The warehouse crew were good guys, but too fond of practical jokes. So when I glanced over at the lot where I’d parked my bike that morning and saw the empty space, I thought, Those meatheads better not have scratched it. But nobody fessed up to moving it, and a search of the warehouse––including that corner way in the back where they held Friday-night short-track races with forklifts –– failed to turn up my bike. That’s when I knew I’d been ripped off.
The numbers vary depending on the source, and they’re not exactly up to date, but motorcycle theft statistics are depressing no matter when they’re from. In 2012, more than 46,000 motorcycles were stolen, and the recovery rate was only about 40 percent. The top-five favorite brands among thieves were, in order, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Harley-Davidson. (Yeah, I thought Harley would be first, too.) California in July topped the nation as the most likely place and time to have your bike stolen.
As it happened, my bike disappeared from the parking lot in July, outside where I worked at a large West Coast motorcycle accessory distributor in California, in 1982. That year’s stats might have pinpointed another time and place as rip-off central, but from where I was standing I was at ground zero, with a two-wheeled hole in my life and no way to get home that afternoon.
So I went to my office, called the cops, filed a report, and then rang all the motorcycle dealers, repair shops, and salvage yards in the area to be on the lookout for a silver Honda CB900F with a repainted Windjammer fairing.
The cops implied the likelihood of getting my bike back was about the same as recovering a stolen kiss. I had pretty much written it off after a week when one day at work the phone rang. It was Larry, who ran a salvage yard. “Remember that Windjammer I sold you last year?” he said. “The one that was on your bike when it got stolen? I just bought it off a guy.”
Larry recognized the fairing as soon as he saw it. He had a poker face that would have made Doc Holliday look like Mr. Bean, and he maintained it while paying the guy $100 and making him sign a receipt and write down his address and phone number. “I knew that shitty paint job right off,” he said.
I ducked out of work and drove over to Larry’s shop. When I got there he was talking to a police detective. Horace Smith was a huge, wide dude who, judging by the way his upper body strained the seams of his jacket, was made out of bricks. He had a weary, seen-it-all look on his face that said, “Is that all you got? Brother, I’ve seen worse. Much worse.”
On his hip was a nickel-plated, short-barreled Colt Python .357, and I never doubted for an instant that he hit whatever he shot at. Horace made Shaft look like Urkel.
When Larry showed him the receipt, he lit up like a kid at Christmas. “Know this guy,” he said. “Dealt with him before.” What now? I said. “Gonna arrest him,” Horace said, then he added, “Wanna ride along?”
I slid into the passenger seat of the big four-door cruiser that didn’t have a single distinguishing mark on it and yet somehow looked exactly like a cop car. Inside it smelled of sweat and desperation. Traffic moved seamlessly out of its way like mackerel making room for a shark as we hit the Bayshore Freeway heading north.
For some reason Horace spent most of the ride trying to sell me on signing up for the California Highway Patrol academy in Sacramento and becoming a motor cop. It seemed imprudent to laugh in the face of such a large guy packing an equally large gun, so instead I said I’d think about it.
We arrived at the guy’s house and Horace told me to stay in the car. He walked up to the front porch, took out his gun and held it beside his leg, and standing to one side of the door reached over and knocked. A young woman answered, and after a short discussion shut the door again.
“Let’s take a ride,” Horace said as he climbed back into the car. We drove slowly around the neighborhood until we passed a young man walking the other way. Horace slammed on the brakes, did a U-turn, and went after him. “He’s not wearing shoes,” he said, “just socks.”
When the doorbell rang the guy had panicked, crawled out a window, jumped the back fence, cut across the neighbor’s yard, and come out on the street on the opposite side of the block while his girlfriend stalled Horace.
When we returned to the house with her man in cuffs in the back seat, she still wouldn’t let Horace in. I watched from the front seat as Horace talked to her for about 15 minutes, giving her the “I can get a search warrant so you might as well open up” speech. Finally she went inside, and a moment later the garage door rose slowly.
Inside was an abattoir of motorcycles. Pieces of bikes — frames, engine cases, wheels, fenders –– were scattered all over the oil-stained floor. In one corner was the frame of my bike, hacksawed into several pieces. Outside, in the walkway beside the garage, was my engine. The VIN had been obliterated with a hammer and chisel, and an excess of enthusiasm had cracked the crankcase.
A pair of riding gloves I kept in the pocket of the Windjammer sat on a workbench. I held them up to Horace. “Do you need these for anything? Evidence?” He shook his head. “We got enough here.” I put them in my pocket. At least I’d have something left from all this.
Insurance eventually paid off the bike, and left me with enough for a down payment on another. After what I’d just been through I got serious about motorcycle theft prevention.
Well, that’s what I’d like to say I did, but I kept on doing all the dumb things that make life easy for bike thieves. I’ve been lucky, but maybe you won’t be. So here’s what you need to do to tip the odds in your favor.
First, realize that if professional thieves want your bike badly enough, they’ll get it. Lock it, alarm it, park it in an underground fallout shelter––doesn’t matter, it’s gone. But most amateur thieves are basically lazy, so the trick is to make your bike look like a harder target than the one parked next to it. Here’s how.
• Use a lock. An unlocked bike is easy to steal, but almost any kind of lock takes time and tools to break, and someone hanging around your bike with a pair of bolt cutters is liable to attract attention. If nothing else a lock is a visual deterrent that shifts the odds in your favor.
• If you have an alarm that beeps loudly or signals you through a remote, answer the alert every time. Every. Damn. Time. Savvy bad guys trip the alarm and hang around to see if anyone responds. If you ignore it, so will the bad guy.
• Two or three prison-trained weightlifters can easily pick up your bike and toss it in a truck or van and be gone in a heartbeat––not even a beeping alarm will stop them. Chain or cable-lock it to something solid like a lamppost, or another motorcycle.
• Park your bike under a light or on a busy street, not down a dark alley where a thief can take his time ruining your day without being seen.
• A lot of bikes are stolen from garages where they’re regularly parked. Sink a steel loop into the cement floor of your garage and secure your bike to it. Park your car so you have to move it to get the bike out.
• If none of these tricks works, and the worst happens, there’s still a chance of recovering your bike. Engrave identifying numbers or letters on the back of side covers, under the seat, and on other parts that are easily removed and put on eBay or Craigslist. There’s a chance one will turn up and lead you to the bastard who ripped you off.
• A shitty rattle-can paint job on a large aftermarket accessory is a long shot, but what the hell, it worked for me.
After Horace called someone out to collect the evidence from the guy’s house, he drove us straight to the county jail to process him. He parked around back under a sign that said “Intake” and said he’d be gone about an hour. He told me to wait in the car, because wandering around a county jail for no apparent reason was a good way to see parts of it you didn’t really want to see.
Oh, and if you’re ever ripped off, and the cop offers to take you along while he busts the perp, do it––it’s pretty satisfying––but make sure you go to the bathroom first. By the time he came back to the car I would have gladly gotten myself thrown in a cell, as long as it had a toilet.
Jerry Smith has been a full-time motojournalist for more than 30 years. You’d think by now he would have found a real job.
Photo credit Honda, Shutterstock