The Bicycle Detective
When I got up on Saturday morning, I noticed that my bicycle was missing from its place against the wall of the garage where I always parked it. I went outside and looked around -- as if the bike could have moved by itself to a different place -- and then I called the police to notify them of the theft. The officer asked for a few details and then asked me if I would be at home for a while, and I replied yes, so he said a bicycle detective would soon arrive.
Detective Rousseau arrived some thirty minutes later, riding a beat-up three-speed bike. He asked me to point out where the bike had been parked, and he asked me if I had disturbed the scene of the crime, questions the other officer had already asked. I was rather startled at hearing his name because he had gained a name for himself locally by his brilliant detective work on murder cases, so I asked him -- after first answering his questions -- why he was investigating a mere bicycle theft. He replied that homicides don't happen every day in our city, so he had some extra time to spend on lesser crimes, which kept his mind alert. He said he especially liked cases involving bicycle theft because he liked bicycles, because such crime often involved juveniles, who if not caught could go on to greater crime, and because, unlike homicide cases, there was often a happy resolution.
We next went to the eaves under the garage where the bike had been parked. I commented to Detective Rousseau that there was not any evidence to examine. The detective contradicted me and conducted a careful examination of the bare soil, including making various measurements. He then stated, "Please inform me if I make any mistakes. You ride your bike regularly in the mornings. You parked it exactly here yesterday morning, as you always do, without locking it. The bike is an old touring bike with barend shifters -- I would say a Nishiki Cresta manufactured between 1985 and 1988 -- and has not received any maintenance anytime recently. It is equipped with a water bottle and probably chrome fenders, and it was stolen this morning, not last night. Could you tell me the color of the bike and whether the fenders were chrome or painted? Also -- and this is extremely important -- was there an air pump on the bike?"
I was too astonished to answer immediately. Finally, I said, "No, you didn't make any mistakes. The bike was gray with red highlights, the fenders were chrome, and I use a floor pump which is inside the garage." He then asked, pointing on down the road, "How far is the nearest gas station in that direction?" I said, "There's not one for several miles." "All that being true plus some other observations that I have made," he replied, "tells me I will probably be able to return your bike within an hour or so, if you will be home then." "I will wait here until I hear from you," I replied, "but could you please tell me how you know so much?" "All that when the case is solved," he replied, "but right now, time is important." He then left on his bike, going back the way that he had come.
A little over an hour later, I received a phone call from Detective Rousseau, asking me if it would be all right to bring the thief and his parents, along with my bike, to the house. I willing agreed and asked him how he solved the case. "All that in due time," he replied.
Soon I saw the detective on his bike and a boy on my bike riding down the street towards the house. Behind them was a slowly moving, rather old car containing what I assumed were the two parents.
When we were all inside, the detective explained to me in front of the others that Tyler had been noticing my bike beside the garage every morning and every evening on his way to and from school. From the neglected condition of the bike, its being left outside and evidently never used, and due to Tyler's having just lost his own bike, he had jumped to the assumption that it would be a charitable deed to give the bike a home where it was cared for, used, and loved. Tyler had no way of knowing that I was riding the bike each day while he was in school. Inasmuch as my bike was not worth more than $50, and thus the theft was a simple misdemeanor, the worst punishment -- since the boy had never been in trouble before -- would be probation. Rousseau also pointed out that the judges did not wish to be bothered with such minor matters, and it could be some months before such a case would be heard. He then asserted that 1) the boy needed some form of punishment, and 2) that I deserved some form of restitution. He then stated, "I have discovered that Tyler here took very good care of his own bicycle until its recent accident. Would you be willing for Tyler to overhaul your bike, his parents guaranteeing the results?" I was flabbergasted, but I agreed. "Would you also be willing to let Tyler clean up your yard when he has finished with the bike, giving you a total of at least five Saturday afternoons of labor on the bike and the yard?" Again, I was flabbergasted, but again I agreed. "Do you have any other requests?" I said no. He then continued, "I think I can find an abandoned bicycle at the police department to replace Tyler's broken bike, but I don't want to reward Tyler for a crime; therefore, would you be willing to inform me when Tyler has completed his work with you, so I can give him the bike then?" I agreed again. "And finally," he said, "-- and this is the hardest -- would you be willing to make a few weekend rides with Tyler after he gets his bike. The boy needs a little adult guidance, and his father is not a cyclist." I agreed again, very warmly. "So," he said, "if this resolution is acceptable to Tyler and his family, then I propose that we otherwise shelve the matter, except that I will make a report of all that has happened to headquarters, in case any problems should arise out of this or in case Tyler gets himself into further difficulties." Tyler and his parents were very happy with this resolution, and the father squeezed my hand as he shook it. It looked like a win-win solution for everyone.
After Tyler and his parents left, I had a flood of questions for the detective, but Rousseau waved for me to stop, and said, "Let me just tell you what I observed from the beginning."
"First, I could tell that you had made frequent trips on your bike because there were many minor black marks from the brake hoods and shifters on the wall. The same information plus the distance between the tire marks identified the bike as a long-wheelbased touring bike from the mid-80's. Since the only fairly inexpensive touring bike with that long of a wheelbase was the Nishiki Cresta, I assumed that that was your bike (an expensive bike would have been kept within the garage). Drip marks from the water bottle indicated to me that you had returned before noon, as the water had expanded out of the bottle in the noon heat. Last night was rather foggy, and this caused other drip marks from your garage's tin roof which were on top of your marks coming in, but were overridden by the marks of the thief going out, indicating that the crime had occurred this morning. Some very faint drip marks near where the tires would have been indicated fenders, probably chrome. Finally, some signs of grease and oil on the ground indicated that the bike was dirty and had not received regular maintenance."
"The marks going out gave me further information. I could see that the footprints were a boy's size and that the shoes were a cheap imitation sports shoe, thus telling me that the thief was a boy from a family without a lot of cash. There was an unmistakable cut mark on the sole of the left shoe. Your bike did not have a flat tire in the evening, although the tires are well worn, because the incoming wheel tracks were equal in size. However, the outgoing rear wheel track was much wider and shallower than the front, indicating that the tire had gone flat overnight."
"Inasmuch as the bike could not be ridden with the flat tire, I assumed the thief would head towards a gas station, the nearest being the Mom and Pop store I had passed before arriving, just two blocks up, not far from the school. Such stores sell lots of candy and other junk to kids, and they have to be careful not to step on the parents' toes, and thus they tend to know all the local kids and where they live."
"The owner of the shop informed me that one of the local boys had stopped to patch a bike tire, borrowing his tools and a patch, a favor the shop owner does for the boys. Of course, the owner knew his name and where he lived, and as soon as my purpose was clear to him, he was happy to help me, provided that we never let the boy know who revealed his name. I expect you to keep this information confidential."
"A short trip took me to the home of his parents. Tyler's father is very ill and probably will not live until Tyler reaches adulthood. His mother has become the provider for the family, but she earns only a small salary, working at the school. Nonetheless, the house is nice, and their home and property are as neat as a pin. They informed me that Tyler had never been in trouble, a matter I confirmed with calls to police headquarters and to Tyler's principal. They also refused to believe that Tyler would steal anything, until we went out to the garage, where Tyler was cleaning up the bike."
"Tyler at first maintained that he had found the bike, and that someone else must have stolen it, until I asked him if there wasn't a cut mark on the sole of his left shoe, and I pointed out that I had found such marks at your garage. He then explained that he felt the bicycle had been abandoned, even if it was still on your property. He said that he stopped to ask you about the bike several times on his way home from school (not realizing that you have an afternoon job), and he had finally concluded that no one was living in the house. Tyler's parents were ready to punish him right then for taking the bike, but I insisted that we first make restitution with you and get the legal issue resolved. I'm not sure what additional punishments they will give him, as I make it a point to not interfere in such matters."
"In expecting Tyler to work around your place, I admit that I had multiple motives. Your lack of care for your bike and your property may indicate that you are lonely, or it may just indicate the lack of such skills. Tyler, on the other hand, has a definite need for some male companionship and guidance, which his father unfortunately cannot supply. Even though he is not yet 13, Tyler shows excellent mechanical skills and a good work ethic. He had taken excellent care of his rather inexpensive bike, and he keeps up the family yard. I hope the two of you will become friends, as such a result will be beneficial, I think, for both of you. I'm sure his parents will eventually ask you to dinner, and you should treat it as a great honor. They are fine people who have become poor through an unavoidable misfortune. Never indicate to them that they are poor, and never give Tyler any money; however, it would be proper to pay him to work for you, at some future time, if you get his parents' permission first."
"By the way," he concluded, "You should keep your bike in the garage, or at least locked up, to avoid creating such temptations."
I was rather speechless and had a lot to think about. I certainly now understood why he considered his bicycle detective work important. Nonetheless, I did ask him a further question, "Weren't you rather luckly that I had parked the bike in a dusty area that could furnish so many clues? If the bike had been parked on the grass instead, would you have been able to solve the crime?
Detective Rousseau responded, "I could have found out half the information I needed just by asking you, and I could have discovered the rest by asking at the store, which I would have done in any event, as most bike thefts are committed by school kids, and your house is on a street that the kids use to walk to and from school. Of course, the lucky break was the flat tire, as otherwise Tyler would have ridden the bike straight home. In that event, we would have had to have made inquiries around the neighborhood until Tyler's mother figured out where Tyler's new bike had come from and notified us. But as soon as I noticed that the rear tire was flat, I recognized that I could solve the case very quickly, a conclusion that was better both for you and for Tyler.
"Of course, every now and then, adults thieves get the idea of riding around town and picking up bikes and selling them out of town. If that had happened to you, I would have known about it because there would have been many additional complaints this morning. However, the chances of recovering the bike would have been much less. Usually, even when the thieves are caught, it is impossible to return the bikes to their rightful owners because the crooks are not going to confess and may not even remember in which town they stole them."
And then the detective left. I have not seen him again, but I did phone him when Tyler finished his work, and Tyler and I have since gone for several bike rides together, Tyler very much appreciating his "new" bike. I don't think the detective was exactly right about my being lonely or lacking mechanical skills, but I have learned a few things from Tyler, as he has learned a few from me, and I think our trips together have not been a waste of time. I am thinking about hiring Tyler to help me whenever I have yard work to do.