How one New Yorker Beat the Bike Theft Odds

Return Stolen Bike NYC
Some of the plot twists might have been comical, if they hadn't involved larceny.

It was a frigid day in February 2015, during the “snowmagedon” that New Yorkers remember well, when Julie Hirschfeld of Brooklyn descended her front stoop and noticed the theft.

Her family’s four bicycles had been locked to one another in the small, gated front garden of the townhouse she occupies with her husband and young sons. Two bikes were gone, the links of the heavy chains broken.

It appeared another case of a New Yorker falling victim to an all too common crime. Two bikes gone to who knows where, never to be seen again by their owner.

But Hirschfeld, who operated the bike shop Adeline Adeline in Tribeca from 2010 to 1014, beat the odds. Her success hinges partly on luck and partly on doggedness, with plot twists along the way that would be comical had they not involved larceny. The story is also instructive in how to recover a stolen bike, in case this happens to you.

Admittedly, the distinctiveness of Hirschfeld’s bikes worked in her favor. One is a Scottish-made upright by Paper Bicycles (photo above), the other a hefty Dutch WorkCycles Bakfiets cargo bike with a wooden front box that can accommodate two children. Both originated from Hirschfeld’s shop, which had specialized in European-style utility bicycles and accessories for everyday biking.

The same factors that made the bikes appealing targets also contributed to their recovery and to the class of crime. Values of $1,000 and $3,000 respectively, initially placed the offense into the realm of grand larceny.

The Police Report

“He wanted the Bakfiets, but he was able to get the Paper bike first,” Hirschfeld recalls. The thief apparently returned after a few hours with heavier tools to liberate the cargo bike. Hirschfeld called 911 and then filed a police report at her local precinct. In addition to recording the crime, the report describes the stolen property and establishes proof of ownership, ideally in the form of the serial number stamped on the bike.

For more tips on increasing the odds of recovering your bike if it is stolen, read this post

Hirschfeld had plenty of photos of the cargo bike; she had snapped dozens with her children seated in the front cargo box. But she had not recorded the serial number of the Paper Bicycle as she would have for her customers, so they could retrieve this information in case their property was stolen.

Proof of ownership came from an unlikely source: New York City photographer Sam Polcer. The lenser had included a portrait of Hirschfeld, posed with her Paper Bicycle, in his book, New York Bike Style.

NYC Bike Style

The Craig’s List Clue

For months after Hirschfeld filed the police report, nothing happened. “I had given up on getting my bikes back,” she says.

Then finally, a break. Hirschfeld had kept a Google Alert active for Adeline Adeline, and one August day a link to a Craig’s List post popped up in her email. It offered for sale an Adeline Adeline “cruiser” bike. It was accompanied by a photo in which some alterations Hirschfeld had made to the kickstand and seatpost were visible.

“I only sold eight of that model,” Hirschfeld says. “I was confident that it was my bike.”

Hirschfeld sent the link to the police and arranged to meet a detective at a shop in Bushwick, one that sold not bicycles, but vintage motor scooters. Hirschfeld’s was the only bicycle there. She speculates that the shop owner bought it because its style fit in with his mostly European inventory.

“[The detective] told the owner ‘this is stolen property,’ “ Hirschfeld says. “And he told me to take my bike.”

Aside from a little dust from storage in the shop’s basement, Hirschfeld found the bike to be in excellent condition. One recovered. Would the Bakfiets eventually surface, as well?

‘This Guy Really Likes Your Bike’

Hirschfeld and the detective were standing outside the motor scooter shop when a woman approached from inside to tell them that the man who had sold the bicycle had been captured on the store’s video surveillance: He had been riding a cargo bike. Police were able to identify the man and learned that he had been arrested on an unrelated petty larceny charge. Hirschfeld’s Bakfiets had been impounded by the police.

“This guy really likes your bike,” the detective observed. Thus the Bakfiets became the lure to catch the thief. The suspect showed up at the impound within 30 minutes of receiving the call that “his bike was ready,” and was arrested for theft of Hirschfeld’s bike.

A few days before she appeared before a grand jury in connection with her case, I remarked to Hirschfeld on how lengthy (months!) and burdensome this process had become. “At the end of the day, you just want your bikes back,” Hirschfeld replied. But it was more than that. She said she wanted to go the distance personally to fight the bike theft that is so rampant in New York City and that had affected some of her shop customers.

One Final Hurdle 

After the thief’s arrest, Hirschfeld was told that she could claim her cargo bike. But there was one more catch. The Bakfiets had been registered at the impound in the thief’s name. It took two additional months for Hirschfeld to clean up the paperwork in order to take her bike home.

And so, the next message I received –  in late October — was a texted image of Hirschfeld standing outside the impound with her cargo bike.

cargo bike return

“The really sad part,” she says, “is that he trashed the bike.

“He took off the generator lights and the bench that the kids sat on. The front steering was messed up. I don’t even know how I got it home.”

But the ending is ultimately happy. Hirschfeld donated the bike to a friend, who will repair it and use it for his family and his restaurant and catering business. In the meanwhile, she is pedaling around town again on her Paper Bicycle.

The thief went to jail.


Here are some takeaways from Hirschfeld’s experience:

How to Help Get Your Bike Back:

  1. Write down your serial number, especially if you own a common brand of bicycle.
  2. But any evidence can be helpful. Take pictures of distinctive features and of yourself with the bike.
  3. Buy the highest-grade, strongest lock you can afford. The fact is that nothing can prevent a motivated thief with power tools from stealing your bike, but heavy locks can serve as a deterrent or may slow a thief down enough to get noticed.
  4. If your bike is stolen, file a police report immediately.
  5. “Don’t buy shady bikes,” Hirschfeld says. “You’re supporting bike theft when you do.”
  6. Be persistent in seeking return of your bike. As in Hirschfeld’s case, it may pay off.

Lead photo by Sam Polcer from his book, New York Bike Style

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11 Comments

  • Susi, great story, with a good ending! However, you have unaccountably omitted the option of getting your bike registered with the local police precinct. The National Night Out Against Crime is coming up on 2 August, so the local precincts will be out in the community and likely bringing their engravers and stickers with them; check community websites for location details.

    The cops put your name and address in their book, along with the number they scratch on the bike; they also give you a nice eye-grabbing sticker for the bike so thieves will know it’s registered. Then if there’s ever a question about whether the bike is yours, you can have the cops check the number in their records.

    Since it’s Tuesday, I will offer you a bonus tip; rub a contrasting crayon over the engraved serial number before photographing. Wipe away excess crayon and the serial number will be several times more readable (and photographable).

    • Hi Jonathan, thanks for reading, and also for sharing that excellent tip about making the serial number more decipherable. In the post, I linked to a previous post that details steps to take to increase the odds of recovering a stolen bike, including a list of registries. http://velojoy.com/2015/08/22/recovering-a-stolen-bike/
      I’ve updated the post to call more attention to that (Thank you!) and I’ve also added your tip to the post above.
      I really appreciate your taking the time to comment and share information.

  • Awesome story. I just bought a Cannondale Hybrid and I registered it right after reading this. I took pics of the bike and posted on FB and saved to my iPhone. Very common crime in nyc.

    • Patrick, that sounds excellent! (Congrats on your new bike.) Great idea to post the photos on FB, as well. Thanks for reading.

  • Susi…that’s great news…in jail even!! That’s another good reason to get an expensive bike~. I had a bike stolen yrs ago, and got it back (within hours) because I had it registered and with a bike registration label on the seat tube…Still have it!

    • David, I’m so sorry to hear that! Bike theft is such a disheartening (and angering) dimension of city living, isn’t it? Any chance you were able to recover the bike?

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