Junior Pulou could be called an entrepreneur, although the 33-year-old San Francisco native refers to himself as a hustler with an “honest gimmick.”
Most days, Pulou is camped underneath the elevated freeway on 13th Street in The City. This is his workshop.
Huddled against the concrete wall, tools in hands, he and five others are busy on a recent evening breaking down a motley collection of bicycles. It's been a big day: Around the corner, stashed under an alcove, are 12 or so bicycle frames stripped of seat posts, handlebars and wheels, hung on the racks of a set of metal shelves. A lower shelf contains a collection of bicycle wheels, front and rear, some with tires, others naked.
This is one of The City's mobile chop shops, a makeshift emporium for stolen bicycles.
The shelves contain Pulou's inventory, which Officer Matt Friedman, the Police Department's point man on bicycle theft, finds himself pondering a few hours before dusk.
Pulou insists he owns everything here — the frames, wheels and six or so bicycles in various stages of disassembly — and that it was all purchased, given to him or found.
Few would believe him, including Friedman. The officer arrested Pulou a few months ago for having in his possession a large yellow pedicab reported stolen out of an Embarcadero warehouse.
But that prior offense doesn't matter this evening.
After a search for drugs, Pulou is not arrested.
“Get your stuff cleaned up and get out of here,” Friedman said.
Pulou makes a show of peeling himself off the on-ramp wall and walking over to the rack, where he shuffles around until the cops leave empty-handed.
No arrests were made because none of the bicycles had serial numbers that matched ones that had been reported stolen, and none of Pulou's cohorts — almost all felons on probation — had any contraband on them, save for a small pouch of marijuana that Friedman instructed a young man to dump out on the street.
One bike did have a scratched-off serial number, which is a misdemeanor since the bike is worth less than $950. But because nothing is of high value, it's not worth the trouble to try to prosecute the minor offense.
Pulou and crew go back to work.
This is a regular routine — run “four to five times a day,” said Ismael Bacca, 54, one of Pulou's workers. It's repeated throughout The City on a daily basis. And it's certain to continue.
CHOP SHOP CITY
Mobile chop shops. Homeless bicycle junkyards.
Most San Francisco residents on two wheels can recognize one. And some, fresh from finding a broken lock or an empty rack where they left their beloved bikes, have pledged to march down to the nearest chop shop, blunt object in hand and retribution in mind.
“We get calls on these all the time — 'That's a chop shop. Those are all stolen bikes. I want those people arrested,'” said Friedman, now at the wheel of a police cruiser creeping down Division Street, he and his partner looking for the next chop shop.
Evidence of this activity is everywhere. Legitimate bicycle shop mechanics tell stories of eager, honest citizens gleefully marching in with “new” bikes, bought on Craigslist or at flea markets for a song. One look at the machines reveal something amiss: the wheels don't match, the headset is wrong, the brakes are a mess.
It's a Frankenbike, cobbled together from random parts found at places like Pulou's operation, reassembled and then flipped for a quick profit.
Chop shops sprout up wherever there's cover: underneath a stretch of freeway or even on a Financial District street corner in broad daylight. They can look like anything. A suspicious tarp, for example, which Friedman spots tucked in between a freeway pillar and a cyclone fence on San Bruno Avenue.
Underneath the tarp is a tent. Inside are a man and a woman, who stumble out on command. A trailer in their possession looks relatively new. Worth $300 to $400, it's easily the couple's most valuable item.
“Where'd you get it?” Friedman asked. The man said he bought it. And the bike, an old beach cruiser? Given to him on Folsom Street, the man said.
It's the same deal: No serial number matching a stolen bike, no crime. Friedman thanks the couple for their time, and they climb back into their shelter.
Friedman continues on, in search of a crime he can prove.
NEW TOOLS NEEDED
Chop shops appear to be proliferating in San Francisco at the same time bicycle use is on the rise.
It's a simple hypothesis with a simple formula: A younger, richer populace is spending more money on bicycles. More bicycles on the road means more bicycles are being stolen.
A report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office found that from 2006 to 2012, the number of bicycle thefts increased 70 percent, with 817 reported thefts in 2012.
It's not that police aren't taking this issue seriously or are ignoring demands for service. Friedman — who, as the Police Department's point man on bike theft, is of late perhaps The City's most-famous cop, with The New York Times covering his work — has employed new strategies in the war on bike thieves, like GPS-rigged bait bikes.
But the chop shops have proved tough to break up.
Yes, a stack of 50 bicycle wheels loaded onto a shopping cart and pushed around Civic Center is suspicious. But what can police do? Wheels have no serial numbers, and if the stripped-bare bicycle frame nearby isn't reported stolen, there is no crime.
“I need victims,” Friedman said, simply.
And without them, the chop shops will go on. In Pulou's case, each wheel means an easy $25. A full bike nets him maybe five times that.
“I know I buy stolen bikes,” he said, waiting under the alcove with his rack until Friedman departs. “I don't care.”
Keep your bike out of (chop) shop
Lock and secure bike whether on the street or in a garage.
Report theft via telephone. Ask for a police officer to come take the report in person.
Photograph your bike and be able to describe it to police.