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Sonoma County Bike Watch Facebook group helps recover stolen bikes

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When Tiffany Seder and her four kids went inside their house one recent afternoon for a short break from gardening and outdoor play, they left her son’s new bike in the open garage. It was parked behind two cars in the driveway at their Santa Rosa home near Fulton Road and West College Avenue.

It was about 3:30 p.m. on a Monday. Seder’s son, Will, 9, had saved up his money to help buy the Trek Marlin 5 bike less than two months earlier.

When the family returned outside 15 minutes later, it was gone.

“It’s completely violating,” Seder said. “It was somebody who either knew it was there or somebody watching us.”

They searched their neighborhood, filed a police report and checked pawn shops. And they turned to online resources such as Bike Index — an online bike registration nonprofit — and the Sonoma County Bike Watch Facebook group, where residents can post photos of stolen bikes.

In the bicycling destination of Sonoma County, authorities say bike thefts have become bolder, with bikes snatched in the middle of the day, much like the Seder family. But social media has paved a new path to recovering stolen bikes, touted by authorities and local cyclists as more effective than working solely with police.

The Sonoma County Bike Watch Facebook group was started by arts advocate Spring Maxfield in late 2012 after a sudden rash of bike thefts in the Roseland neighborhood.

“I really think that social media in this respect is really effective,” Maxfield said. “It’s known now as a great resource for bike recovery.”

Instead of tacking up flyers around town, bike theft victims can get immediate updates from 1,500 Facebook group members who serve as their eyes and ears in Sonoma County — a place that attracts cyclists with its good climate and array of biking paths.

“Going on the Sonoma County Bike Watch page, it’s crazy. Bike after bike after bike,” Seder said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Drew Merritt, Birdhouse Cycles owner and Sebastopol Bike Center mechanic, has recovered two stolen bikes with help from the Bike Watch page.

“I think it’s really the only way to get a bike back,” Merritt said.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Marcus Sprague said the city doesn’t have enough personnel to register bikes, and while he is familiar with Bike Index, it’s not used by police.

“We find bikes weekly that we can’t identify,” he said.

An annual average of 166 bikes were reported stolen to Santa Rosa police from 2011 to 2017, but Sprague said the number is “as good as the people who tell us.” From January to April of this year, 43 bikes were reported stolen in Santa Rosa.

“That number is super low,” Bike Peddler store manager Chris Wells said. “I think it could be double that.”

Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition board member Christine Culver said people don’t always report stolen bikes. “And there’s a lot of people who are occasional bikers who don’t miss it right away,” she said.

Police have used GPS-enabled bait bikes to catch thieves for at least five years now, particularly in “trending locations,” Sprague said. There are no city signs that warn of bait bikes, which some towns put up to ward off potential theft.

“We just kind of quietly put (bait bikes) out there,” Sprague said. “The best tool is everyone else — the community watching and calling. That’s the way all of us can reduce bike theft. ... Social media is huge.”

While social media is “hugely effective,” Culver said she would like to see a stronger partnership between police departments and the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition working together on bait bikes.

“We try, but honestly, I think (police) are too swamped. It is frustrating for sure,” said Culver, who has experienced bike theft firsthand.

It was the Facebook watch group that helped Drew Merritt recover a customized Diamondback Clarity 1 Hybrid bike he built for his girlfriend. He spent hours searching for grips, pedals, chains and other accessories in just the right shade of gold for her.

“It was a labor of love,” Merritt said.

The morning of June 20, he got up to go to work and noticed the garage open in their apartment complex near the intersection of Chanate Road and Mendocino Avenue. The gold bike was gone.

He posted photos of the gold bike to the Sonoma County Bike Watch Facebook page. He also posted about it to Instagram and filed a police report.

Within 24 hours, people in the Bike Watch group commented with photos of the gold bike being ridden by a man wearing a baseball cap and a backpack heading east at West College Ave and Stony Point Road. Others wrote messages of support or vowed to keep an eye out.

Using information from the group, Merritt began searching areas of west Santa Rosa from his car, then on his bike. He checked bridges and underpasses. At one point, he saw the man on the gold bike near Highway 101 by the Joe Rodota Trail and called police, but the man slipped away.

Within about 30 hours of his Facebook post, Merritt spotted the man a second time on the trail between Fulton Road and downtown. He called police and his girlfriend’s bike was recovered.

It was the second time the Bike Watch page helped Merritt recover a stolen bike.

“Social media 100 percent worked to my benefit,” Merritt said. “I feel like bike theft is such an epidemic.”

The Bike Peddler in Santa Rosa keeps a database of bikes sold in the last 12 to 15 years. Multiple times a week, customers come to the store seeking their serial number after their bike has been stolen, said store manager Wells. High-end mountain bikes can be worth $4,000 to $8,000, and all bikes sold at the Bike Peddler have a serial number.

“We’re really tight with that because we know bikes get stolen,” Wells said.

Out-of-town police departments have contacted the Bike Peddler when bikes are found with the store’s sticker on them, and cyclists are sometimes reunited with their bikes that way. Many customers tell Wells their bikes — much like Merritt and the Seder family — are stolen out of backyards and garages.

“That’s almost more common than locks being cut,” Wells said.

Tiffany Seder, Will’s mom, is considering purchasing security cameras for her home.

“(Will) was pretty upset about it. He did the right thing — he put it away and yet someone found a way to steal it,” Seder said.

As soon as Will’s bike went missing on June 18, Seder and her other kids helped search for it in the neighborhood and along the Santa Rosa Creek nearby. Their dog didn’t bark or see the bike thief, who likely came in through a side garage door, Seder said.

“I’m afraid to leave our garage door open now, even when we’re home and outside,” she said.

Will is borrowing a neighbor’s bike in the meantime, and Seder says she remains somewhat hopeful — especially after seeing social media wield its power in helping other bike theft victims.

“It’s a heart-wrenching thing to have your bike stolen. That’s why there’s such a visceral reaction with bike theft,” Merritt said. “It’s a personal item that you spend a lot of time with and come to love. I feel it’s a really overlooked thing, how much people love their bikes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707‑521-5216.