Although it’s been a few days since hairstylist Peter Tubbs recovered his stolen bike, when he recounts the story for Weld at Orbit Salon in Five Points South, none of the thrill has worn off.
“I want to get the word out: bike theft is happening, but Birmingham can stop it,” says Tubbs, who tracked down his bike in Nashville and coordinated with the city’s detectives in a sting operation.
As he talks, Tubbs is still reeling — infuriated by the thieves, exhilarated by the chase. He’s fast at work, his jet-black hair dancing in front of his eyes, the shears punctuating his sentences, an apt prop as he says things like, “Man, if I’d seen that jerk carrying my bike…”
He stops to open an envelope marked “evidence packet” and empties the contents — a Birmingham police report, an invoice for the almost $2,000 Kona Cyclocross, a receipt for a new derailleur, photos of himself perched on the green bike’s saddle. In one photo, printed from Instagram, Tubbs is giving the camera the bird. Above that, he’s written a note that reads, “Pardon the rude expression…” for police who might examine the packet.
Tubbs, 31, in addition to being a hairstylist, is a musician and aspiring bamboo farmer who lives in Cullman, on his family’s land. He’s split time in Birmingham for eight years and is hoping to move back to the city soon. “When I move back, I don’t want to drive. I want to use my bike to get around town.”
That motivation, plus what Tubbs calls a “run of bad luck,” led him to take action after the theft. Discovering his bike was gone, after that string of bad luck, flipped on a switch for Tubbs.
On the morning of October 3, Tubbs says, his client beat him to work so instead of the usual routine of bringing the bike in the salon, he left it on the carrack. “Within a few hours, they had clipped the chain. I filed a police report but didn’t hear back for days.”
So Tubbs began the search, talking to regulars in Five Points and searching Craigslist posts in Birmingham and neighboring cities.
“By October 5, I almost gave up but decided to check Nashville, and behold, there is my bike.” Birmingham police told him to call Nashville.
Tubbs said he decided to take a different course of action. He began by creating an alias identity, Michael Turner — opening an email account under the handle GoGoMikeTurner, gathering details about East Nashville to “seem legit” and downloading a burner app to disguise his Alabama phone number.
Pretending to be a potential buyer for the bicycle, Tubbs began swapping emails with the seller. “I played him, basically, and got some information out of him.” In one email exchange about Pharmacy Burger, the chosen meeting location, Tubbs (as Mike Turner) warns the seller not to eat the egg-topped burger because of its reputation to turn a stomach. The seller replies, “Appreciate the heads up lol! See you at 1!”
“He said in one of his emails that he lived on the Alabama/Tennessee line…so that told me immediately that he was not in Nashville, but that he was in Alabama, probably in Birmingham. I agreed to meet with him that Saturday, October 15, in Nashville. I started planning out my operation, talking with Nashville police, the fraud department.”
Detective Kevin Allen, of the fraud department in Nashville, confirms Tubbs’ tale. “Peter [Tubbs] contacted my sergeant. Basically, the bad guys put an ad — or somebody put an ad — in Nashville on Craigslist. Peter initiated a conversation with the bad guy, and the arrangements were made for him to view the bike up here in Nashville and so we coordinated with our unit.”
The seller picked the burger joint in downtown Nashville and said he’d be there with his girlfriend. “So my best friend Todd Willoughby and I leave out from Cullman Saturday morning,” Tubbs says. “We get to Nashville early, and Todd and I scope out the perimeter of where we’re supposed to be meeting this guy to get an idea of what’s going on there.”
At this point, Tubbs and Willoughby are admittedly nervous, carrying pocketknives and mace, contemplating what might happen if this seller is someone they know or seems dangerous. “Todd came along because he was going to be the one who actually confronted the bad guy. Me being a prominent Asian guy — I’m 6 foot 2 — who’s been around Five Points a long time, there’s a chance the guy might recognize me and run. Todd was going to pretend to be Mike Turner and test drive the bike and ride it over to me so that I could confirm.”
After driving the perimeter of the meeting location, they head to the Titan Stadium, where Sergeant Howard of Nashville Fraud and Pawn had arranged to meet them.
“And when we get there, there are police everywhere. The parking lot is full,” Tubbs says, “and we’re thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ Just so happened to be a huge coincidence that on the same day the Nashville PD was doing a Crime Stoppers fundraiser. So Sergeant Howard meets with Todd and I. He gets five other policemen and we begin plotting the sting operation. These guys were having fun. … They quickly took our mace and knives to avoid a situation.”
Detective Allen says every now and then they see someone like Tubbs who handles much of the investigative leg work and only needs police to finalize the sting.
Tubbs goes on, “Here we go: six detectives, Todd and me, all in five different unmarked vehicles. We go to a nearby grocery store parking lot, and we begin to stage everything. They set all their radios to a certain channel. One of the detectives drives Todd around to the burger place to show him the game plan in more detail, because he was nervous at this point.”
If there was a time to back out, now was not it, Tubbs says.
“We all get in position. I’m listening to what’s happening on the radio because I can’t see. Here’s what I hear: ‘Todd is getting out of the car. He’s approaching the suspect. He’s shaking the suspect’s hand. He’s getting on the bicycle.’ And then they begin to laugh. ‘This bicycle seems kind of big for him. He seems kind of awkward riding it.’
“So bless my friend’s heart. He is a lot shorter than me, and the bicycle is sized for my height. The bike is 59 cm. Todd didn’t know how to change the gears on my bike, and he’s having to pedal uphill. When he finally manages to ride up the hill to where we are, the cops are laughing, but I’m stoked. I whip out my police report and confirm this is my bicycle by the serial number.”
The “bad guys,” according to Tubbs were upper middle class, in their early twenties, in a Volvo with a Shelby County Alabama plate. “Somehow they were let go. I was really surprised that they didn’t get arrested. They had some elaborate story of how they got this bicycle off of someone else. … They didn’t try to run.”
Because the suspect cooperated, claiming to “flip bikes” regularly, and because enough time had passed for him to have reasonably purchased the bicycle to resell, the police could not make an arrest. “I found it suspicious that they posted the ad in Nashville, not Birmingham. He said the market for bicycles is a lot better in Nashville. But we have to prove he’s the one who stole it, which is almost impossible,” says Detective Allen.
“I gave him my contact information, and he was going to follow up with me this week with emails he received or the Craigslist posting, but I haven’t heard from him.” Detective Allen says the Nashville District Attorney office could prosecute or Birmingham police, but he doubts they would get a conviction based on the facts of the case.
“Peter was lucky,” Detective Allen says. “It’s rare that people get their bikes back. The bad guy said he paid $600 for the bike, so he’s out that money if he’s not the one who stole the bike, so maybe he learned his lesson.”
Tubbs says he does feel lucky again. “I got my pride back,” he says.
“This wasn’t the first time I recovered stolen property. … I get this hunch, and then I get obsessed. I have to figure out the truth,” Tubbs says. “But as for working as a detective, I think I’m better suited for this. I like cutting hair. Chasing bike thieves is one thing — there are real bad guys out there, real nasty things that happen.”
Tubbs says he’s heard from friends, clients and the Birmingham Police Department that there have been many bike thefts in the past few weeks, and they’re particularly targeting higher end bicycles, although BPD has not responded to Weld’s requests for confirmation. After tracking his bike down, Tubbs hopes word will spread that cyclists have no intention of standing by idly. “Cyclists are very passionate about what they do. We’re very into using our own kinetic energy for transportation. … I think other cyclists, if they had a lead on where their stolen bicycle is at, they would have done the same thing I’ve done.”