have it, and they tried to kick in the door. He realized there was no gun, and he grabbed a stick. “I had to fight there for a minute,” Sylvester says. The kids sped off in a Chevy Tahoe, empty-handed.
Thieves appeared a second time three weeks later, on June 7, and succeeded in kicking in the door. Sylvester was out of town at the time and had moved his two Kawasakis out of the house. The burglars took only a pair of motorcycle boots. Lucky for them, Sylvester says: If they had made off with his racing bike, which runs on special fuel, they’d have been in for a surprise. “If they would have put gas from a gas station in it, it would have blown up,” he says.
That wasn’t the end of it: A week later, Sylvester’s neighbor saw boys fitting the original thieves’ description in the yard once again and called the cops. After that, Sylvester moved. He won’t say where he now parks his bikes. “It seems like no matter what you do, they still break in somehow,” he says.
A week later, bike thieves turned their attention to the Dirt Shop itself. On June 14, someone drove up and cut the lock on a Honda CR 125 outside the shop, boosting the $3,000 bike at midday. Five days later, on a Sunday, the thieves drove right through a 2-inch-thick, 300-pound garage door and made off with $15,000 in merchandise. The door had fallen inward and prevented them from taking any of the handful of bikes being serviced. At sunrise, someone was back, trying to use the destroyed door to access the shop again, an alarm record indicated.
Rather than replace the garage door, the Dirt Shop owner decided to stop doing complicated repairs, according to Luke Hughes, a shop employee. For a small shop, it’s not worth the investment in security to store bikes overnight, he says. Now there’s a wall where the garage door used to be, and it’s protected by 50-gallon drums of concrete.
Witnesses say both the Dirt Shop and Sylvester were burgled by as many as seven black males between the ages of 15 and 18. The incidents occurred around the same time and less than four miles from one another. Lt. Terence Sheppard of the Prince George’s County Police Department thinks it’s possible that the incidents, eight in all, at three sites, were the work of the same crew. “They are being investigated as possibly linked,” he says, “but we won’t know until we make an arrest.”
Heyser Cycle, six miles farther north on Route 1, was Site No. 3. Even with all of Spahr’s security measures, Heyser wasn’t impenetrable: On June 7, at least two thieves drove up to the shop just after noon and parked a van in front of the window, blocking the view. They grabbed an ATV that was outside on display and threw it into the van, leaving behind their rear bench seat. They were gone before anyone in the shop could respond.
Two weeks later, a motorcycle distributor parked outside Heyser had two minibikes stolen from the back of his van. One, a customized Honda XR 50 with a racing frame, was worth $5,000. The other “fiddy” belonged to the distributor’s 6-year-old granddaughter.
Despite all the unwanted attention the dirt bikes and ATVs attract, Spahr says she’s never considered getting out of the specialty-bike trade. They are stolen more often than street cycles, but as long as there are kids captivated by motors and mud, there will be a strong market for the bikes.
That means keeping the security system up-to-date and in good working order. Hyman ventures, conservatively, that the shop has poured at least $25,000 into security over the years.
“It’s slowed it down to where they are hindered,” Spahr says. Her working philosophy is to make it so that when crooks break in, they won’t be able to leave. At least one recent would-be thief was foiled: Last month, Spahr found bolt cutters and holes in the wire where someone tried to cut through the fence but left in a hurry when the alarm went off.
And Heyser is now in the process of introducing its latest security measure: plexiglass-reinforced windowpanes. Nine windows are being installed, at $1,500 apiece.
“It’s a tough industry,” Spahr says, smiling wryly among 75 shiny new bikes. “You just try and keep ahead.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.