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Rescuer of Stolen Bikes Slips into the Shadows

Gord Blackwell became a hero to grieving bicycle owners like me. Why did he quit?

By Christine McLaren 29 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Christine McLaren reports for The Tyee.

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Just another Gotham City statistic.

It was a beauty. A cobalt blue Nishiki bullet; a road jet built for speed and practicality. Sure, its paint was faded and scratched. But that bike was my baby. And in a second it was gone. Ripped from the fencepost of my own backyard.

An hour later, as I scoured the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver's bazaar for stolen cycles, a man standing in a back alley doorway scoffed at my naivety: "A bike? If it's not welded or bolted to the ground, you don't stand a chance in this city."

He wasn't far from the truth. In Vancouver alone over 1700 bikes had been reported stolen in 2008, police would later tell me. That is roughly one for every 340 people, with scores more probably going unreported. Even Toronto, a city over four times the size of Vancouver, reported only one bike stolen for every 540 people.

Sgt. Mike Linde of the Vancouver Police Department's Anti-Fencing Unit cites the obvious reason for high bike thefts: Bikes are plentiful in Vancouver's climate. But so is drug abuse and homelessness, which police point out are the reason for B.C. having the highest rate of property crime in the country .

This is the Gotham City of bike theft, I thought. And here I was at the center of it with no one to help.

The police were merely a formality. Even though 1000 bikes were recovered by the VPD in 2007, over 600 of those were sold off in the annual VPD auction, leaving an abysmal return rate of under 25 per cent. With my beater bike low on their priority list, I was doomed.

"Call Bike Rescue," a friend suggested.

"Bike what?"

"Bikerescue.org."

Was there such a hero out there in Gotham City? If I sent out a plea for help, would anyone respond?

"With any luck, I'll be giving you a call in a few days," said the man's voice on the other end of the line.

I was saved. Or so I thought.

Origins of a bike rescuer

Rumour had it that Gord Blackwell created Bike Rescue in the wake of personal loss. After becoming a victim of bike theft himself and seeing the non-existent response from the police, he decided to take the problem into his own hands.

Bike Rescue, the website claimed, "is all about getting stolen bikes back to their owners, assisting victims of bike theft with replacement bikes," and “moving towards doing more education & awareness of the bike theft problem and prevention tactics."

The formula was simple: stealth the broken city for"“too good to be true" deals, then buy them. Victims of bike theft could report a stolen bike through the website and if Blackwell and his Bike Rescue crew found it, they gave it back free of charge. If no one claimed a bike they had bought, they sold it, walking a fine line through a grey zone of the law, one that states that it is illegal to purchase stolen goods.

The website claimed a "great working relationship with the Vancouver Police Anti-Fencing Unit and the Coquitlam detachment of the RCMP," lending the operation a sense of legitimacy. I made some phone calls, and felt less sanguine.

Coquitlam RCMP had heard of the site, but claimed to have had no working contact.

My pal Sgt. Mike Linde laughed with surprise at the assertion before sternly denying it: "We had no official working relationship. Not at all."

The dark side

The first page of Google yielded news reports and message board claims that Blackwell had fraud convictions in several provinces. One article by CTV in 2008 suggested police were considering charges against Blackwell for the sale of stolen goods.

On one message board, a person identifying himself as Bike Rescue made an appearance explaining that the fraud convictions were for writing a series of bad cheques to major retailers across Canada. "I was charged, pleaded to no contest, found guilty and sentenced. I was 29 years old when that was happening and I now turn 40 next month. I have not only gotten on with my life, but often I have referred to this project as 'doing the penance of my choice.'"

I did some more digging. Some groups I contacted said they simply refused to associate with Blackwell.

The Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition refused to even talk about him.

A local charity, Our Community Bikes (OCB), agreed in a collective meeting not to take donations from him and asked him not to have their name appear on his website, where Blackwell nonetheless claimed to have donated bikes to them.

They said it was for the same reasons they wouldn't take bikes from the police auctions: if you don't support theft, why take stolen merchandise?

"What he's doing contributes in a secondary way to bike thieving," said Johann Groebner of OCB. "It becomes a secondary market. Whether or not some bikes get given back to their owners, it creates a market basically for bike thieves. Even if it's with the right intention, it still creates a market."

Hero worshippers

Still, Blackwell claimed to have returned over 200 bikes, and for every skeptic I encountered, an equally enthusiastic fan cheered Bike Rescue on. Not only that, they proved that there was at least some truth to his claims.

It was barely light out when Justin Tilford's neighbors saw two thieves make off with his and his wife Lisa's recumbent hand bikes from behind two steel doors. A former bike shop owner and avid cyclist now confined to a wheelchair since a biking accident 12 years ago, Justin had shelled out $12,000 for the highly specialized bikes that they used for everything. Just months before they were stolen, Justin and Lisa had spent their honeymoon on a cycling tour of the sunshine coast and the gulf islands.

The couple had appeared on television about their loss, and blogged in the online bike community, but didn't expect anything back. Justin had previously lost two wheelchairs, another handbike and a car to theft, and had never had anything recovered. "We reported it to the police, but due to past experience, I see that as more of a formality than anything. It's not going to really do anything."

So Justin was elated when he received a random phone call at work from Blackwell, saying he had the bikes.

"He introduced himself and said he had our bikes," said Tilson. "He said he'd bring our bikes back, and we could pay him something if we wanted to, but we didn’t have to."

Blackwell said he had called around to find the bikes and paid $700 for them. He said he couldn't get them the first time he tried because the person who had them was in jail for a different crime.

Other photos appeared on the Bike Rescue website, and recently in Mountain Bike Action Magazine, depicting owners happily reunited with their bikes.

"I think it's awesome. The police aren't doing it," said Tilson. "His intent, from when I met him, seems sincere -- to want to make a difference -- and for me he made a huge difference, so I can't slag him at all. I only have praise."

And I couldn't help but feel a twinge of envy, imagining myself in his place.

Vanishing act

But the next day my hopes skidded when I called Blackwell and he dropped the news.

"I decided an hour ago I'm shutting Bike Rescue down. You're the first person I've said it out loud to." He said he couldn't tell me why. "Bike Rescue as it is right now, will no longer exist," is all he would say.

And just like that, he was gone. My eyes nearly welled with tears as I hung up the phone. Whatever ethical or legal critique could made against Blackwell, I was the victim of a crime, and he was someone who might have avenged my loss.

Superhero or villain, Bike Rescue had been doing the job the cops could not -- or would not -- do themselves.

Bait for crooks

Justin Tilson and a friend from Free Geek, a volunteer computer recycling hub and nexus of some of Vancouver's most technologically gifted, discussed a plan involving bait bikes, GPS and a few video cameras.

"It wouldn't be that hard to catch them if the police or someone else wanted to put some resources into it."

Since 2003, the Ministry of Solicitor General, Police Services Division and ICBC have spent over $1 million on the IMPACT anti-auto theft program, and car theft has dropped 47 per cent. But bike theft doesn't cause nearly as much of a dent in insurance companies as auto theft, as most bikes are uninsured.

But other countries have made it a priority. In 2008, the Dutch government launched a $1 million crackdown on bike theft. It included the National Bike Register, which the police are required by law to keep up to date. It can be consulted online and contains data on every new bike sold in Holland, so dealers and consumers can check online to see if the used bikes offered to them are stolen. Every new bike sold in Holland is also equipped with a built-in anti-theft chip, which the whole police force can access through electronic reading devices.

Beijing did a crackdown as well, cutting their bike thefts in half, and Oxford created a special bike theft task force, like a smaller version of B.C.'s auto theft task force.

Vulnerable and alone

Either way, even the hardest skeptics admitted what Blackwell did was better than nothing.

Even Groebner of Our Community Bikes. "If I didn't have those questions, I'd think it was actually a pretty awesome thing he was doing," he said. "The police don't do it, so you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. In the end, maybe people will always steal bicycles, and if he's really returning some of them, maybe that's awesome."

Maybe there is no answer to that ethical dilemma. Gotham City's police never did decide if Batman should be trusted. All I know is that now I sit on the corner of the street watching the wind rip through the flannel sleeves of hipster bikers whistling by, and know that I'll probably never see my blue beauty again.

Last week I came home to find my housemate in tears because her bike had been stolen from the backyard. She asked what she should do. I said I didn't know.

Gord Blackwell, formerly known as Bike Rescue, has disappeared into the shadows of B.C.'s Gotham City, a cyclist's nightmare, and we have no one left to call.

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