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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Crimefighter thrown in jail
Man's effort to recover stolen property draws multiple charges
Kelley (left) and Michael Howe by the recovered bike.
Kelley (left) and Michael Howe by the recovered bike.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Kelley Howe gets through just about all of it. His arrest. The night he spent 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 other 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. The charges prescribe 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 father not use his cell phone to call the cops? And why did Howe throw the muffler part into the road 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.

On Tuesday, after Isthmus made inquiries into the case, Madison police issued a $300 citation for obstructing an officer against the father, Javier Tecua-Hernandez. Lt. Wilson says he was charged for changing his story from saying he bought the bike at Goodwill to claiming he found it abandoned.

As for the bike theft itself, Wilson says "there's not a lot of evidence" to tie the father or son 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, he says, 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."

On Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Brian Asmus, who's handling the case, confirmed he plans to dismiss the felony theft charge against Howe next Monday, July 27, after first giving the "victim" a chance to object. But the two misdemeanor charges will remain, at least for now, as Asmus awaits additional information from police.

Lt. Wilson, for her part, seems to support the remaining charges, saying of Howe: "He caused a disturbance."

Howe says he'll fight any charges, although he does not have a lawyer. After two weeks of looking, he has not found his cat. His driver's license, he says, was never given back. And he knows there's one 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.

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