The school bus and the bikes. Photo courtesy of the SFPD

Three men arrested earlier this month for suspected theft of a small service vehicle — and who turned out to be in possession of a school bus full of bicycles, which police seized — were released two days after being arrested, and two weeks before the department blasted their names and booking photos to media outlets.

On Tuesday, the department announced that, on March 12, officers arrested three men near 18th and Harrison streets on suspicion of stealing a service vehicle from Fisherman’s Wharf.

In the course of carrying out that arrest, police additionally seized a small school bus that was filled with bicycles; they believe the bus to be a mobile “chop shop” where stolen bicycles are reconstructed for sale.

The SFPD took the bikes “for safekeeping.” The bus was towed, pending investigation. And the service vehicle was returned to its owner on Fisherman’s Wharf.

One of the three men was booked for grand theft, possession of stolen property, and conspiracy. The other two were booked for possession of stolen property and conspiracy.

And yet, despite being in possession of a stolen motor vehicle and the eye-catching yellow bus full of bikes, all of them were free within 48 hours — and their charges were dismissed.

Only one of the men, 39-year-old Oscar Centeno, has a pending court date on an unrelated burglary charge. He was not the man suspected of stealing the small vehicle.

SFPD spokesman Officer Joseph Tomlinson could not say whether the department returned the bicycles to the men. “In the report, the guy only claimed one of the bicycles, so I don’t know if he got that one bicycle back,” he said. Tomlinson couldn’t confirm if the bus had been returned, nor who its owner is.

According to the police, an unnamed merchant phoned the cops on the trio of suspected thieves. It is uncertain who that merchant is — but the yellow bus wasn’t hidden, and many could have made the call. An employee at Mission Cliffs, a rock-climbing gym with windows facing that portion of the street, said he had noticed the bus on street for about a week before the arrests.

“They had a short school bus filled to the brim with bicycles,” he said.

He said bus may have initially blended in, because it’s not uncommon for “dirtbag climbers” — the climbing world’s equivalent of surf bums — to camp in their cars around the climbing gym. “That’s why it went by without notice,” he said.

It’s also unclear if the charges — which were subsequently dropped — were related to the suspected chop shop. The SFPD is no longer tasked with clearing nests of bikes from city streets; that is up to the Department of Public Works, per a freshly passed city law.

The law prohibits “the assembly, disassembly, sale, offer of sale, distribution, or offer of distribution on public property or public rights-of-way of bicycles and bicycle parts.”

Moreover, a person in possession of five or more bicycles, three or more bicycles with missing parts, a bike frame with severed brake or gear cables, or five or more bicycle parts on the street would receive a notice. The recipient of the notice can retrieve the bicycles can within 30 days if they can prove ownership of the bikes.   

Last year, 60 percent of calls about bike theft were taken by Mission Station, according to research presented by District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy’s office, which authored the law.  

Max Szabo, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s office, said the DA had insufficient evidence to prosecute the men, as “no one identified any of men arrested, and any cold shows [lineups] were not done or came back negative.” The man found on Harrison was wearing a yellow t-shirt that had a “black marking” that was not present on the man’s shirt in surveillance footage of the vehicle theft.

A security guard who witnessed the alleged Fisherman’s Wharf theft said one of the men found on Harrison, who police suspected of stealing the vehicle, did not match the man observed on the Wharf. Moreover, the merchant who called the police on Harrison did not participate in a lineup, and therefore did not positively identify the person they described during a call to police.

“If we had charged this we would have been laughed out of court,” Szabo said. 

This story has been updated with new information. 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. Since when is it a crime to set up shop in the Mission with your mobile used-bike shop bus? Aren’t we the city that fused the word gourmet with food truck, and who brought shareable everything into the fray of modern urban living? We can all think a bit more progressively here, don’t you think? Anyone would know that when business is booming you would need the use of a service vehicle to continue to grow your operation into other neighborhoods – that is not suspicious. All of you people are simply standing against enterprise and astute ingenuity certainly at large in our honorable community. The signs of broken glass on our streets and sidewalks are simply gleaming crystals that light the way to prosperity for all in our beloved city! The only thing these guys are guilty of is vending on city sidewalks without an official permit with DPW; but we can overlook that for now.

  2. I’ve seen guys breaking down bikes next to that bus for weeks. Several 311 reports but nothing happened.

  3. Did the police check the serial numbers of these bikes to see if they were reported stolen?????
    Did they check the registration and insurance of the bus to see if everything was in proper order before giving it back?
    “And the service vehicle was returned to its owner on Fisherman’s Wharf.” — this was obviously stolen.
    Being in possession of stolen property is a crime, isn’t it?

    The tolerance of serial thievery by the police, prosecutors, and the SF political machine is mind boggling.

  4. I presume the cart parked perpendicular to the curb is the “Service Vehicle” in question…

    We have a disconnect between our emotions on this and our public policy.

    We take to the streets in protest when cops “liquidate” neighborhood nuisances like Stephon Clark (the helo footage pretty much proves he was the burglar the PD was looking for, and the manner of his movement indicates that fatal foot pursuit wasn’t his first rodeo), but we REFUSE to fund corrective/rehabilitative custody for nuisance criminals like these drug-addicted thieves (I’d call them “small time” but they ruin people’s lives as they’re looking for their next score). SF has jumped the shark by shifting clearly criminal behavior to DPW.

    News flash: incarcerating criminals humanely will NEVER be cheap. And using that incarcerated time to get them clean, sober and employable will be more expensive still. We can suffer this criminality on our streets or we can invest in reversing the bad parenting that gave rise to it…

  5. wow, this is why petty crime is rampant in this city. If the thieves had stolen cars, the police would be all over this. But they’re bikes, so let’s just let them free.

    1. I promise that if this had been cars, the city would have prevented the police from doing anything about that either. Source: I worked for the part of the city that sets these policies – all problems SF has stem from the city telling the cops not to do their jobs.

  6. And the most obvious question (not answered here, but could most likely be attributed to the “progressive” homeless advocates policies of “not criminalizing honelesness and poverty”… but come, on, enough is enough!)… why were the charges dropped???

  7. This city is going downhill. 2 days and a slap on the risk. What’s to stop these thugs from stealing, robbing others. This city is disgusting!

  8. The charges were likely dismissed because these three guys were considered to be anti-gentrification activists rather than bike thieves.

  9. This bus did not blend in. I reported this bus and the dozens of stolen bike in and around the bus for several weeks on the 311 app and by calling non emergency police phone line. Typical that nothing was done and I’m sure only by accident was the Bus impounded and the thefts arrested. I Witnessed first hand selling of bike out of this bus and open drug use. It is no wonder we have the issues that we do in he mission. There is no deterrent or enforcement.

    1. I reported a bus at 19th & Harrison loading tons of bikes onto it ~1 month ago. Looked just like this one. Bus’ CA license plate was 7PMM472. 3-1-1 report ID# 8703011.

      1. Sorry, meant to say *with several men loading tons of bikes onto it.*
        I took a blatant photo, and then my husband went back to get the bus license plate #. The men didn’t seem to notice or give a care about either of us. Probably because they know nothing will ever come of the hundreds of reports we file.