SAN JOSE -- It started with a pilfered bike, unraveled on a boosted pair of $1,000 jeans and ended with a stolen gun.
These items highlighted an online theft scheme busted this month by a network of anti-bike theft crusaders and a pair of seasoned police lieutenants trading in their desks for squad cars, leading to the arrest of a San Jose woman suspected of fencing high-end goods on Craigslist.
It also underscored how the city's thinly stretched police force increasingly relies on help from citizens to solve rising nonviolent crimes like burglaries, which have dropped in investigative priority amid dwindling officer numbers.
To Jenny Oh Hatfield, a board member of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition who helped flag the alleged thief, the case is a template for other bike-theft victims to help their burglary reports stand out from the pile.
"It's much easier to catch a bike thief now because of digital tools," she said. "There's a lot of virtual battle, if you will."
The Craigslist caper surfaced when Hatfield was contacted Sept. 30 by a fellow cyclist who saw a San Jose post offering a well-kept, high-end road bike for thousands of dollars less than its estimated value. Other searches showed the same seller hawking a second bike and a $1,000 pair of designer jeans for hundreds less than retail, raising more suspicions.
Hatfield typed the road bike description into the Stolen Bicycle Registry, a Portland-based online clearinghouse for bike thefts.
Hatfield said it yielded a "credible match" with a bicycle stolen Sept. 18 in a home burglary in downtown San Jose.
"Social media can spread the word quickly," she said.
Through a friend, Hatfield got in touch with San Jose police Capt. Anthony Ciaburro, whose southern division was where the seller claimed to be based. The value of the bikes and jeans, coupled with possibly closing other unsolved thefts in the area, piqued his interest.
But there are just a handful of full-time property-crimes detectives left in SJPD, and beat officers are increasingly working overtime to maintain patrols rather than pursue thefts. This persists as burglaries in the city spike: 23 percent in 2012, with a similar pace this year.
Lacking available officers and knowing the likely short shelf life of the items -- the road bike posting would soon disappear -- two of Ciaburro's lieutenants, Michael Dziuba and Larry Ryan, took on the case themselves.
"That's very rare," Ciaburro said. "But this was somebody we felt was a high-value target really causing trouble in the community."
Dziuba and Ryan researched the seller's phone number and linked it to a person with a history of theft arrests. They used clues from the posts to contact Nordstrom, the retailer of the expensive jeans. The department store on Oct. 2 confirmed the pair of designer jeans advertised on Craigslist had disappeared from its inventory.
The lieutenants spent the ensuing week contacting the seller to pose as a buyer, and set up an Oct. 8 meeting on Bascom Avenue.
Police say the seller, identified as 38-year-old Rochelle Vasquez, drove up with her teenage son and his 18-year-old friend. Dziuba and Ryan, in police cars, drove by as if patrolling. Ryan stopped next to Vasquez, after the two teens got out of the car to look for a phantom buyer.
The teens saw Dziuba driving around the corner and ducked behind a car, police said. The two were then spotted reaching into their pockets and the lieutenants saw something resembling a gun, followed by a metal "clanking" sound.
They drew their weapons and ordered the teens to surrender. Police searched the pavement near where they heard the metal noise and found a handgun that was reported stolen in Turlock. Inside Vasquez's car were the $1,000 jeans. The bikes had been sold, and once again, the online cycling community will have to keep a watchful eye for them.
Vasquez was arrested on suspicion of having stolen property and has since been released from jail with a pending court date. The man linked to the stolen gun, 18-year-old Carlos Santellano, remains in jail on suspicion of illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition, and having stolen property.
The discovery of the gun took police by surprise, and said it doubles as a warning about the risks of buying from sketchy sources.
"It's a big deal anytime we can do something to impact the potential for violence," Ciaburro said.
For Hatfield, it's a validation of the cycling community's social-media-driven efforts, and proof that recovering a stolen bike isn't always just about the bike.
"More often than not," she said, "I've found that these high-end bike thefts are connected to larger crimes, tied to stuff that's much worse."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
For more information about tracking and recovering stolen bicycles online, log on to www.stolenbicycleregistry.com.