The innocent idyll of riding a bicycle has been stolen from countless children this year by robbers and thieves.
Bikes have been snatched from yards, garages, porches and sheds -- and in some cases, from under their young riders -- as two-wheelers have grown in popularity as targets for crime.
"When I was growing up, people would try to take something from somebody, but not the way they do now," said Darlene Grant, whose 10-year-old son, Keith Silas, was knocked down and robbed of his bike in June by a thug in his late teens.
The robbery took place in the alley between their home and Baltimore's Western District police station.
"I've known of things worse than that happening right in front of a police station," said Grant, 36. "I'm just shocked that someone that age should pick on a little boy."
Robberies from children were not limited to the city.
Tim Peach, 14, was robbed in June of a borrowed bike on Pleasant Plains Road in the Towson area. Tim said an assailant in his late teens threatened him and pushed him off the bike as he waited for a friend.
"It was a week old. My friend had just gotten it as a [birthday] present," said Tim of Parkville. "I felt bad and also felt helpless. I had no choice; the guy was huge."
Tim's mother said she was outraged that he was robbed and that the crime occurred in front of a 7-Eleven store, where there is the perception that someone is always around.
"It makes you wonder if anyone saw that and just didn't want to get involved," she said.
She said her son used to feel at ease going anywhere. "Now, I don't think he feels so safe doing those things," she said. "It made him face a situation that I don't think any kid should have to face."
The mother of the boy who owned the bike, who asked not to identified, said times have changed since she grew up in the nearby Loch Raven Village neighborhood. By her count, five children within a three-block radius of her home on Myamby Road have had 10 bicycles stolen in the past 18 months.
"I grew up here, and we never had to lock our front doors. We had lots of kids and lots of bikes, and I can't ever remember a bike ever getting stolen," she said.
Trend in thefts
Though area police departments do not have precise statistics on bike crimes, they seemed to have been occurring with greater frequency all summer.
"For some reason, it was on the increase this year," said Sgt. Frank Wagner of the major crimes unit at Baltimore's Northeastern District. "Maybe it's the fashionable crime, the big thing this year. Maybe it'll be something else next year."
Though more bikes are being stolen, robberies such as those experienced by Keith and Tim account for only a small portion of the half-million bikes stolen each year, according to Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute.
Many thefts likely are prompted by the ever-fancier styles and types of bicycles, and a corresponding rise in prices. According to Worters, bicycles reported stolen in homeowners' insurance claims range in value from $300 to as much as $5,000.
Recovered bicycles often go unclaimed because owners don't keep track of the serial numbers. Seventy unclaimed bikes were sold at auction this month by the Baltimore County police.
"We had a whole room full of bikes that we recovered," said Towson Precinct Lt. Richard Bolgiano. "People don't copy down their serial numbers, so we can't give them back to them."
Kent Proctor, an employee at Princeton Sports & Travel bike shop said the store gets frequent inquiries from customers needing serial numbers because of thefts. Proctor said that most of the bikes sold at Princeton Sports cost $300 to $400.
To combat the problem of identification, the county police held the first in a series of "clinics" several weeks ago for people to engrave information on their bicycles.
Bolgiano said that 67 people showed up to have bikes engraved with name, address, telephone and drivers' license numbers.
Wagner and Detective Ed Vogt at the city's Northeastern District said robberies often seem to stem from bullying or a gang mentality, in which one person can influence others to do things they wouldn't do on their own.
"It's the old strength and numbers adage," Wagner said. "It's sad because when you take these guys apart, you find out their individual stories and find that they're decent kids."
Bicycle robbers and thieves "feel invincible," Wagner said, noting that they often get away -- as in the cases of Tim and Keith -- and even when they are caught, they may end up with a free ride because victims often don't feel it's worth the time to participate in prosecution.
"A lot of times, the victims won't cooperate because the insurance company pays off quickly, so why should they show up?" Wagner said.
Effects on children
Some children whose bikes are stolen seem to bounce right back, particularly if they get a better bike.
Bikes came in bunches to 12-year-old Gerard Novak of South Baltimore after he was robbed June 16 as he prepared to lock his bike in the 1600 block of Marshall St. One bike came from a cousin, and several from an uncle who repairs bikes as a hobby.
"It was a cheap bike anyway," Novak said of the stolen model that his parents had bought for $100.
For others, bike theft causes bitterness.
After getting punched in the face by a robber in July, a 13-year-old South Baltimore boy became more aggressive and turned to thievery himself.
"He said, 'That boy got my bike and didn't get caught,' " the boy's mother said of his explanations for stealing.
As for Keith, he ended up with his same bike. A neighborhood boy who knew the thief returned the bike -- but only after charging a $10 finder's fee.
Pub Date: 10/06/97