BRUNSWICK — Bicycles are one of the most commonly stolen items in town – a fact that Lee Huston, owner of Center Street Cycles, knows all too well.
Customers frequently come in to complain when their bikes are taken, and over the years Huston has developed a knack for reuniting bikes with their owners.
When he saw a hunched figure in a sweatshirt riding a red Specialized bike down Cushing Street last month, he knew something was out of place – he had sold that bike to a Bowdoin College student who had recently reported it stolen.
But Huston wanted to be sure, so he followed the bike to Hannaford, where the rider parked it outside the store and went inside. Huston quickly flipped the bike over, wrote down the serial number, and called the police.
“I know that this bike was stolen. I know who it belongs to, and I have the paperwork at my house that proves it,” Huston said he told the police.
Then he drove home and dug up the paperwork proving the bike did not belong to its rider.
It wasn’t the first time Huston helped track down a missing bicycle. Often people will bring bikes into the shop that they’ve found on railroad tracks or in the woods, and he’ll remember or determine the owners.
Other times, he’ll peruse the bike rack outside the Municipal Building, where police officers lock up stolen bikes that have been recovered, but not yet returned to their owners. Occasionally he’ll recognize one.
“Everyone has a little streak of altruism,” he said as a way of explaining the time and energy he spends helping recover stolen bikes.
Despite Huston’s efforts, the majority of the bikes the Police Department finds are never identified by their owners.
Of the 33 bikes reported stolen to the Brunswick Police Department in 2011, only five were reunited with their owners; another 44 were recovered but not claimed, according Capt. Mark Waltz.
“For whatever reason, in Brunswick, a lot of the ones reported stolen never get recovered and the ones that are recovered never are reported stolen,” Waltz said. Registering a bike with the Police Department is free, and helps increase the chances that a stolen bike will be returned, he added.
Unidentified bikes gather dust in a dilapidated shed until there isn’t room for anymore. That’s when Waltz calls a New Jersey-based online auctioneer who hauls the bikes away.
But the total number of bikes stolen in Brunswick is likely much higher than 33, because many Bowdoin College students do not report bike thefts to the police.
According to Randy Nichols, director of safety and security at Bowdoin, there were almost 90 bikes stolen from Bowdoin’s campus in 2011. More than 60 were stolen in the fall, when thieves armed with bolt-cutters hit the campus repeatedly. September was the worst month, with 21 bikes stolen, including six in one day.
Bike thefts at Bowdoin have increased since 2009 and 2010, when the security office reported 35 and 58 stolen bikes, respectively.
Nichols suspected the tough economy played a role in increase, but also said more students report bike thefts to campus security now than in the past, which could artificially inflate the total.
About a third of all the bikes stolen from Bowdoin last year were recovered. Nichols said many are unlocked bikes that other students “borrow” and ditch somewhere else on campus.
But the two-thirds that aren’t found are usually taken off campus, Nichols said.
That’s what happened to Bowdoin senior Chelee Ross’ bike in early 2009. She returned from fall break to discover her burgundy Fuji Crosstown was not where she left it. After searching around campus unsuccessfully, she decided to make fliers and paper the downtown area.
“I put it everywhere,” she said, including supermarkets, light posts, and “bars that I wasn’t even allowed to go into.”
Soon after posting the notices, someone saw a teenage boy riding her bike and called the police. Ross recovered her bike, which had a few scratches, and police found many others that the boy had also stolen.
Ross said the experience changed the way she thought about Brunswick – for the better.
“It was really great how people in town were really cooperative and really cared,” she said. “In the ‘Bowdoin bubble’ students don’t tend to get out as much, but when you get out you realize this town is really awesome.”
Not surprisingly, Huston was one of the town residents who advised Ross on how to get her bike back, recommending she create the fliers and report the theft to the police.
“It’s a certain satisfaction in being able to solve something,” he said.
Lee Huston trues a wheel at Center Street Cycles in Brunswick. He has helped to recover several stolen bikes in town.
Recovered, but unclaimed, stolen bikes sit in a shed waiting to be identified. When the shed fills up, the Brunswick Police Department sells them to an online auctioneer.
Bowdoin College student Chelee Ross in a 2009 photo with the bicycle that was later stolen by a Brunswick teenager. The bike was eventually recovered by the Brunswick Police Department and returned to Ross.