Ashland's bait bike program is snaring more bicycle thieves, but the program is not without its critics

Marco Antonio Alvarez-Carreon remembers cheering when he heard a family of Medford bicycle thieves got nabbed in 2013 after stealing an Ashland Police Department bait bike and a second bike from the Southern Oregon University campus.

"I remember reading about that and saying, 'Yay! It's working,'" Alvarez-Carreon said of APD's bait bike program, which launched in October 2013 and involves setting out bicycles with electronic tracking devices. When a bait bike is moved, the device alerts Ashland police, who converge on thieves.

An Ashland resident, Alvarez-Carreon, 47, has been the victim of bicycle theft multiple times — including in 2010 when someone stole a $6,000 rickshaw-style bike he used to run an eco-friendly taxi service in town. The bike was later recovered thanks to sharp-eyed community members who spotted the bike.

But in May, Alvarez-Carreon was snared by the bait bike program himself.

He said he was walking home from visiting friends about 3 a.m. on a Sunday when he spotted an unlocked bike leaning against a bus shelter near SOU.

Alvarez-Carreon said he was worried about the unsecured bike, so he started to take it to his home with plans to turn it in at the Ashland Police Department on Monday.

"It looked like someone took it for a joy ride and then abandoned it," Alvarez-Carreon said. "I thought I would be a good citizen. It was a good deed."

Moving the bicycle signaled police, who arrested him on a felony first-degree theft charge and took him to the Jackson County Jail in Medford.

Police contradict the account Alvarez-Carreon now gives about his intentions that night.

In an affidavit written soon after his arrest, police said, "Alvarez admitted he took the bicycle to get home faster."

On Friday, Alvarez-Carreon pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempt to commit first-degree theft, avoiding a felony conviction on his record. Oregon Circuit Court records show no cases against him going back at least five years.

Alvarez-Carreon was originally arrested on a felony first-degree theft charge because Ashland police began setting out a $1,500 bait bike in 2014. Theft of an item valued at $1,000 or more can trigger a felony first-degree theft charge.

When the program started in 2013, bait bikes were in the $400 to $500 range, police said.

"For the state to punish bike theft with a felony is absurd — even if someone is trying to commit a crime," Alvarez-Carreon said.

He said police and prosecutors should have looked at his overall character and history. He said he regularly returned lost wallets and phones when he operated the bike taxi service, which he sold more than a year ago.

Alvarez-Carreon said foolish people taking bikes for rides are being caught up by the bait bike program, which should be aimed at serious thieves.

Ashland Police Chief Tighe O'Meara said police are battling a serious bike theft problem in town.

"We do have many high-end bikes stolen from Ashland residents and tourists who come to town," he said, noting today's bikes can cost several thousand dollars. "It's a very real problem we're trying to address. We're successfully mitigating the problem through the bait bike program."

Police received 85 reports of stolen bikes from January through mid-August in 2013, before the program launched in October 2013.

They received reports of 62 stolen bikes from January through mid-August 2014, and 60 reports from January through the middle of this month, O'Meara said.

Those reports include thefts of bait bikes, which inflates the 2014 and 2015 numbers, he said.

More bicycle thieves are being nabbed as the program continues.

Police arrested eight people from October through December 2013. In all of 2014, they arrested 16 people.

They have arrested 22 people so far this year, with more than four months still to go in 2015, O'Meara said.

He said the defendants usually don't end up with felony convictions since many plead to lesser misdemeanor charges after making plea agreements with the Jackson County District Attorney's Office.

"That's fine with us. Just because initially it's a felony charge doesn't mean it will end up as a felony conviction," O'Meara said.

Bike thieves have had varying fates in court.

Judith Anne Thorndike, head of the Medford family charged with stealing Ashland bikes in December 2013 soon after the bait bike program began, pleaded guilty to felony first-degree bike theft in 2014.

She was sentenced to 18 months probation and ordered to pay a $400 fine. She can apply for the felony conviction to be converted to a misdemeanor conviction upon successful completion of probation, court records show.

Central Point resident Nicholas Ben Wimberly, 36, pleaded guilty to felony first-degree theft in 2014 and was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 11 months probation after stealing a bait bike, according to court records.

Ashland resident Kaylieb Madison Joss, 25, ran into more serious trouble after police tracked the bike to his home, where he resisted arrest, injured an officer he shoved into a metal shed and fled.

He pleaded guilty in April to felony first-degree theft and assaulting a public safety officer, also a felony, and was sentenced to 15 months in prison, court records show.

As for Alvarez-Carreon, Jackson County Circuit Judge Timothy Barnack — a past victim of bike theft himself — was not sympathetic to Alvarez-Carreon's claim that he intended to take a seemingly abandoned bike to the Ashland Police Department for safe-keeping.

Barnack sentenced Alvarez-Carreon to 18 months probation.

"I got my bike stolen," Barnack said in court Friday. "I'm talking myself down off this ledge right now. If I see you again for anything, Mr. Alvarez, it's curtains."

In separate cases, a 22-year-old Ashland man and a 28-year-old Portland man who failed to appear in court Friday for allegedly stealing a bait bike this summer had warrants issued for their arrest.

The Portland man was driving away with a $1,500 bait bike in his van when he was tracked down and stopped, Ashland police said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.