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.