Johannesburg - A group of citizen sleuths fed up with being victims of a cycle-jacking crime spree across Pretoria and Johannesburg have fought back and have brought down an alleged international syndicate.
And it all started when one cyclist, who wants to be identified as René, decided he had had enough after his friend was knocked off his bike during a violent cycle jacking.
What was to follow was a 48-day hunt that saw the cycling community turn detectives and eventually help in the arrest of seven suspects.
During those 48 days, there were 44 known incidents, but with each crime these amateur detectives got a little closer in identifying who the robbers were.
What they were up against was a syndicate with a particular violent modus operandi.
The men, usually operating in teams of four to eight, would strike in the early morning.
They would use two vehicles, a car and a bakkie. The stolen bicycle would be placed on the bakkie.
Sometimes one of the vehicles would bump a cyclist off his bike, as they did with René’s friend.
On other occasions, they would use the car door to knock a cyclist down.
Another method was for one of the cars to drive ahead and drop off men that would set up an ambush.
Sue and her riding partner Ian became victims of such an ambush in Meadowdale, while riding to a cycle race in early March. It was about 5.30 in the morning when a bakkie slowly drove past them.
Only later did they realise that men hiding on the back of the bakkie had jumped off and were walking abreast ahead of them.
“So we were riding up a hill and I saw these guys and said ‘well, let’s get around them’. As I passed one of them, he hit me on the head and I went down,” said Sue, who didn't want to use her full name.
Ian was able to narrowly escape their attackers and made his way to a filling station, to raise the alarm. But found that it was still closed.
Sue’s attacker kept punching her, trying to get her to release her bike. She was using her legs to hold onto it. Eventually they took her bike and watch, but she was able to get a good look and pick up the accents of her attackers, which was too late to help René and other investigators.
She realised they were Mozambican.
This attack was one of many that had happened across Gauteng. It got so bad that in April the DA requested that the Gauteng MEC for Community Safety, Faith Mazibuko, increase police visibility and road patrols, along identified hot-spot routes, particularly in Pretoria.
Another victim of the suspected cycle jacking gang was Candice who had her bicycle stolen while riding near the Oliver Tambo International Airport.
“I often ride alone and I ride in Centurion which has hot spots, or Pretoria east where there have been incidents, or the east of Joburg. Everywhere I went there were problems, so I decided I had to get involved,” said René, who because of his involvement in the case, prefers not to use his full name.
René was introduced to Leon De Bruin, a former member of the Bedfordview CPF, who would assist them in their investigation.
They started simply by setting up a Whatsapp group that included the cycling fraternity.
Soon they were getting good intelligence about the gang.
“In essence, it was just a matter of getting like-minded people with common cause around a table and we quickly got results," said De Bruin.
“Within 48 hours of using the community, we were able to establish through the information that they were a Mozambican group.”
Members of the Whatsapp group would lend their skills to the investigation.
Some of the investigative tools used were basic programmes found on average computers.
René used spreadsheets to catalogue all the incidents. Google Earth was used to plot the robberies on a heat map. CCTV footage was gleaned for clues and other technologies used.
Soon a pattern emerged.
The gang were targeting cyclists early in the morning. René realised their motive.
Only the dedicated would be cycling so early in the morning. And they spent big money on their equipment. Some of the bikes are very expensive.
A number of security companies and the SAPS also became involved in the investigation.
The breakthrough came when the vehicles used in the crimes were identified.
But catching them would prove difficult.
"There were a lot of narrow misses where the calls came in too late," recalled René.
But the gang’s luck did eventually run out on April, Friday the 13th.
The gang using their typical modus operandi of two vehicles – which were now identified – were used in an early-morning robbery.
The alarm was raised and a patrolling security company in the Garsfontein area, in Pretoria east, responded leading to the arrest of seven suspects.
They were taken to the Garsfontein police station.
Police spokesperson Colonel Mavela Masondo said the seven suspects were arrested for common robbery.
“They are expected back at Hatfield Magistrate’s Court on Monday for a formal bail application,” he said.
For René there are still unknowns in the case that need to be investigated. There might be other gang members still out there and he would like to know what the gang was doing with the bicycles they stole. The suspicion is that they were sent to Mozambique.
The arrests have apparently had an effect. There has been a significant drop in the number of cycle jacking incidents in the areas the alleged gang operated in.
And as for René’s friend who was the cause of the investigation, he has since recovered from his attack and is back on the saddle, cycling.