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Tour de theft targets high-end racing bikes

The Sheriff's Department arrests three men accused of using Craigslist and Facebook to steal custom cycles worth up to $15,000 from victims across Southern California.

May 08, 2012|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Sheriff's investigators display some of the recovered racing bicycles that were stolen from victims found through Facebook and Craigslist.
Sheriff's investigators display some of the recovered racing bicycles… (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles…)

Jet Tanner was sound asleep in his Irvine home on a March night when he was awakened by the sound of crashing glass.

He ran to the front of the house just as the thieves were pulling away. They left a computer and a flat-screen television. In fact, the only thing they took was his 14-year-old daughter Millie's cyclocross team bicycle, worth more than $5,000 and custom made for her competitive racing.

"She was crying. She was devastated," Tanner recalled. "She couldn't believe they took her bicycle and equipment and left everything else."

In a place known for sophisticated jewelry heists, fine-art thieves and "the Bling Ring," it was only a matter of time before Southern California produced a crew who ripped off high-end bicycles.

Authorities say that Millie was a victim of a group of thieves who for more than two years snatched nearly 200 expensive bikes with an estimated total value of $250,000.

Detectives said the thieves scanned Craigslist and Facebook to identify targets, making away with designer racing bikes worth $2,000 to $15,000 each.

They allegedly preyed on the growing online community of Los Angeles bike enthusiasts who share photos about rides and their latest bike acquisitions on various websites and look for parts on Craigslist.

The victims, detectives say, include teenagers like Millie, bike club members, long-distance road racers and triathletes spanning six Southern California counties.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Bureau has arrested three men accused of being at the center of the bike-stealing ring. Two brothers from Los Angeles, Julian Herrera, 23, and Jamie Herrera, 21, and a Colton man identified as 34-year-old Alberto Mejia face dozens of counts of burglary and conspiracy after authorities reported finding purloined bikes and bike parts at various locations including one of the suspect's homes.

Tanner quickly realized that the thieves found him through a Craigslist ad he placed earlier this year for one of his own racing bikes. He had listed his Pinarello road bike for sale for several thousand dollars in hopes of raising more money for his daughter's racing team.

Someone responded to the ad, and Tanner said he set up a time to meet at his Irvine home. But the man canceled. Two weeks later, the burglary occurred.

The thieves made away with Millie's custom racing bike, adorned with a her nickname "Milliegoat" and some sponsors' logos.

"Bikes like this can be found at the store, but to build them to this caliber would cost between $5,000 and $10,000," he said.

Authorities say the crew was operating on the Westside perhaps as far back as 2009.

Los Angeles police made arrests in 2011 after a series of high-end bike thefts in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica. The suspects included Mejia and Julian Herrera, who worked in his family's gardening business at some of the homes that were hit. Both men were arrested and eventually convicted, along with Julian's uncle Marvin Herrera.

When they were released after a few weeks in jail, the high-end bike thefts resumed over a wider territory with help from the Internet, detectives say.

Authorities allege that the suspects began scouring Craigslist and bike websites looking for expensive bicycles for sale. They allegedly chatted with the owners, using fake names like Joe Wayne, Justin Vyor and Mark Silverstein.

Sheriff's Lt. Kent Wegener said the suspects tried to glean more information about the kind of bikes the sellers owned and where they rode. They even persuaded some sellers to email additional photos. If they got names of the sellers, they logged into Facebook in search of more information. They also used Facebook to find fellow riders who could become future targets, Wegener said.

And they appeared to know what to look for.

Although the names Cannondale, Cervelo, Orbea or Tommaso may not mean much to some, in the world of cycling they represent the creme de la creme of carbon fiber or titanium bike frames that can cost more than $8,000. Together with Zipp brand wheels retailing for $3,000 a pair or Di2 digital shifters, which can cost several thousand dollars more, the price can be comparable to a used car.

The stolen bikes were delivered to the owner of a Los Angeles cycling shop. The owner of the shop, who is under investigation but cooperating with detectives, purchased the bikes for several hundred dollars each. The bikes were stripped of their valuable components and resold, Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Maher said.

Detectives recovered several dozen bikes that had not been stripped. Some have already been returned to their owners.

Growth in high-end bicycles and the parts industry has taken off over the last decade, fueled by improving and affordable technology as well as publicity surrounding the string of victories by American Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France and other international biking events

"In the realm of toys that you can buy, whether it's fast cars, boats or horses, most professionals can actually go out and buy the same equipment that's used at the very highest end of the sport," said Rich Sawiris, who owns the custom wheel manufacturing company Wheelbuilder.com "You can't do that with Formula I racing. That would very expensive."

Officials said the break in the case occurred by pure luck in early March when an off-duty sheriff's sergeant was leaving his Santa Clarita Valley home about 4 a.m.

He noticed three men drive by in a silver Nissan Murano with a bike rack. He became suspicious and wrote down the license plate number. A few days later, the sergeant was talking to a neighbor who told him that two of his bikes had been stolen.

He called detectives, who say they linked the SUV to the suspects.

"These crimes were specific, deliberate and quick," Wegener said. "They were also very brazen."

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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