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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Madison man's effort to recover stolen bike draws felony theft charge
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Kelley Howe (left) with Michael by the recovered bike: 'I'm going to rob three people in the middle of the street in broad daylight and then do everything I can to get the attention of a police officer?'
Kelley Howe (left) with Michael by the recovered bike: 'I'm going to rob three people in the middle of the street in broad daylight and then do everything I can to get the attention of a police officer?'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Kelley Howe gets through just about all of it. His arrest. The night in jail. Being charged with three crimes, including a felony. His ailing mother's shock to see his mug shot on Channel 15 news. The theft of his own bike. The parking ticket.

But when he gets to the part about his cat, Howe breaks down. He starts crying, then weeping.

"Her name was Luka," he says between sobs. "She was a sweetheart. I don't know where she is. It's not her fault."

Howe, 50, is a former Marine sergeant who's also worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He's disabled, and lives at Capitol Centre.

At a family gathering on July 4, Howe's brother Michael mentioned that his locked Trek 1400 road bike was recently stolen from the parking garage of his apartment. Mike, the former chair of Madison's Commission on People with Disabilities and member of its Equal Opportunities Commission, had reported the theft to Madison police.

Two days later, on July 6 at about 10:30 a.m., Kelley Howe was returning from the grocery store. As he drove past the muffler shop on Park Street, by Fish Hatchery, he saw a young man on a Trek 1400 road bike.

"Oh, that's not Mike's bike," he recalls thinking, discounting the possibility. But he pulled over to get a closer look. When he saw the modified bike components that he'd installed, he knew. It was Mike's bike.

"I took my right hand, put it on the handlebars and said, 'This is a stolen bike. It's my brother's bike, and it was reported stolen.'"

Present were three people, including the young man on the bike and his father. The father insisted he bought the bike from Goodwill for $30. Howe knew this explanation didn't make sense.

For one thing, the bike was worth much more than $30. (His brother reported its value as $900.) And it didn't have a registration sticker (license), which Goodwill makes available at the time of purchase.

Howe says he kept his hand on the bike as the young man tried to pull away. "I did not try to take the bicycle," he stresses. "I was just trying to hold onto it."

This went on for about 10 minutes before a Madison police squad car stopped at the traffic light, a few feet away. Howe called out, then tossed a muffler part from a display rack into the street, to get the officer's attention.

It worked.

Howe says he handed the officer, Erik Dalma, his driver's license, explaining: "This is a stolen bicycle, it belongs to my brother." He says Dalma also conversed, in Spanish, with the three men.

Dalma then placed Howe under arrest. He was handcuffed and driven to the Dane County Jail, fingerprinted and photographed, and held in solitary until the following afternoon. The whole time, he was focused on his cat.

 

On July 7, based on Dalma's account, Kelley Howe was charged with felony robbery with use of force and two misdemeanors: criminal damage to property (for damaging the thrown muffler part and causing a flat to a vehicle that ran over it) and disorderly conduct. He faces a maximum of eight and a half years in prison and $36,000 in fines.

According to the criminal complaint, the young man felt threatened by Howe and, in the struggle over the bike, got a scrape on his right calf. He was allowed to retain possession of the bike.

Howe says the conclusions reached by Dalma are obviously faulty. If Howe really was trying to steal the bike, why did the boy's father not use his cell phone to call the cops? And why did Howe throw the muffler part into the street while a squad car was passing?

"I'm going to rob three people in the middle of the street in broad daylight and then do everything I can to get the attention of a police officer?"

Here's the kicker: The police subsequently determined that the bike in the young man's possession was indeed the one that Michael Howe reported stolen. He got it back July 10 -- missing, he says, about $500 of parts and gear, some of which he thinks was taken after the young man was allowed to keep the bike.

Dalma did not respond to a request for comment. Lt. Stephanie Bradley Wilson says the serial number of Howe's stolen bike was not initially entered into the MPD's system, due to a problem that the city's IT staff is aware of, and working to fix. So it was only afterward that police were able to determine that the bike was Mike's.

Wilson initially didn't think police were doing any followup investigation. But after talking to Isthmus she asked that further inquiries be made of the young man -- whom Isthmus is not naming because he, unlike Howe, has not been charged.

She's not optimistic because "there's not a lot of evidence" to tie him to the crime.

Actually, there is. Michael Howe sent an email to Jen Adams, the housing manager of his apartment complex, where the theft occurred. He asked if she knew the young man found in possession of his stolen bike.

Adams sent this reply, which Michael says he passed on to police: "I did some checking and [the young man] used to work in the building and his parents still do work in the building."

 

When he stopped on Park Street to check on the bike, Kelley Howe had groceries in his car, his bike in his trunk, and his cat along for the ride. He says he begged jail authorities to have police check on his cat, but by the time they did so, late that night, Luka had escaped -- presumably through his trunk, which was ajar because it held his bike.

When Howe got back to his car after getting out of jail, it had a $30 ticket on the windshield. The police had moved it to another street, right below a no-parking sign. His bike was gone.

That night, Channel 15 reported Howe's arrest for "trying to steal a bike away from a rider who was still on it." It didn't bother to say "allegedly."

Lt. Wilson says any decisions on the charges against Howe are up to the Dane County District Attorney's Office. But she suggests at least some will stand, saying of Howe: "He caused a disturbance."

Assistant District Attorney Brian Asmus, who's handling the case, considers it "relevant" that the bike in question was in fact stolen from Howe's brother. He's asked the cops for additional information.

Howe, after days of looking, still has not found his cat. His driver's license, he says, was never given back. And he knows there's one more shoe left to drop: the bill for the flat tire caused by his successful effort to get the attention of police.

"Could this have worked out any worse?" he asks.

Of course it could; Howe might still end up with a criminal conviction and additional jail time. That's at least as likely as police and prosecutors admitting they made a mistake.

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