NB: As the police investigation is ongoing, I have used acronyms instead of full names, and omitted all screenshots.
After a 175km ride over Nufenen, Gotthard, and Furka passes, I took my road bike on the IR 1732 train from Brig to Geneva. It was stored in the bicycle compartment, hanging from one of the ceiling hooks. I was sitting about 8 metres away, keeping my bicycle in view. Arriving in Lausanne at 20:39, a fair share of the passengers left the train and I couldn’t see the bike for maybe a minute. Then it was gone.
Despite immediately jumping off the train, there was no trace of my bicycle. The conductor, who also remembered my bicycle on the train, but hadn’t seen it on the platform, called the SBB transport police (who were not helpful), and held the train long enough so I could get my helmet.
The next issue – most police stations in Vaud were closed because of the COVID-19-situation. To the bewilderment of an off-duty train conductor and me, this includes the one at the train station. So, I called 117 to report the incident, but was first met with the reply that I should go in person to an open police station, which doesn't exist on a Sunday evening in the whole Canton of Vaud … I was able to convince the dispatcher to send out a police officer in person to the station to meet me. The first officer who arrived was called away to assist in an arrest the moment we met, so I had to wait about half an hour for another police patrol. They took my details, and noted a description of my bicycle, but were not very optimistic to see it around the station, as by now more than an hour had passed since the bicycle had disappeared.
Quite disheartened, I took a train back to Geneva, feeling a little out of place in cycling clothes without a bicycle.
The First Lead
While still on the train to Geneva, I posted about the theft in several cycling groups on Facebook, WhatsApp groups, Instagram, and in the Rapha Cycling Club app. Back in Geneva, I took (a badly needed) shower, and then started to write a detailed description of my bicycle in French, when I saw a message on the RCC app. J.M. had stumbled across my bicycle for sale on Facebook. The sale page, A.P.B., had only recently been set up, and featured, along with my bicycle, still dirty from the ride, two other expensive road bikes, which also seemed to have been equally involuntarily misappropriated. But the page was based in Algeria, even the phone number indicated was Algerian.
Nevertheless, I made another call to 117, was told I needed to report this at a police station in person. Four minutes after J.M. had messaged, I was out of the door on the way to the Geneva Police. After some 20 minutes waiting, the police turned out not to be all that interested in stolen bicycles, told me that they cannot do much for me, as the theft had happened in Vaud, not in Geneva, and insisted I should go to a Police station in Vaud in the morning.
After a short and sleepless night, I gathered all the documents I had relating to my bicycle (as it is a self-made custom built, I didn't have one invoice for the whole bike), printed screenshots of the sale page, the profile of the “owner” of the page, and got a Mobility car to drive to the headquarters of the Police Cantonale Vaudoise, which is perched above the city centre of Lausanne in the La Blécherette district. The building looked deserted upon my arrival, and it took quite some time for anyone to answer the doorbell. Initially, the police officer insisted that the headquarters of the police were closed because of the COVID-19-Situation (notably, in all of Switzerland, 12 new cases were reported that day, zero in the Canton of Vaud), and directed me to the list of open police stations in Vaud. Only after I pointed out that none of the police stations on the list were actually open, he reluctantly agreed to see if any of his colleagues would have time for me.
He found two, 20 minutes later. After changing my homemade face mask for a surgical one, two police officers huddled down with me in a small, windowless room, and we went over the theft in detail. Maybe it helped that the police officers were also into endurance sports, both were wearing Garmin Forerunners. In total, they spent about 2 ½ hours with me, contacting the SBB transport police again on my behalf and insisting on an analysis of all video material, contacting the seller/thief on Facebook, even calling the Algerian number. Surprisingly, someone picked up, and claimed we could have a test ride, but in Marseille only. He also mentioned his name, which seemed to ring a bell with the police, but they were not allowed to tell me details. Then we focused on the photos of the other stolen bikes on the A.P.B. Facebook page. One had a name sticker on it, M.V., someone with that name was working as dentist in Lausanne, but could not be reached. More interestingly, one of the bicycles had been photographed in front of the mailboxes in an apartment building. And one of the names on the mailboxes was decipherable, Y. R.-L. Unfortunately, there was no Y. R.-L. found in the police database anywhere in the Canton of Vaud, also no R.-L., and both the Y.R.-combination and the Y.L.-combination yielded several hundred results. Having come a bit to a dead end, but feeling a little more confident about seeing my bicycle again, I left the Centre Blécherette around lunchtime, with the promise of a call back from one of the police officers that evening.
The Marseille Connection
I was still intrigued by the statement obtained on the phone by the police, that my bicycle might be in Marseille. It made sense. The bicycle was posted for sale in Algeria, there are direct ferry connections from Marseille to the main ports in Algeria, and Marseille, unfortunately, has the reputation of being a hot spot for criminal activities in France (although it is a really beautiful and interesting city otherwise). So, I got in touch with B.L., an acquaintance living in Marseille, whom I had met at the NatureMan in France last year, and who had been quite interested in my bicycle back then. He was kind enough to contact a triathlon-teammate, who works for the police in Marseille, and the police in France directly on my behalf, and tried to set up a trap for the thief in Marseille. Merci Mille Fois!
The Message from the Obituary
Unfortunately, the evening call had not yielded any news of my bicycle, so I spent my next morning collecting all the individual invoices and payment receipts for my bicycle to prepare a claim with my household insurance.
I had posted about the theft in several closed Facebook groups, and had to explain why I didn’t follow up with a shareable search post, as the police had requested me to stay quiet on public social media for some days so as not to alert the thieves that we had seen the ad. One of the members in one group, J.F., contacted me in a direct message during the afternoon, and offered help with some digital forensics. I shared the information I had with him, and encouraged by the idea, also started some online research with the name from the mailbox again. We stumbled across an obituary notice. From 2010. Y. R.-L. was not alive; hence he could not be found in the official databases. The obituary notice had two addresses of his next of kin, both in Vevey.
Thankfully, Google Streetview provides very comprehensive coverage for Switzerland. The house at the first address didn’t look anything like the one in the photos on A.P.B. The second address was a direct hit. The colour of the doorframe matched, the paving of the driveway was the same, the wall outside the entrance was very similar to the one visible in a few of the photos. J.F. agreed to meet up with me and call the police together with me, I was getting a bit worn out from this emotional roller coaster, and was not too sure whether I would manage to be convincing in French on the phone anymore. He also found the granddaughter of Y. R.-L., and contacted her, obtaining the confirmation that we had the right address. The police were surprised, but seemed to take our research seriously, after two phone calls and the exchange of some e-mails, it was time to wait again.
I spent most of Wednesday anxiously waiting for any new information. I received several calls from the Police Vaudoise, asking for more details and clarification, and was simultaneously in contact with B.L., who was still coordinating things in Marseille, and was trying to contact the Algerian phone number from the Facebook page. At night, I noticed lots of new grey hairs growing on my head …
In the early morning hours of June fourth, the police raided the apartment building, carried out arrests, and seized more than a dozen stolen bicycles. J.F. and I were informed of the raid by the granddaughter still living at the address, the police would not comment on details, as the investigations were still ongoing.
Finally, in the late afternoon, I received a call from the police in Vevey that my bicycle was among those found in the house raid. I could pick it up from the police station as early as the next morning.
So, I made another reservation with Mobility, and drove to Vevey on Friday. The wind on that day was impressive, and waves were crashing over the lakeside barrier outside the police station. The process of picking up the bicycle was surprisingly quick, the longest part was to register that my bags, lights, and the Garmin mount were still missing. But I had my bicycle back. A quick check at my favourite bike store in Geneva confirmed that nothing was broken, it had just a few new scratches, as it seemed to have fallen over during the theft or the recovery.
M.V., the owner of one of the other stolen bicycles, replied to my messages that I had sent over the week, the moment I came back home with my bicycle. As it turned out, his bicycle had not been recovered yet. Feeling encouraged by the success in finding my bicycle, I turned once more to Facebook. And indeed, his was still being offered on Facebook, again in Algeria, but by a different profile, that of M.H. In two hours of meticulous research, I could establish that the original owner of the M.H. profile was no longer alive, at least since 2016, his son seemed to be using the profile. Furthermore, the son had an address in Vevey, worked for a foundation there, had regular access to the apartment building, where the other bicycles were found, frequently travelled to Marseille, more specifically to the ferry port where ships would leave to Algeria, and was Facebook-friends with one of the brothers of the profile who had set up the A.P.B. page. With all this information, the police was able to conduct another raid a week later, and M.V.s bicycle was found.