It's not uncommon for bicycles to go missing on the University of Washington campus. Fancy $5,000 road bikes, busted $50 beaters—all of them end up in the hands of thieves, and usually at a faster clip during the summer months, when more people ride instead of drive and bike lifters have plentiful prey. Snipping through cable locks and snatching untended cycles, they make off with about 125 bikes annually, according to UW police.
What is incredibly uncommon is for one of these stolen bikes to be recovered—and even more uncommon is for such a bike to be recovered by a 25-year-old bioengineering grad student who has taken the law into her own hands, stalked her stolen property on Craigslist, jawboned authorities in two states into action, and even tried to set up a Wal-Mart parking-lot sting operation, all to recover a Redline Conquest Pro (a cyclo-cross bike) that she bought used last fall for $850. "I'm not one to give up easily," explained the student, Michelle McCully.
When her ride disappeared on March 5, McCully scoured local Craigslist postings, looking for the telltale signs that made her black road bike different from all the rest: white handlebar tape, black fenders, special pedals. No luck. She'd already filed a report with the UW police ("They basically told me I was out of luck and probably not going to find it") and passed on the bicycle's serial number just in case ("Gotta have a serial number," said UW police sergeant Doug Schulz. "It's really tough to track down bikes without a serial number"). No luck with that, either. After a couple weeks, McCully felt she'd probably hit a dead end.
It was a bummer for her. "It's hard to find a good bike for a price I'm willing to pay," she said.
McCully started looking for a replacement bike, including Craigslist bike-sale postings in the Portland area, hoping to find the perfect fit. On March 26, cruising the Portland Craigslist postings, she randomly stumbled across what she believed to be her stolen bike. "I kind of started shaking and probably didn't stop for another 24 hours," she said. "I knew it was the bike. I have no idea how I fell asleep that night."
She called back the UW police, who recommended she ask the seller for high-resolution photos. She called the Portland police, who told her nothing could be done unless she had the name of the seller and a location for an intended sale. She e-mailed the seller from an address that masked her real identity, but she didn't hear back and grew increasingly antsy and frustrated. Friends were enlisted to make offers. Finally, in the late afternoon of the following day, the seller started replying.
It turned out he was planning to show the bike to a likely buyer at 8:00 p.m. that evening in Portland, but could be persuaded by the offer of an additional $50 to delay that meeting. "I left work, grabbed a bus, went home, picked up my car, and grabbed a friend," McCully said. The sting was set for a Wal-Mart parking lot in Southeast Portland. The two had about three and a half hours to get down there (in rush hour), and McCully didn't even know if the Portland police would be there at the parking lot to back her up. Racing down I-5, she and her friend used a cell phone to dial the Portland police and eventually convinced an officer to meet them. It took a lot of doing, however, and ultimately McCully didn't make it to the sting at the appointed time. When she reached the parking lot, the seller was nowhere to be found.
Undeterred, she set up a base of operations at a friend's apartment and used the web to dig up information on the seller. Using Google and reverse white pages against his e-mail address and phone number, she figured out enough information to entice the police into another sting. "That would have been really cool," she said. "They would have put me in a bulletproof vest and all if I'd gone and ID'd him." But when she finally made contact with him to set it up, still masking her real identity, it turned out he'd sold the bike the previous night.
No matter. She'd already posted all over Portland's Craigslist pages warning people about the seller, and those posts lured him into contacting her, demanding she take down her warnings. She played hardball and ended up with contact information for the person he'd sold the bike to. That was all Portland police needed to find the bike, match it to McCully's serial number, and open an investigation into whether the seller, now a "person of interest" according to Portland police spokesperson Mary Wheat, will face any charges. A district attorney in Portland suggested McCully might belong on a detective squad rather than in a bioengineering lab. Sergeant Schulz marveled at her "very resourceful" freelance police work. And McCully, now satisfied that justice has been served, is back on her Conquest Pro. Though it took quite a bit of time and gas money to get it back, she believes it was well worth the cost and effort. "I mean, I like the bike," she said. "It fits me, it's comfortable, and it's exactly what I want."