A high-tech Redondo Beach police sting operation nets an unexpected bounty: dozens of career criminals

Good crooks

Hoffman first had the idea for the bait bike when he was at a law enforcement conference in San Diego in the spring of 2010. A presentation about the use of hidden GPS “bait” technology in farm equipment in central California made him think about how it could be applied locally.

“It just seemed like it made a lot of sense,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Okay, beach community – we have a lot of bicycle thefts and people in Redondo Beach and in the South Bay have nice bikes.’ I mean, some of these bikes cost in the thousands of dollars.”

Hoffman has spent his entire 17-year-career within the RBPD. His second year in the force Hoffman remembers taking part in a more traditional bait operation on the Redondo pier in which he and a couple other officers, including Naylor, would spend entire days conducting surveillance on a bike. It was a fairly inefficient tactic – they often watched all day long without a theft occurring – but addressing bike theft was a priority in the community.

“Sometimes nothing would happen, and that whole day the team could have done something else,” Hoffman said. “It was fairly rudimentary…That was 15 years ago and bike theft is still a problem. And guess what? Fifteen years from now it will still be a problem.”

In fact, the South Bay is preparing to add 214 miles of bicycle paths as part of master plan adopted by seven cities, and the Vitality City public health initiative will result in a generally more “bike-able” built environment meant to nudge people into more cycling. The area will thus likely become an even more target-rich environment for bike thieves.

When Hoffman suggested using GPS technology for a new bait bike program, his superiors were open to the idea. RBPD Chief Joe Leonardi is a technology enthusiast, and Hoffman’s immediate supervisor, Capt. Jeff Hink, believed the program would be worth the few thousand dollars it cost to launch. They ran it by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office to ensure it had sound legal footing, and proceeded. The department purchased a bike worth well over $1,000 – thus making its theft eligible for felony charges – and GPS equipment so small that it could be placed at various places on the bike and remain essentially undetectable.

The aims were modest.

“I had, in my mind, kind of an idea of the type of crook we might end up arresting – opportunistic teenagers or people just looking to make a quick buck stealing a bike,” Hink said. “Not in my wildest imagination did I think it would have resulted in the types of individuals that have been arrested so far.”

The very first time the bait bike was deployed, everyone involved with the program suddenly realized that it might be more successful than they had even hoped.

The bike was locked on Yacht Club Way near the border of Hermosa and Redondo on the morning of July 20, 2010. It was an area that had been experiencing a lot of bike theft, and within a few hours the SIU team received its first signal that the bike had been taken. The thief didn’t take the bike very far, locking it up – with a better lock – on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. The detectives found the bike and left it, and there it stayed for the next day, untouched.

They paid the bike a visit the next morning. While they were there, they saw a man try to steal the bike. The lock was too secure, however, so instead he stole a bike locked right next to it. They followed the man on foot a couple blocks and arrested him in front of the Starbucks on Hermosa Avenue. The man, Noah Barney, was already on probation for a previous grand theft and later ended up receiving a 16 month sentence.

The other thief, meanwhile, returned for the bait bike. The SIU team picked up the GPS signal and followed the thief to Long Beach, where he was located and arrested. He led them back to a halfway house he’d been staying in the South Bay, where detectives found five more bikes the man admitted he’d previously stolen from the Redondo harbor area. The man, Miguel Munoz, had a lengthy rap sheet and eventually received a four year sentence in state prison. His accomplice, who lived at the halfway house, was also arrested and later pled out for a probation sentence.

So on its first time out the bait bike netted three arrests and more than five years jail time for two confirmed career criminals. Ironically, Barney encountered the bait bike team again shortly after getting out of prison in September 2011 – this time, he actually stole the bait bike, which was again deployed in the Redondo harbor area. Detectives followed him back to a trailer park in Hermosa Beach, where they found six more bikes, methamphetamine, and another criminal with an outstanding arrest warrant. Four people were arrested.

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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