To Catch a (Bicycle) Thief… AGAIN!!!


In August of this year, I wrote a piece on the theft and recovery of my bicycle, and the apprehension and arrest of the thief. Little did I know that the story wouldn’t end there…

About a month after the bike thief was finally captured in front of a police station, I received notice from Taipei District Court that he had been sentenced to between six months and five years. Five years seemed like a pretty stiff sentence, I’ll admit. But the police had connected him to two dozen or more other bike thefts in the last several years. And, he was already out on parole for attempted murder and weapons charges. So, a bad dude had been taken off the streets, or so I thought.

Until a few days ago.

I get off at noon from my office in downtown Taipei, and the bus I need won’t arrive for another 25 minutes, so I take a stroll on the nearby streets. As I come back to my bus stop, which just happens to be near an MRT stop, I notice this guy riding a bike in the street.

He’s riding along past the bike racks when a bike catches his eye. He quickly wheels around and passes the bike again, looking really closely at it. He pulls up on the sidewalk, looking at the bike again, and then scans the immediate vicinity for witnesses.

He sees me, because I am looking right at him, not believing what I am watching. And then he leaves, riding his bike along the sidewalk and turning onto another street at the nearby corner.

The bike he was looking at was a Rocky Mountain, with Rock Shocks, air suspension in the rear, nice tires and wheels, older, and definitely too nice to be locked up in the public racks. Ever since my bike nearly got stolen, I notice nice bikes in public racks. This mountain bike stands out. It clearly should not be left outside on its own for any length of time.

I quickly go the local bike share station, just across the street, and take out one of the orange YouBikes. I chased my own bike thief on a YouBike back in August, and I figure the orange machine would do the job again. I ride around in the nearby streets for a while, but I don’t see him come back. I really think he will, but maybe I put him off, so I ride to another MRT station, about a kilometer away. I think maybe that’s his MO, cruising MRT station bike racks for bikes too nice to lock up. That’s how he almost got mine.

At the other station, I spend a few minutes looking around for the bike racks, but I don’t see the thief. So I head back to the mountain bike that I had seen him so interested in. As I get back to the corner where the bike is at, who do I see? Bike thief.

He’s ditched the bike he was riding, and now he’s on foot. He’s bending down by the mountain bike, almost as if he’s tying his shoe or something, but he’s looking carefully at the bike, not this shoe.

By this time, I’ve got my phone out, and I want to get photos, but I’m worried he’ll spot me. Plus, he hasn’t stolen the bike yet. I figure I need to take the shot when he’s busying clipping the flimsy cable lock with the bolt cutters I know are in the small canvas bag he’s wearing over one shoulder. Then he moves around to the back of the bike, where it’s locked up.

(Oh, and by the way, this bike was locked to the rack with a cable through the spokes only. Unbelievable.)

He’s now squatting on the curb behind the bike, and getting ready to cut the cable. I’m about 15 meters away, but I’m not staring at him this time. I try to look uninterested, but he’s not having it. Either he remembers seeing me at the corner earlier, or he’s noticed me expressing a little too much curiosity.

He decides to retreat. He starts walking around the traffic circle and crosses over the main street. I follow on the YouBike from a distance, and I stay on the other side of the street. He’s wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, so he’s pretty easy to spot. At the next light, I cross the street, and now I’m behind him.

He’s walking in the arcade, the covered walkway right in front of the buildings, and I’m in the uncovered part of the sidewalk nearer the road. I’ve got my phone ready, set to video. I didn’t get a picture of him stealing a bike, but I figure I’ll at least get to see what he looks like.

I see my chance, and I ride past him while I’m one side of a wide pillar, and he’s on the other. Now that I’m ahead of him, I turn into the arcade and reverse direction so that he’s walking right toward me. I’ve got my phone up, and the video is recording. And it works perfectly. I get a 15 second video of the bike thief.

But that’s where surprise comes in. I know this bike thief, and he knows me. It’s the same guy that I caught when he tried to steal my bike. When he sees me, he’s not looking at the camera. He’s staring at my face, and his eyes kind of pop out of their sockets. He can’t believe it, and to tell you the truth, neither can I. I thought he was in jail.

The way I rode ride up to him, in such close quarters, I feel I need to say something to defuse the situation, so I say, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.” And he kind of raises his hand and acknowledges my statement as he turns to go.

So after that I hang out by the mountain bike for about 30 minutes. First, I’m not sure the thief has really given up on it. Second, I want to tell the person who owns that bike to take better care of it, or it will be stolen. But neither the thief nor the bike owner show up, so I eventually get on the bus and leave the city.

When I get home, I see there’s a notice on my mailbox. It says that I have to go to the nearest police station to pick up a letter from the courthouse. This can’t be good, I think, but I’m curious. I get dressed for a bike ride, and cycle to the police office. I look through the document that is given to me, but legal Chinese isn’t exactly my specialty.

My main concern is that I might have to go to court, which I am hoping to avoid. I decide to cycle over to my local bike shop. My bike needs a bit of work, and I think one of the owners of the shop might be able to translate the key points of this legal notice.

The document from the court house explains that the bike thief, Mr. Chen, has been released early. He served a month or two, but the court system has decided it isn’t worth the effort to keep him in jail. Here’s why:

  1. The bikes he stole weren’t very expensive.
  2. Most had been sold for parts or otherwise disposed of.
  3. He was apparently of diminished mental capacity.
  4. He promised to give up a life of crime and change his ways.

I think Mr. Chen is a genius. He found his niche, stealing something that the court system considers to be of such low value that it’s not worth keeping him in jail for long when he’s caught. Plus, he’s convinced the courts that he’s stupid, but not stupid enough to fail to see the benefit of promising to do the right thing.

So once my bike has been serviced, and my trust in Taiwan’s justice system shaken, I cycle over to the police station where the Mr. Chen had been captured back in August.

I lean my bike, unlocked, against a pillar outside the entrance of the police station, and walk inside. There are several officers there, but none of them look familiar, so I give a quick run-down of the situation to the cop at the front desk. While I’m doing this, another officer takes an interest in what I’m talking about. He says he remembers me and the bike thief. He was there in the precinct that evening. I show him the letter and the video.

And he gets it. He sees the irony, the grand coincidence, and the injustice. He promises that they’ll keep an eye out for Mr. Chen, and if they see him up to his old tricks, they’ll bring him in again. I realize there’s not much else I can do. I thank him for his time, exit the station, and get back on my bike, the same one that the thief had stolen, and ride off into the city.

The information from the court says that I can appeal Mr. Chen’s reduced sentence if I so desire. But I won’t. When I thought he got five years for nearly stealing my bike, I felt a bit guilty, almost. That would have been a long time away for trying to steal a bike. But I rationalized, he was a careerist, stealing dozens of bikes successfully and only getting busted for it once when he ran into me. I thought he had it coming. Now it seems futile.

I posted the first part this story on reddit back in August, and lots of people commented on the story. Two things struck me about that. First, no one criticized me for anything, which was pretty cool. When you put a personal story out on the internet for anyone to read and rip up, you expect some nasty comments, and I got none. Second, I realized that pretty much everyone has very low opinions of bike thieves. No one stuck up for the guy. There are certain classes of criminals that everyone hates, and bike thieves appear to be in that select group.

I don’t know what it will take to get this guy to stop stealing bikes. Mr. Chen has a specialty. It’s what he knows, and he’s apparently quite good at it. True, he’s had some back luck this year, running into me twice. Maybe he really could give up a life of crime, get training as a bike mechanic, or train for some other trade. But I don’t think that’s likely.

I have little faith that the justice system rehabilitates the people that it locks behind bars. Nor do I believe that sending Mr. Chen to prison for five years would be of much benefit to him or to society. Certainly there are other bike thieves out there doing exactly what he is, and with him out of the way, I imagine others would take his place preying on the bike racks at MRT stations.

I do know one thing. It’s not safe to lock up nice bikes at public racks in Taipei. The owner of my local bike shop says the same thing. She tells her customers who want to buy locks for their nice bikes not to even bother. When you’re out on your bike, keep it with you. A lock won’t stop Mr. Chen.