A San Francisco Bicycle Thief Gets App-Rehended

Suzy Safdie knew the risks that bicyclists take in San Francisco, one of America’s most bike-friendly cities—and one of the friendliest cities to bike thieves. Almost 5,000 cyclists were victimized in 2012, up 70 percent since 2006. That’s one stolen bike for every 15 daily riders, according to Harvey Rose, the city’s budget and legislative analyst.

Safdie had two mountain bikes swiped from her own garage in the city’s Richmond District and never saw them again. Her third heist had a different ending, thanks to another consumer product that distinguishes Northern California. On a drought-dry December day, she and her nephew pedaled down Market Street to visit her daughter in the financial district. They bundled their bikes in the freight elevator to the fourth floor and left them unlocked in the hallway of the 1904 Beaux-Arts building, just outside the frosted-glass door of her daughter’s office.

“We figured we’d be there for one minute,” says Safdie, who works for a lighting-design firm. Thirty seconds later they heard a door slam. Safdie’s new bike, a $1,200 Cannondale Synapse with a lightweight carbon frame, was gone. ”I said, ‘No way. That’s impossible.’” she recalls.

The security guard in the lobby was wondering why a man had just come from the stairwell with a bike on his shoulder, instead of using the freight elevator. The guard described the suspect, who had vanished into the crowd on Market Street. Safdie gave chase but didn’t see him. She found a cop on a corner, who put out a radio description of the light-blue bike and the man in his 50s who’d apparently taken it. At that point, Safdie realized she was missing something else.

She had left her iPhone in the tool pouch under the bike seat. Her daughter’s friend quickly entered Safdie’s iCloud password into the “Find My iPhone” app on his own iPhone. A map of the neighborhood popped up with a line tracing the suspect’s movements. The thief appeared to be holed up at a taqueria in the nearby Tenderloin District, an area infamous for drugs and crime but beginning to gentrify with the arrival of Twitter’s world headquarters.

The corner cop called in backups. At least 10 officers converged at the Taqueria Castillo building at the corner of McAllister and Leavenworth streets, four blocks from Twitter. They took up positions on each floor of the four-story apartment building and pinged the alarm on Safdie’s phone through the “Find My iPhone” app.

The screeching beeps from behind a closed door on the fourth floor were loud and unmistakable. The officers knocked, the door swung open, and there “in plain view” was the squawking bike, says San Francisco Police Department spokesman Gordon Shyy, reading from the police report.

Three occupants were detained, and after witnesses and surveillance video were used to identify the suspect, two were released. From heist to recovery took less than 45 minutes, Safdie says.

The thief, identified by police spokesman Shyy as Jeffrey Atkins, 52, of Daly City, Calif., pleaded guilty in January to misdemeanor theft for stealing Safdie’s bike and is still in custody because of no-bail warrants on other charges, according to his lawyer, Prithika Balakrishnan, of the San Francisco public defender’s office. Balakrishnan declined to allow Atkins to answer questions for this article because of the other criminal charges he is facing.

“They let him off on my charge with a misdemeanor, which I find ridiculous,” Safdie says. “If they don’t do anything more serious, it’s just going to keep happening.”

Riding home that day, Safdie’s nephew got a flat.