Monday, August 18, 2014

Achilles' Last Stand

Bicycle theft is usually a fairly disconnected experience for a bike owner. You’re not around when it happens and it comes as a complete surprise to find your bike gone from wherever you left it. The circumstances leading up to its theft and the details of how it was actually carried out are generally a mystery. Bike thievery is, for the most part, an activity lacking in transparency, like many other aspects of bicycle culture. 

Where are stolen bikes taken, how are they moved on and who ends up in possession of them? Surely they don't just vanish in to thin air? In a previous article, Bike Theft On The Path To Cycling Enlightenment, some advice was offered about how to benefit from the experience. This story though, is a rare account explicitly detailing a bike theft and its perpetrator.

This is the story of Achilles Vlahopoulos.

Much like the Led Zeppelin song Achilles Last Stand (that comes in at 10m:25s) it is fairly lengthy and, until it gets remade as a musical, is unfortunately not driven along by ‘John Paul Jones' galloping bass line (played on a custom-built Alembic eight string bass).’

The Theft

This crime centres around Terra Madre organic health food store in High Street, Northcote. It’s one of those shops staffed by annoyingly beautiful, healthy and vibrant people who always appear to be having a great time. You can pick up a wicker basket on your way in and buy all sorts of ancient grains, heirloom vegetables and other exotic foods. They only use paper bags, the macadamia milk comes in real glass bottles and they actually sell a product called Cashew Cheese.

Maj was waiting on the street outside for a friend, Jo, to pick her up for dinner. Although only small, her cardboard box was filled with almost a hundred dollars worth of kale, haloumi and other assorted organic cheeses.

Tomorrow she’d be mountain biking in Castlemaine with friends, although, having left her bicycle in Mount Beauty the previous weekend, she’d had to borrow one earlier in the day from Louey, a friend and mechanic at The Fitzroy Revolution, her local bike shop.
It was an April* morning when they told us we should go
As I turn to you, you smiled at me, how could we say no?
*Please ignore the fact that it wasn’t April or morning. It’s a difficult task trying to parallel this story with Led Zeppelin lyrics.

Jo had just texted to say that she was about 15 minutes away so Maj unlocked the bike, ready to pop it inside Jo’s car, and indulged herself with a little social media.
With all the fun to have, to live the dreams we always had
Oh, the songs to sing, when we at last return again
All of a sudden, she was startled to see a man pull the bike out from the other side of the rack and on to the street in between the parked cars. Instinctively she pursued him on to the road as he clumsily attempted to navigate the raised median strip. Just failing to grab hold of his jacket, she watched, stunned, as he awkwardly mounted the bike and proceeded to ride off down a nearby side street. ‘That [obscenity not recalled]-face has stolen my bike!’

Into the sun the south the north, at last the birds have flown
The shackles of commitment fell, in pieces on the ground
This was a brazen theft. It was 5.30pm on a Saturday evening, still light and the small Westgarth shopping village was bustling. With cars, bikes, pedestrians and trams in the mix there were plenty of witnesses to the theft, which had almost literally occurred under her nose.

Every single person on the street seemed to look around at the burst of frenzied shouting – Maj mostly just spouting expletives, ‘Fuck, fuck, help, fuck,’ and a well-groomed man with big, curly hair joining in from across the road.

‘There’s a bike thief! Help, does someone have a car?’

Fab was a hairdresser who worked at 4me Hair & Beauty and he immediately offered his assistance.

Maj’s first thought was how sad the whole scene looked – watching this guy, who didn’t even know how to ride properly, disappearing down the street on her friend’s beautiful (and expensive) bike.
Oh to ride the wind, to tread the air above the din
Oh to laugh aloud, dancing as we fought the crowd
These thoughts (and the Led Zeppelin lyrics ethereally floating in the air) vanished as Maj set about tracking down the bike thief.

The Detective Work

Amid the frenzy of traffic, shouting and competitively-priced organic groceries, she headed over to question an apparent accomplice. Fab had heard this shady-looking character (appointed in a full grey tracksuit) call something out to the thief at the moment he made off with the bike. ‘Don’t let him go anywhere,’ she directed Fab while phoning police.

Although an immigration lawyer by trade, criminal law courses from university came flooding back as she cross-examined the uncooperative accomplice. ‘You know who did it don’t you? You know something.’

‘I’m not saying anything.’

‘If you know something then you’re aiding and abetting a crime and covering it up and you’re going to go to jail. Tell me the name of your friend!’

Looking increasingly agitated, he quickly blurted out, ‘Achilles Vlahopoulos, but I know nothing,’ before nervously mumbling, ‘I’ve just gotta go.’

‘Where are you going to? An urgent medical appointment?’

‘You’re fucking crazy,’ he shouted, disappearing down the street.

Fab had earlier been inside the nearby Westgarth Liquor & Grocery when he'd noticed Achilles Vlahopoulos briefly enter the store. He was wearing an old brown jacket with fake wool lining, loose jeans and ugly wraparound sunglasses. He appeared to be hunched over, reminding Fab of some sort of sad-looking gangster.

The proprietor had also been acting strangely evasive and appeared to recognise Achilles.

Leaving the shop, Achilles had walked up and down High Street, suspiciously looking around, probably trying to figure out who owned the nice bike resting on the rack, not for an instant thinking that it was Maj, dressed, as she was, in her typical inner-urban chic and clutching a box of groceries. He was probably looking for somebody resembling a bike rider, an assumption that ultimately foiled his plan.

Thinking that the young lady would assume he was simply collecting his own bike, when the commotion, foot pursuit and expletive-littered outburst erupted, he got quite a nasty surprise.
Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss, the devil's in his hole
The bottle shop owner stood outside observing the scene, casually eating an apple as Maj approached. ‘I didn’t see anything,’ he offered voluntarily.

‘I haven’t asked you anything yet.’

Clearly not hiding his knowledge well, she continued, ‘Do you know the man who stole my bike?’

‘Nope, I don’t know anything.’

She persisted with friendly closed questions requiring only yes or no answers, a technique used in cross examination. ‘If I said the name Achilles Vlahopoulos would you know that name?’

‘Yeah, I know him, he’s got a criminal record as long as my arm. He’s been done for fiddling some woman up in Northcote, he’s known to police, but I don’t know him.’

‘Do you have any cameras in your shop?’

‘No, but those fucking hippies up the road do.’

Taking the hint, Maj headed back to Terra Madre, slightly confused at how anybody could get anything but good vibes, positive vibrations, peace and love from the organic shop. Perhaps some people just prefer eating pesticides, she decided. ‘My bike was just stolen from outside, do you have any cameras?’ she asked Claire, one of the naturopaths.

Immediately the staff began empathising and she felt they probably would have offered her some herbal remedy if it could have helped ease the trauma. ‘It’s ok, we’ll get Ryan, he runs the cameras, Ryan will know what to do,’ they reassured her.

Ryan was a cute little man who ushered her in to a tiny little room (more like a small box) under the stairs that wouldn’t have comfortably accommodated anybody much larger. It was filled with video monitors, wires and some bagged nuts that evidently wouldn’t fit on the store’s crowded shelves.

As it turns out, the staff at Terra Madre, along with being knowledgeable, beautiful and healthy, are also fairly tech-savvy (I hate them already) and it took Ryan just a few moments to locate the security camera footage from about 15 minutes prior. It not only showed Achilles taking the bike but also a beautifully captured, unobstructed, frontal image of him entering the store on his reconnaissance mission earlier.
To seek the man whose pointing hand, the giant step unfolds
With guidance from the curving path, that churns up into stone
Jo pulled up just after the cops, slightly confused as to what could possibly have happened in the last fifteen minutes that had led to Maj frantically talking to police in the middle of High Street. ‘It seems that the man who stole my bike might be known to police, his name is Achilles Vlahopoulos.’

‘Oh yeah, we know him. We’ll just go inside and get a proper ID from the footage. If we can get a quick visual on him we’ll be able to find him straight away,’ said one of the two officers, heading inside the busy shop filled with health-conscious inner-city suburbanites, yoga instructors and a few hippies, perplexed by the police presence.

The younger officer waited outside, gently reassuring her. ‘I know where he lives, I know where his mum lives. He will be at one of those two houses.’

‘You go home, we’ll go and get your bike and then we’ll call you,’ said the older police officer returning to the street.


Arriving at Jo’s house ten minutes later, Maj got a phone call from the police. They had the bike.
Oh the sweet refrain, soothes the soul and calms the pain
Oh Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again
Achilles was obviously well known to many people in Northcote and the police clearly weren’t concerned about protecting his privacy, asking Maj to pick up the bike from his home address and volunteering plenty of information about his criminal history. He had been a bit of a troubled kid and at one point in the past had gotten in to a fight with a neighbour whose mum had come out and started hitting him with a cricket bat. He was on the ground, getting beaten when the cops arrived. His parents had apparently bought him this apartment in Northcote in the hope that he wouldn’t cause them any more grief.

 This Northcote apartment block may or may not be home to (alleged) bike thief Achilles Vlahopoulos.

When Maj arrived, Achilles was already under arrest. He was visibly distressed, emotionally unstable and crying. ‘It had all these carbon fibres, it was so beautiful,’ he sobbed, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to steal it.’

‘Yeah, well you’d better keep your hands where they belong next time,’ offered Maj, which set the cops off laughing. ‘Didn’t your mum teach you not to touch things that don’t belong to you.’

In the time the police had taken to get to Achilles’ house, he’d already replaced one of the bidon cages with his own, added a grimy-looking bottle and removed the lights in a bid to de-personalise it. The cops came back out with all the missing bits and pieces including her new helmet that had been hanging on the handle bars.

It had now been about 45 minutes since the bike was snatched and Maj finally got a proper look at Achilles. He was probably in his mid-40s, quite seedy looking with sallow, sunken cheeks. He really wasn’t doing anything to avoid the typical petty criminal stereotype with his cheap brown jacket, loose jeans, white sneakers and a pair of wraparound sunglasses with yellow lenses.

The Witness Statement

Maj was invited back to the Northcote police station to make a witness statement. The trauma of the evening slowly dissipated during the interview and she remained completely oblivious to the fact that the younger police officer was clearly flirting with her. It wasn’t until he returned to the room that she realised. ‘Here’s a copy of the statement, my details are at the bottom, and I was thinking, if you don’t have a boyfriend and you want to go out to dinner sometime, that would be great, so you can call me on that number.’

Calmly delivered like this, it seemed like part of typical police procedure.

Normally, this might have registered as a little out of place or even inappropriate but given the evening’s bizarre sequence of events, it seemed to just blend in, like chia seeds through a superfood green smoothie.

Leaving the police station, she thought to herself, ‘What just happened? Did a super-hot cop just ask me out on a date after retrieving my friend’s mountain bike that was stolen from right under my nose outside Terra Madre?’

Yes, something like that.

Educating the Community

The outcome of Achilles’ arrest is not known or exactly what charges were laid – Theft of Carbon Fibres I imagine. In the interests of not getting myself into any legal trouble, I thought it best not to publish a photo of the (alleged) thief here. Instead, I’ve used an Identi-Kit®-style composite imaging technique to create an impression of what he might look like.

While the official Identi-Kit® website doesn’t look like it’s been updated for a few years, I’m confident that the technology works well as it has received some glowing testimonials:
‘The Identi-Kit program did a great job, because when we caught the guy, it looked just like him.’ – Deputy Chief, Florida Police Dept.
Seriously? Could that sound any more forced?

There was one small problem though: Cyclists often struggle to identify people who aren’t wearing cycling kit and unfortunately the Identi-Kit® software does not offer any cycling-specific identification features. This meant I had to improvise a little, getting Maj to pick out Achilles’ key defining features from the following chart:

 Based on these selections, along with descriptions of what he was wearing, the following reconstruction was assembled and should hopefully provide a fairly good representation of what (alleged) bike thief Achilles Vlahopoulos looks like.

If you’re a cyclist, then take note of this image, burn it in to your brain and be extra careful with your bicycle security if you ever see him lurking around. Perhaps stick this photo to your stem so you become familiar with it.

And try not to get him confused with an older, slightly less sophisticated version of Ali G.

Wandering & wandering, what place to rest the search
The mighty arms of Atlas, hold the heavens from the earth 

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