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You Tell Us: How three unlikely Oaklanders teamed up to solve a crime

on December 6, 2010

A few weeks ago I was in a Temescal neighborhood cafe, seated at the table nearest to the door, typing on my laptop while meeting with a colleague when I felt a presence behind me as if someone was going to give me a hug. Before I knew it a man’s arms reached around me, not for a hug, but to grab my laptop and run out the door. I leapt up from the table and ran out after him but it took only 10 seconds for him to run down the sidewalk, hop into a waiting car and drive off.

I yelled to the startled bunch of onlookers “Get the license plate!” but the black pick-up pulled out into traffic and disappeared down the street. Stunned, I went back into the cafe. What now? My colleague called the police and I sat down at the table and cried. I was certain that this machine — my mobile office, the piece of equipment that IS my business — was long gone. All of my e-mails and assorted information was readily available to the men who had made off with my computer since it had been open and I was typing when it was grabbed out of my hands.

I decided to write them an e-mail. Maybe the two of them would see it as they sped away to wherever theythought they could best take advantage of their new acquisition. The subject line read: “To the person that just stole my computer — I’ll give you the money; just give me my computer back.”

I was pacing outside the cafe waiting for the police to come when a guy on a bike rode up, hopped off and said, “I got the license plate.”


Yes. The man who came to be known to me as “Bicycle Bill” happened to see the whole incident go down and decided to pedal as fast as he could to catch the crooks.

Not only did he pursue them and succeed in catching up with them, Bicycle Bill outfoxed them too. The get-away car took off heading north on Telegraph but his hunch was that they were going to go around the block and then head south, towards downtown Oakland. So he took off heading south and just as he suspected, the pick-up zoomed by him and he pedaled like hell to catch up.

Of course the thieves were unaware that Bicycle Bill had seen them commit their crime so when he pulled up behind them at a stop light and memorized their license plate they were none the wiser. “I kept saying the license plate number over and over to myself on my way back here,” Bicycle Bill told me, still a bit breathless from the chase.

“Wow. I can’t believe you managed to do that!” I said, incredulous. “What’s the number?”

Bill spat out the license plate number and I scribbled it down but there were still no police to report it to. That’s when Oaklander Number Two stepped in.Since the police still hadn’t arrived on the scene, the cafe’s barista decided she would call upon a regular customer, a neighborhood cop, who frequented the cafe and whom the staff knew on a first name basis. She said, “I just called … a cop we know. He told me he’d be over soon. In the meantime would like a cup of tea or something?”

“No, thank you,” I said.

Things were starting to look up.

Meanwhile, I decided to call Apple support to see if there was any way to retrieve the data on my computer remotely, or at the very least to wipe it off my laptop so that whomever ended up with it didn’t have access to my personal data. No luck. I hadn’t signed up for the software that allows for such a thing. I was picturing the two guys riding around downtown Oakland reading my e-mails, perusing my photographs and looking at my tax returns. Or perhaps by now my computer had already passed into the hands of some lucky buyer who got the deal of the century on a Mac Book that didn’t need a password to get in.

That’s when the cop I’ll call “Officer K” walked in.

Officer K introduced himself and we explained the incident and that we had called the police about thirty minutes before, but that they still hadn’t shown up. “Oh,” he said. “Just so you know, they were never planning on coming. With all of the budget cuts and the reduction in the number of officers we’ve got on the street, we just don’t send cops out for stuff like this anymore.”

Good to know.

Officer K called the license plate into dispatch and they came up with an address. The truck was registered to a man in Alameda. By now the crooks had had almost an hour to make up their minds about what to do with the stolen goods. It could have been sold already, or safely stashed in someone’s closet.

Officer K said, “I’m gonna go down there. Why don’t you go home and I’ll let you know if there’s anything to report.” He walked me to my car and I drove home in a fog, exhausted from the emotional roller coaster, thinking about all of the things I wasn’t going to be able to do the next day without my machine and wondering why I still hadn’t gotten into the habit of backing up my data.

At 10 p.m. that evening he called to say he had located the house in Alameda. He told me that the man who owned the truck practically fell over when Officer K informed him that his vehicle had just been involved in a felony.

The man and his wife invited Officer K into the house so he could explain to them what was going on. That’s when the man’s son ran out the back door. “I’m not sure if I am going to be able to track him down. The young man who ran out of the house — he was the one driving his father’s car. He’s probably going to tell his friend, the one who took the computer from you, that they’ve been busted. I’ll call you later on if I have anything else to report, or if it gets too late, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“No — don’t worry if it’s late,” I replied. “Please contact me whenever you find out something more, O.K.?”

“OK, but I’m not going to promise anything.”

“I understand,” I said and hung up the phone. I called Bicycle Bill who had given me his phone number.

“Bill — this is Sondra — the woman you helped this afternoon at the cafe.”

“Hi. Wow. How are you? Tell me what’s going on. Did they find your computer?”

“Not yet, but if they do, Bill, it’s because of you,” I said. “You’re the man. What you did made all the difference.”

“Well, I just wanted to help if I could. Will you call me back when you find out what happens?”

“Of course I will,” I said and hung up the phone.

Eleven o’clock rolled around and then midnight. I couldn’t keep myself awake any longer so reluctantly got into bed and tried to go to sleep. I guess I must have dozed off because I was startled awake by the sound of boots clomping up our front steps. I peered out the window. It was Officer K.

I grabbed my robe, ran to the door and opened it. There was Officer K with a grin from ear to ear on his face, cradling my laptop in his arms. He reached out and handed me the brushed aluminum cargo.

I was so flabbergasted that I didn’t even ask him how he managed to do it. I just took the computer from his hands and said gleefully, “I can’t believe it! Thank you so much, officer!”

“You’re welcome,” he said looking like a man who believed this good deed was all in a day’s work.

My hat’s off to Bicycle Bill, the cafe barista and Officer K, all of whom played a pivotal role in solving this crime. Without any one of these good Samaritans there would not have been a happy ending. I am proud to call Oakland home.

Sondra Hall is an Oakland resident.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

All essays reflect the opinions of their authors, and not of the Oakland North staff or the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Oakland North reserves the right to edit submissions for length, clarity and spelling/grammar. You Tell Us submissions must be written in civil and non-offensive language. We do not publish hate speech, libelous material, unsubstantiated allegations or rumors, or personal attacks on individuals or groups.


  1. Oakland Resident on December 6, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Wonderful story. I constantly tell myself that most people in this world are decent people and many of them are willing to go out of their way to help a fellow human being in need. I have to tell myself that in order to deal with the constant media reports of bad people robbing, maiming and killing others. Thanks for sharing your story and proving me right!

  2. vchames on December 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    It feels so go to read some GOOD news for a change. It seems like the whole world is passionately in love with death and violence and destruction. It’s on 90% of TV shows and 99% of children’s toys. Hard to find anything else in the professional media. Maybe you can begin ti change that. Thank you. Good Job.

  3. Katie on December 6, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Gosh, what a rollercoaster! I don’t ever get tired of happy endings like this one.

  4. Samantha on December 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    After reading this, I too am proud to call Oakland home. What those individuals did (except the thieves of course) was what a community is all about. I especially loved the visual of the officer standing on Sondra’s doorstep, grinning from ear to ear with the laptop in his arms. So wonderful!

    • len raphael on December 7, 2010 at 10:02 am

      SH, like most residents you didn’t realize what the impact of the city’s fiscal situation is on your daily life until something bad happens to you.

      For 99% of the residents who call in after the fact non violent crimes, there is no cop showing up within minutes, no investigation.

      We are effectively now below 600 cop, down from 800 a year ago, and dropping by the day from retirements, disability, quitting.

      Cities our size, unadjusted for crime, normally have 1,100 cops. Think of it: a city of 400,000 residents (not counting commuters) and less than 600 cops for the entire area. Of those cops quite a few are old or do desk jobs.

      Last night I attended a citizen’s budget meeting from Pat Kernighan, council member.

      She lamended that it was just a fact of political life that voters and their officials refuse to make difficult painful fiscal choices until their daily lives are seriously affected.

      What you experienced is just the beginning of what already is very painful to residents of high crime areas in Oakland. There will be fewer and fewer cops over the next two years, coupled with massive cuts in no public security services. End result will be a city budget that functions mostly to pay for the hefty retirements of my fellow baby boomers.

      if that is not the kind of city you want to live in, please pay more attention to articles and blog postings about our fiscal situation. Then email your council member to demand solutions that don’t sacrifice our city’s life to keeping unrealistic retirement promises.

      -len raphael, desmond street, temescal

      • SPR on December 12, 2010 at 1:39 pm

        Great story, but I have to say this business of the cops blaming their lack of response on layoffs is a bit disingenuous to me. Ya I’m sure it’s somewhat worse now, but I don’t think it’s anything new. I’d put money they wouldn’t have shown up for such a report even BEFORE the layoffs.

  5. john rammer on December 7, 2010 at 11:27 am

    this bicycle bill guy sounds like a real poseur.

  6. nelson on December 7, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    After what happened to those three women in West Oakland a couple of weeks ago, this story doesn’t make me proud of Oakland.

  7. Gabriel Gilberto on December 7, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    In a city were local government is failing and bureaucracy is unresponsive it is up to citizens to step in and perform the functions of a failed state (or city in this case). I would love to see citizens become more active and form anti-crime and nuisance committees. In Oakland, it’s the only way we have a chance of living in communities that are not held hostage to noise, blight and lewd behavior.

    • len raphael on December 7, 2010 at 11:32 pm

      GG, unless you’re suggesting self defense committees, there’s not much more that residents can do besides call 911 and take pictures of suspected miscreants.

      The last ballot measure that residents passed under the misconception it would improve public security now means that cops who investigated crimes are transferred to beats where all they have time to do is run around responding to triaged 911 calls.

      You can blow a whistle till you’re blue in the face, but as the bad guys and gals figure out that the cops are not going to come, or investigate later, then the backbone of community based crime prevention collapses.

      In the coming months, residents might spend just a few minutes to email their council members or brave the risk of an incredible waste of time to show up at some of the community meetings attended by politicians.

      Regardless of whether you think the city should spend its incredibly shrinking resources on paying some of the highest salaries of any city (or state), the retirement benefits that were never sustainable, or spend more on violence prevention social programs, if you don’t speak up the politicians will muddle thru until we hit Vallejo’s situation and can’t make payroll.

      -len raphael, temescal

      • Gabriel Gilberto on December 8, 2010 at 7:48 pm

        A friend out in Vallejo explained to me that in his hood people are going out and doing flash light patrols. While this might be dangerous, flashing lights at drug dealers and pimps, perhaps it could send the message that citizens are interested in taking back public spaces for law abiding individuals.

    • bob on December 8, 2010 at 12:48 am

      …just what we need, another committee. They could join with a committee against the gang injunction to help gang members, and then comes up with ‘citizen based’ policing and gang member civil rights lawsuits. Then could could sue the city, further diminishing the dwindling city resources, so they can lay off more cops. Where is the sanity in this town?

  8. MET on December 10, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Great story, I know that grin very well, I happen to be married to him. Helping people was the reason he joined the police force, unfortunately the job has changed so much. Not many people take the time to shed OPD in a positive light, It’s usually a thankless job. As a resident of Oakland, I take that very personal. Thanks again.

    • Sondra Hall on December 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm

      So glad to hear back from you about Officer K. and his grin. He is a gem.

      Glad to know he’s out there.

      Thanks for letting me know –


  9. len raphael on December 10, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    GG, report back on Vallejo citizen flashlight patrols.

    Around north oakland, you can’t even get people to walk on the side streets at night unless there’s a scheduled mass event. and that’s been the case for years.

    the main exception are people walking their dogs.

    maybe when people get really desperate, they’ll take their chances with flashlights.

    -len raphael, temescal

    • del on December 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      Wow Len, not sure where that is, but when I lived on 48th I heard voices all night as people walked to and from Telegraph. Now, living on Market near 55th, all the neighbors call my name as I ride to work & back.

  10. ken o on December 12, 2010 at 2:06 am

    it’s going to come to this. protecting ourselves with force against the force of criminals.

    city hall is inept and hopeless, we will lead the way. thanks bill bicycler, sondra, officer k, len and everyone who supports public safety and community in oakland.


    • Drew on December 15, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      Just had my car robbed for parts. Won’t vote for another tax measure. But, will pay for neighborhood private security. Not sure why it is unreasonable for tax payers from affluent neighborhoods to expect their dollars would be used for local security as opposed to mopping up blood spilled in East Oakland.

      • del on December 16, 2010 at 5:00 pm

        Then move to Piedmont.

  11. […] Until then, expect to see fewer cops on Oakland’s streets, more potholes, less street repaving, and more citizen anti-crime involvement. […]

  12. Paula on December 27, 2010 at 9:00 am

    If more of us watched out for our neighbors, criminals would have a harder time victimizing us — if the system can’t protect us, we need to be the system. Hats off to Bicycle Bill and Officer K… glad you got your computer back!

  13. Lisa Tsering on January 4, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Wow my heart was in my throat reading this.
    A reminder, if you are on a cell phone don’t call 911 for OPD, call their direct emergency line instead, much faster: 510-777-3211.

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