The would-be bike theft happened in seconds.
First, a guy in a red jersey with the number 3 on the back showed up to scope out bikes parked in a bike rack outside the NoMa Gallaudet Metro station in northeast D.C. Then he gave a thumbs-up sign to another guy, who was himself riding a bike.
The bike-rider pulled a large set of bolt cutters from a newspaper stand and went in for the steal.
“It’s kind of like a wolf pack mentality," Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald Pavlik, who said the team approach is typical of bike theft in the District. "They have no problem doing it in the open.”
But these thieves picked the wrong bike on this day. They tried to take a "bait bike" belonging to Metro Transit Police. Before the duo could get away with the bike, police chased them down and arrested both men.
The bait bike program started two years ago to combat one of Metro’s biggest crimes: bike theft. Last year, more than 400 bikes were stolen from Metro stations. There were 1,060 bike thefts in the rest of D.C., one of the fastest-growing cities for bicycle riding in the country.
Many of the crimes happened in busy sections including K Street in Georgetown, F Street in Penn Quarter and 14th Street in Columbia Heights -- or around Metro stations.
“It’s something we're challenged with every day," Pavlik said.
Most of the crimes happen late morning to early afternoon, when commuters are at work, as the News4 I-Team saw at the Braddock Road Metro station in Alexandria, Virginia. This time, however, the man worked alone. He spotted the bait bike attached to a railing after getting off Metrorail.
News4 cameras caught him pulling on the bike, checking the wheels and positioning the seat before riding off. Metro police arrested him, charging him with grand larceny.
“It was just sitting there, sir,” the man told the News4 I-Team’s Scott MacFarlane. “It's not my bike, it truly isn't. I made a mistake. I made a mistake."
Metro says high end bikes are usually the target, and they may be broken down for parts. "Is it reused? Resold? That's the bigger question," Pavlik said.
It’s a question the News4 I-Team wanted to know too. So the team borrowed a popular bike from Performance Bicycle to set up at different areas around the D.C. area hit hard by thieves, and added a GPS tracking device which tracked the bike’s every move.
Performance Bicycle's manager, Jonathan Brandenburg, said he often hears about bike thefts from customers. “Usually it's the whole bike. Occasionally, bits and pieces of the bike going," said Brandenburg. “Ultimately, no bike lock is 100 percent.”
It was on 14th Street in Columbia Heights where the News4 I-Team bike first got noticed, around 3 p.m. Two guys checked out the bike, which was locked up in front of a coffee shop. The two pulled up to the rack, left their unlocked bike next to the News4 bike and walked away -- only to return minutes later with bolt cutters.
Bait Bikes Are Stolen as Police, I-Team Watch
It took just a few seconds for one of the guys to bend over and cut the cable lock on the News4 bike before taking off. But this time, the thief was being tracked, with the tracking device on the bike sending minute-by-minute locations to a cell phone.
The I-Team eventually found him three blocks away in front of a convenience store, where he had stopped. But when an I-Team producer approached him, the man didn’t want to talk. He ran away, leaving our bike behind.
It was another team effort at the West Hyattsville Metro station, where the News4 bike attracted two guys on a different day. At this station, 11 bikes have been stolen this year.
One of the guys appeared to be the lookout as the other one used bolt cutters to break the lock on the bike. He quickly stuffed the bolt cutters down in his pants and rode off on the bike.
The News4 I-Team followed both the men -- one of them riding on the handlebars -- about a mile down the road to an apartment complex. And again an investigative producer tried to talk to them.
That’s when the chase kicked into high gear: One man took off on foot, while the other rode down a bike trail along Sligo Creek. The News4 I-Team followed him to a second apartment complex across town and eventually a house in a Hyattsville neighborhood.
The man living at the house told us he did see a guy come by on a bike, but he didn’t know him. However, the GPS signal showed the bike was still in the area.
After about fifteen minutes, the man finally admitted he had bought the bike from the crook for $50, but didn’t know it was stolen.
He pulled the News4 I-Team bike out from the back of a van in his front yard and returned it, an hour and a half after it had been swiped. The guys who stole it got away.
MORE INFO: Wondering how common bike thefts are across the nation? The FBI says 194,549 bikes were stolen in 2012, the last year for which data is available. Click here to see that in context of other crimes.