Dirt Bike Dealers Battle Cheeky ‘Steel Boys’ In Robberies

For someone who has been selling dirt bikes for 20 years, Mike Johnston thought he had his shop sufficiently fortified against burglary: bars on the windows, a CCTV system and concrete barriers to deter a car from crashing into the entrance.

But it turned out they weren’t enough in the spring, when robbers crashed into Ellicott City Motorsports in Maryland and got away with five dirt bikes – twice.

“The problem is only getting worse,” said Johnston, whose store was hit twice in seven days. “It really is an epidemic.”

Johnston’s store is one of several recently robbed motorcycle dealerships along the East Coast who say robberies at their premises have escalated in recent years. It comes as swarms of dirt bikes and illegal off-road vehicles regularly flood public roads and break out into chaotic hordes, driving social media fame.

In the DC area last week, nearly 100 dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles choked up traffic in downtown Washington and the National Harbor. Video posted to Twitter shows joyriders weaving around cars, driving against the tide and ignoring police attempts to arrest them. Police say vehicles used in these shows are often stolen, from private owners and shops.

(Ellicott City Motor Sports)

Thefts from dealerships are becoming so common that store owners from Pennsylvania to Virginia have created an informal network to alert each other to burglaries and share alerts for suspected thieves.

“We’re calling immediately and sharing what’s going on with the burglaries,” said Johnston, who spoke to owners of five dealerships robbed in 10 days in late June. “We are all trying to avoid the same problem.”

In May, thieves smashed the window of a Connecticut store and stole $30,000 worth of bikes in about two minutes, the third burglary at the store in six months, according to local reports.

On June 25, a Pennsylvania store lost $60,000 worth of bicycles after someone crashed a pickup truck through the front door, “entered the store with precision” and stole seven motorcycles and scooters, according to the police.

And the previous week, two men rammed a van into the driveway of Powersports East in Delaware four times before breaking through the driveway, said Pete Clarkin, the store’s chief financial officer.

“Watching him is extremely violent,” Clarkin said of the heist, captured by surveillance cameras. “When you walk through that door every day for work and then see someone driving a van through the door, it’s unsettling.”

Ellicott City Motorsports was robbed twice in seven days. “The problem is only getting worse,” said store owner Mike Johnston. “It really is an epidemic.” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Through the rubble of broken glass, and within four minutes, the thieves took four dirt bikes and loaded them into the pickup truck, which had been stripped of its passenger seats, Clarkin said.

In six years, the Delaware store has lost 20 bikes in 10 break-ins, Clarkin said. The most recent burglary caused $300,000 in damage.

The vehicles are attractive because they are not connected to license plates that can be traced, said Prince George Police Lt. Craig Winegardner.

“They don’t need keys, and you can start and go,” Winegardner said. “They’re easy to pick up and put in a van.”

Clarkin and others suspect their stolen goods are making their way to Baltimore, the Washington area and other major cities for sales and rides.

And as these dealers watch video of swarms of bikes rolling down sidewalks and around traffic, they can’t help but wonder if they’re looking at their own merchandise. “You see it, and your mind goes crazy,” Clarkin said.

Shop owners say police don’t always make arrests in such cases, and when they do, recovered bikes are damaged and often cannot be resold.

But the police cracked down.

In the district, police have arrested about 80 people and recovered more than 50 vehicles since launching a regional task force in 2016 to focus on groups of illegal ATVs and dirt bikes on public roads.

In Baltimore – the home of the infamous 12 O’Clock Boys dirt bike pack, who became the subject of a documentary – the police department set up a task force more than a year ago to deter the crowds of cyclists that regularly buzz through the city and disturb residents. Of the 420 dirt bikes police have seized since the task force was launched, 88 have been stolen, Baltimore Detective David Jones said. Many stolen bikes have been snatched from dealerships and private owners in suburban Baltimore County and as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Recently, when a warehouse in Pennsylvania was robbed and several dirt bikes were stolen, law enforcement in the area immediately contacted Baltimore police to see if the stolen bikes ended up in the city, said Jones.

“You have a small group of guys who are doing robberies to ride or sell for profit,” said Jones, who added that those who steal the bikes are often linked to the hordes that disrupt city streets in packs.

Jones said the city’s crackdown had reduced groups of runners – from 50 to 100 on any given Sunday to “a group of maybe 20 at most”.

John Ross, owner of Ride On Moto in Winchester, Va., said his sons recently had two dirt bikes stolen from a locked trailer in South Carolina. And two weeks ago, someone robbed the front door of Ross’s store and got away with four bikes worth about $10,000 each.

Ross, who was out of town to care for his ailing mother, watched the entire burglary unfold live on his phone when he received a remote alert about the burglary early in the morning.

Ross has added aluminum bars to his store and plans to install a fence around the building. He also parks huge trucks in front of the store to deter thieves from plowing their own vehicles through the storefront.

“We’re so used to it,” said Ross, who’s been in the business for about 25 years. “You can’t stop them. Just slow them down.

Ross said his insurance company has talked about raising premiums for motorcycle dealers due to recent break-ins. And each theft costs him at least $2,000 to $3,000 out of pocket, on top of the $30,000 he pays annually to insure the store.

In the case of Ellicott City Motorsports, police found the van that witnesses had spotted in the store’s second robbery.

The van fled from police and, after a short chase, broke down. Four teenagers inside escaped but were quickly apprehended.

Howard County police say three 16-year-olds and one 15-year-old, all from Baltimore, have been charged with burglary, theft of a motor vehicle, destruction of property, flight and escape.

Two of the teenagers were returned to the custody of their parents and then arrested a second time shortly afterwards in connection with a burglary at a scooter shop, according to Johnston.

Johnston said he spent about $40,000 to repair damage from recent break-ins and to improve security.

Now even more bars are bolstering his shop. But there’s a trade-off in how her shop feels for legitimate customers.

“Many customers don’t expect to walk into a place that feels like a prison,” Johnston said. “It’s not fair to customers.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

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