Spokane police planted an expensive mountain bike to catch thieves Wednesday outside the Safeway grocery store at Mission Avenue and Hamilton Street, an area rife with property crime in recent weeks.
Three people – Jonathan Trefz, Victoria Langlois and Ericka Garber – were arrested while allegedly trying to steal the unlocked bait bike, a Specialized Epic valued at $1,900. They appeared in court and remained in jail Thursday on charges of second-degree theft, a felony.
Cpl. Ron Van Tassel, who took part in the sting along with several unpaid reserve officers, said police conducted a similar operation last summer, which resulted in the arrest of one person outside the Safeway store at Ash Street and Northwest Boulevard.
This time, Van Tassel said, officers asked to borrow a more expensive bike from local retailer Wheel Sport, which has several shops in the Spokane area.
“We did that just to make it more appealing,” Van Tassel said.
What’s more, the higher the value of stolen property, the more severe the penalties under Washington law. Stealing property worth less than $750 would result in a charge of third-degree theft, a gross misdemeanor.
“Anything over $750 is a felony,” Van Tassel said.
Officers leaned the bait bike against the building and then surveilled it from parked cars Wednesday, waiting for people to pass by and attempt to steal it. Van Tassel said officers also took note of people who did not try to take the bike but prowled the parking lot, peeking into cars.
Trefz, 34, parked his own bike before stealing the more valuable bait bike and riding away, according to court records. He made it about 50 feet before officers caught up to him.
“The defendant admitted this bike was nicer than his and he wanted it,” the records state. “The defendant placed blame on the owner of the bike stating that it was our fault for not locking it up.”
Trefz has previously been convicted of trespassing and drug possession. In December, he was sentenced to five months in jail after pleading guilty to criminal mischief.
Later Wednesday, officers watched Langlois sitting on her own bike next to the bait bike. She called on Garber, an acquaintance, to walk over to the spot, and officers heard them talking about stealing the bait bike, according to court records.
Garber, 35, grabbed the bait bike, began walking into the parking lot and was arrested, according to court records. Officers reported she started yelling, “She told me to take it,” and, “I don’t want the bike anymore.”
Langlois, 25, also was arrested for being complicit in the theft, according to court records. When questioned, she claimed she had thought the bike belonged to her friend who was inside the store, according to court records. She told officers her friend was a prolific thief, and that she was getting the bike ready for him in case he were chased out of the store and needed to get away fast, according to court records.
Langlois received an additional charge when officers discovered a pipe with methamphetamine residue in her purse, according to court records. Van Tassel said both women had been wanted on unrelated warrants.
He said the Logan neighborhood has been a frequent source of 911 calls, with numerous reports of thefts, assaults, burglaries and drug activity in recent weeks.
“That Safeway calls us constantly for shoplifting and people running away from there,” he said.
Van Tassel also noted that The Mascot Pizza shop, a few blocks south on Hamilton Street, was burglarized twice in July. A 24-year-old man was arrested after he was allegedly caught on surveillance footage inside the restaurant. The owner told KHQ that money was stolen and the place was “ransacked.”
Earlier this month, the Chicago and Norfolk Southern Railway police departments were criticized for using a “bait truck” loaded with Nike shoes to lure thieves in a predominantly black neighborhood, a tactic that some city leaders called a waste of police resources at a time when investigators struggle to solve numerous shooting deaths. Some also called the operation a form of entrapment that would erode trust between the police and the community.
Van Tassel, though, said he doesn’t believe the bike sting was a form of entrapment. It’s a way to proactively arrest people who would steal bikes anyway, he said.
“These people would do this whether it’s our bike or someone else’s bike,” he said. “These people are opportunists. They’re going to take anything that’s not bolted down.”
Van Tassel said the property crime problem in Spokane is “off the hook.” He said many bike thieves chop, paint and dismantle bikes shortly after stealing them, before reassembling them with other parts so that they’re unrecognizable. They’re often sold or traded for drugs, he said.
Van Tassel urges owners to lock their bikes and document their serial numbers in case a bike is stolen.
In many cases, he said, “without a serial number, we can’t do anything.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, to correct the date the alleged thieves were arrested and the date they appeared in court.