Recovered! Bike community helps reunite cafe owner and mom with stolen cargo cycle
5:22 PM CDT on May 5, 2020
What would you do if you'd been able to track down the person with your stolen possession worth thousands of dollars, a guy from a challenging background with a long rap sheet of charges for property crimes. Would you seize the opportunity to turn him into the authorities? Or, after he returned the missing item, would you let him go, in hopes that the experience would help set him on a straighter path?
Annie Cathcart faced that ethical dilemma yesterday when she crossed paths with the man who had been trying to sell her stolen cargo bike. She chose the latter option.
Cathcart is a restaurant industry vet who is in the process of reopening Rogers Park's shuttered Charmers Cafe with her business partner Carrie Flynn. Cathcart recently moved to the neighborhood with her husband Tom and two children, ages 4 and 6.
Since Annie Cathcart doesn't have a driver's license, her Urban Arrow Family electric cargo bike has been crucial for her personal and work life. She bought it used about a year ago from Four Star Family Cyclery in Logan Square, and she estimates that new, with all of its accessories -- rain cover, rear rack, and saddle bags -- it would be worth about $7,000. "It's my car," she said, noting that she uses it for hauling children and groceries, as well as supplies for the cafe.
On April 30, Cathcart had locked the cargo bike under the deck in the courtyard of her apartment building, engaging the built-in wheel lock, as well as a heavy-duty $100 chain bike lock. That night someone was able to cut the massive lock and abscond with the cycle without any of the neighbors noticing. "I was devastated," she said. "Not just the expense, but it really is my livelihood."
Cathcart immediately put out an all-points bulletin to try to recover the bike. After filing a police report, she reached out to Four Star owner Elsbeth Cool, "a wonderful lady," who gave a heads-up to all her clients who work as couriers and posted about the theft on social media. Then Cathcart joined various neighborhood discussion groups to report the missing cycle.
The morning after the bike was stolen, a man posted it for sale on Facebook Marketplace. Cathcart said she's fairly certain he's the person who took the cycle from her building, and that he posted under his real name. The photo on the ad showed that the bike still had its distinctive cupholder and stickers. The seller claimed that he had bought the e-cycle, lost its battery charger in a move, and wanted to sell it to a family who could have fun with it over the summer.
Cathcart Facebook messaged the seller and offered to meet him at a Wrigleyville hot dog stand to give him $1,600 for it, and he accepted. A friend of hers who's an undercover police detective accompanied her to the meeting. But, as luck would have it, another officer in a marked car was eating lunch in front of the restaurant during the meeting time, and Cathcart suspects that scared off the man, who didn't show up.
After that, the seller blocked Cathcart on Facebook, so she found him on Instagram and started messaging him there. "Maybe by now you know I'm the person you stole the bike from," she said, offering him $500 for its return.
After the seller didn't bite, Cathcart and her family and friends conducted some even more intense detective work. Through searches of Facebook and public records, they were able to track down several possible home addresses around Englewood and Marquette Park, and found that the man had several arrests related to stolen property, mostly bicycles and cars. Someone even sent her his parole officer's phone number.
But instead of reporting the seller, Cathcart kept messaging him. "I'm going to find you some way," she wrote, suggesting that he deliver the bike, or just drop it off somewhere.
Cathcart and her business partner Flynn drove around the seller's possible addresses until people started confronting them, she said. Then they returned and posted fliers offering a reward for the bike.
Bike community members started inundating the seller with Facebook messages. He claimed that he had bought the cycle for $650. Cathcart's family members began reaching out to the man's friends and relatives via the social media platform. "They said, 'He is doing bad things. We just want the bike back,'" Cathcart said.
Finally, yesterday the seller contacted Cathcart at Charmers. "He said, 'Please stop contacting my family. You are harassing me,'" Cathcart said, adding that the man admitted he knew the bike was stolen. "I told him that if he didn't meet with me he was going to be in a world of trouble." They made tentative plans to meet at 6 p.m. He said he was going to call back to arrange a meeting place but never did.
Flynn began messaging the seller on Facebook. "She said, 'You have the opportunity to do the right thing,'" Cathcart recalled. "'If you don't call us back in a half hour, game over.'"
Finally the seller called back after 7 p.m., claiming he'd had trouble arranging a ride. They made plans for him to drop off the bike at the Fullerton 'L' station. Cathcart's undercover cop friend agreed to come along, but wasn't encouraging. "She assumed he wouldn't show up."
But as the meeting time approached, Cathcart became concerned that the seller would wind up getting arrested. Her police officer friend asked her if that's what she wanted.
While they were parked a half block from the station, the driver of a beat-up van approached and someone -- Cathcart thinks it was the seller -- pulled out the bike and dropped it in front of the 'L' stop. He got back in the vehicle and the driver drove away.
Cathcart then messaged the seller on Instagram. "I'm really sorry, but I think you made a good decision. I know it's hard -- I know where you come from."
Still, part of her wondered if she'd done the right thing. "It seems like this guy is part of some huge theft ring, so I kind of wanted some justice."
On the other hand, Cathcart said, "I'm just happy to get my bike back and give a person the chance to do the right thing. I still can't believe that he just dropped it off. Probably the pressure was too much. Pretty cool that it happened, though."
In a post on the Chicago Family Biking Facebook group, Cathcart thanked everyone who helped he recover the bike, including the likely thief. "I am especially proud of... the guy who returned my bike. He is a good guy wrapped up in a bad environment. He made the hard choice to do the right thing. I hope we can share a meal one day. Ride on!"
In addition to editing Streetsblog Chicago, John writes about transportation and other topics for additional local publications. A Chicagoan since 1989, he enjoys exploring the city on foot, bike, bus, and 'L' train.
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