A few weeks ago, D.C.’s crime rate finally caught up with me. I was bikejacked.
Riding my Trek mountain bike home from work one Friday at dusk, I approached the corner of 10th Street and Quebec Place NW, where I’d noticed a group of teen-age boys hanging out for several nights in a row. This was a rough neighborhood, but certainly not D.C.’s worst, and I hadn’t given the group much thought.
As I passed the boys, one of them hurled a Pepsi bottle at me, and it slammed into my right forearm. I slowed and looked back. At the same time, another boy jumped from behind a parked car on the opposite side of the street and ran toward me. He clenched his shirttail over the lower half of his face and thrust what looked like a small, silver handgun at me. “Give me the bike! Give me the bike!” he shouted. He was about eight feet away and closing fast.
I didn’t get a very good look at his “gun,” and if his face hadn’t been masked, I wouldn’t have taken the kid—no more than 15—seriously.
I hopped off my bike and yelled out, “You want the bike? Take the bike!” He grabbed it and pedaled off in the opposite direction down 10th Street. That was the last I saw of it.
My bikejacking was hardly unique. According to data compiled by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), 60 people were bikejacked in the District during 1990, 70 in 1991, and 79 in 1992. No figures are available for 1993, but a quick glance at crime reports in the Washington Post reveals one or two bikejackings each week, even as warm weather recedes.
Police records and anecdotes told by bicycle-store owners reveal that bikejackers target expensive mountain bicycles and employ a variety of methods—with and without weapons—to ply their trade.
A sampling of recent MPD robbery reports includes the bikejacking of a Spanish-speaking immigrant while he rode home after midnight Sept. 19 from his dishwashing job at a downtown restaurant. As he passed Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW, a man emerged from an alcove and kicked him off his mountain bike. The assailant then grabbed the bike while an accomplice placed a small-caliber handgun to the victim’s neck and demanded money. The two bikejackers ran south down 16th Street with the bicycle.
Three days later, a man and woman riding in the 1100 block of 6th Street NE during the afternoon were approached by a man who said, “Give me money.” When the couple refused, the man brandished a large butcher knife, grabbed the woman’s bicycle, and said, “Give it to me.” The bikejacker escaped by riding the stolen Kona mountain bike through an alley.
Some bikejackers are con artists, persuading their prey to slow down or, better yet, stop before moving in for the attack.
A 15-year-old Cleveland Park resident, for example, recalls how he was bikejacked one September evening while riding his mountain bike on the sidewalk of Connecticut Avenue just south of Woodley Park. He encountered a group of three men, one of whom stepped forward and attempted to engage him in conversation. “The next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” says the youth, who asked not to be identified. “I stopped because I didn’t know what he wanted. It was pretty foolish now that I think about it.”
Bennett Moore, manager of Big Wheel Bikes in Alexandria, describes a similar ruse. A Big Wheel customer was riding her Peugeot mountain bike one afternoon last year a few blocks from the White House when a group of kids waved her over. Despite the presence of passers-by, the group surrounded the woman and pushed her off the bicycle. One young bikejacker grabbed her Kryptonite lock and struck her with it. The woman suffered a sprained arm.
The U.S. Park Police—who have jurisdiction over the Rock Creek Park bike path and the C&O Canal towpath, two of the city’s most popular bicycle routes—do not keep separate statistics on bikejackings. “A robbery is a robbery,” says Park Police spokesman Maj. Robert Hines. “It just happened to be a bicycle that was taken.”
Lt. Henry Berberich, commander of the Park Police station in Rock Creek Park, says there were a total of five bike robberies in his area last year, including three cases that resulted in the arrest of a pair of juveniles. The pair had attacked the bicyclists with an aluminum baseball bat, in one case jamming it into the spokes of a bicycle and in another breaking a cyclist’s nose with it.
By late October of this year, the Park Police had recorded at least three bicycle robberies in D.C. west of the Anacostia River. Two of the robberies occurred on the lower end of the bike path between the National Zoo and Park Road, historically a crime spot, according to Berberich.
By its very nature, bikejacking provides robbers with a means of escape. Not that they always take advantage of it. Moore reports that one of his customers was robbed of a Miele racing bike last spring on the Mount Vernon trail near National Airport by two men with a gun. Not troubling themselves to run or even pedal from the afternoon crime scene, the insouciant bikejackers strolled across the 14th Street Bridge toward the District with the Miele in hand.
And in at least one instance, a District bike robbery turned fatal. Around 11:15 p.m. on July 7, 1992, Jose Roman Cruz, a 17-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, was shot in the chest and killed on the 3400 block of 16th Street NW. The Post reported that Cruz, who was walking a female friend home, spoke little English and didn’t understand the gunman’s order to “gimme your bike.” After the shooting, the gunman rode off on Cruz’s 10-speed.
Police arrested three men in connection with Cruz’s death. Earlier this year, two of them pled guilty to robbery charges and agreed to testify against the third man, John Anthony, who prosecutors allege was the shooter. Charged with murder, Anthony is scheduled to go on trial in January. The two accomplices have not yet been sentenced.
The number of D.C. bikejackings pales compared with other street crime—not to mention ordinary bike thefts, of which there were more than 1,100 last year.
Bicycling advocates, eager to wean us from our automobiles, minimize the dangers of bikejacking. “I don’t want anybody to be scared off of bicycling,” says Patricia Braley, a member of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) who is active in the group’s bicycle-commuter program. Braley says bikejacking isn’t much of a problem, and she notes that bicyclists are safer than motorists who trek through parking lots because bikers can roll up to the door of their destination.
Braley and WABA Director Ellen Jones argue that bikejacking shouldn’t be singled out for attention. “I don’t see this as being unique to bicycles. I see this as a general crime issue,” Jones says. “Pedestrians suffer from crime. Motorists suffer from crime.”
True enough; MPD statistics show that you’re far more likely to be carjacked than bikejacked on D.C.’s mean streets. The auto-theft unit recorded 354 carjackings this year through the end of October.
Lawmakers have yet to lavish on bikejacking the attention they’ve given to carjacking. After a Maryland carjacking that ended in murder last year, both the House and Senate passed in October 1992 a federal carjacking statute that provides for a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for a carjacking committed with a firearm. If serious bodily injury results, the maximum penalty is 25 years, and a carjacker whose crime results in a death can be sentenced to life in prison. The D.C. Council enacted even tougher measures at the same time Congress did.
But the carjacking laws only apply to motor vehicles. Under the D.C. code, bikejackers can be charged with robbery, a crime whose punishment ranges from two to 15 years in prison. Kevin Ohlson, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, notes, however, that a gun-toting bikejacker could instead be charged with committing a crime of violence when armed, which carries a mandatory minimum of five years and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Rather than living out revenge fantasies in D.C. Superior Court, most bicyclists would prefer to avoid bikejackers in the first place.
Larry Dean, owner of Proteus Bike & Fitness, suggests a gonzo strategy for persons confronted by would-be bikejackers: “Ride fast and weave…because if you’re a weaving target, you’re very hard to hit with a handgun.”
On a more practical note, police and bicycle activists advise riders to avoid unnecessary stops, ride in public areas, and pay attention to their surroundings. WABA’s Braley notes, for example, that a bicyclist who encounters strangers loitering along a bike path should “be cautious, just as you would in walking up to a dark spot on the street.”
Common-sense advice? Sure. But if I’d taken it to heart a while back, I’d still be riding my bike and one of my fellow citizens would still be walking.