After carjacking of BHS Mountain Bike Team members, community raises $22K

Carjacking is rare in Berkeley and the targeting of BHS students, coaches and their bikes made the incident particularly shocking.

This bike and van were taken in a carjacking in Berkeley on Saturday. Credit: Dan Leaverton

Two men with a gun confronted a small group of Berkeley High Mountain Bike Team members over the weekend, taking their van and four bicycles in a brazen daytime carjacking before speeding off through northwest Berkeley and evading capture.

No arrests have been made and no property has been recovered, but an outpouring of community support means the students will be able to ride again before long. As of publication time, a GoFundMe set up to replace what was taken had already raised more than $22,000.

“I didn’t expect to hit that —  it was just a reach goal,” the team’s head coach, Nick Hoeper-Tomich, told Berkeleyside on Monday afternoon. “The story kind of blew up really fast through social media. It snowballed pretty quickly.”

It’s not surprising that word traveled fast: Crimes like Saturday’s carjacking don’t happen often in Berkeley. In fact, it was the first of its kind in recent memory. The city had about a dozen carjackings each in 2019 and 2020, the most recent data available. But the targeting of BHS students, coaches and their bikes made the incident particularly shocking.

Many readers who were disturbed by the incident, which made the TV news on KPIX over the weekend, emailed Berkeleyside to share their alarm.

On Monday, Berkeleyside spoke with two coaches who had been in the van, along with a third coach and two Berkeley High students, when it was taken at gunpoint. They continued to grapple with the trauma of what had happened.

“I’m really surprised at how this has affected me,” said OT, one of the coaches in the van. “I felt blank when it was happening. It wasn’t for awhile that it started to settle in.” He paused, then added: “I’m having a pretty hard time with it emotionally.”

Berkeley High Mountain Bike Team Coach Lani directs a ride in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Courtesy: Coach Jayne

Saturday began with a special event: a full-team practice ride at Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa Valley. The club is so large — with 100 student-athletes on the roster as well as nearly 40 ride leaders and coaches — that it breaks up into smaller groups for most of its practices throughout the week.

Once a month or so, however, the entire club comes together for team-building exercises and a mountain bike ride. Saturday, after meeting at 8 a.m. in Berkeley, the day kicked off with a picnic at Kennedy Park in Napa and a student-driven discussion about how to increase diversity and inclusion on the team and reach more BHS communities.

The weather shifted and it began to rain, but the students stayed put in the grassy field and continued to brainstorm. They kept up their conversations until their coaches — impressed with their passion but aware of the time — urged them to move onto the ride itself. Riders covered 12-13 miles of rocky terrain at Skyline Wilderness, then headed back to Berkeley in smaller groups.

Coach Dan Leaverton, who had driven his family’s van to Napa that morning, was set to drop off four people Saturday afternoon. The group got back to Berkeley at about 3 p.m. and he made his first stop: at Eighth and Virginia streets near James Kenney Park.

He and a student were taking a bike off the rack mounted to the back of the minivan, a silver 2005 Honda Odyssey, when everything changed in an instant.

“This car comes to a sudden stop behind us,” Leaverton said. “Somebody gets out and yells at us to leave the bike on the rack.”

But it was too late, the bike was already mostly unhooked. So one of the carjackers dragged it back to his car and tried, unsuccessfully, to put it inside. So he left it in the roadway.

Leaverton said the man, who wore a ski mask, came back toward him. It was then that Leaverton noticed the gun in the man’s left hand. He was pointing it and ordering everyone out of the vehicle.

Then the gunman got into the van and took off at what seemed to be “some crazy speed” over the speed bumps in the residential street. His associate followed behind him in a white car.

Leaverton said the driver in the white car — who also wore a ski mask — opened his door and grabbed the bike in the roadway by its handlebars. Then he dragged it along with him for about 50 feet, causing major damage, before letting it go.

“As if taking our bikes and the van wasn’t bad enough,” Leaverton mused, adding: “We’re just going to make sure that you can’t enjoy this one either.”

The whole incident was over within minutes.

Coach OT said the men had struck him as nervous and ill-prepared.

“They were on a Berkeley neighborhood street with people around,” he told Berkeleyside. “I don’t know what they were thinking. It was crazy.”

Just before the gunman sped off with the minivan, OT said he suddenly remembered he had left his cellphone inside. He was able to reach in and grab it so the group could call police.

“Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised I even remembered to grab my phone,” he said. “I couldn’t process it fast enough.”

The Berkeley High Mountain Bike Team huddle at the Exchequer Bike Race on Feb. 26, 2022. Courtesy: Lisa H.

Leaverton hadn’t been so lucky. He’d left his phone on a mount near the driver’s seat. But he tried to turn the situation to his advantage: He called his partner and had her track the phone through an app. It worked for 15-20 minutes before someone turned it off in Oakland.

The cellphone data gave police some leads, but the investigation is ongoing. The coaches said a nearby security camera had also caught the entire incident on video. But neither man said he thought he would see the bikes again.

Police said witnesses described the man with the gun as 5 feet 7 inches tall, wearing a dark, hooded sweatshirt and black pants. The other man was described as Hispanic, 5 feet 8 inches tall, wearing dark or black clothing, gray sweatpants and white-and-black sneakers.

In the hours after the attack, the coaches worked to offer support and reassurance to the students who had been with them, and also spread the word to the broader cycling community about what had taken place.

In between trying to track his stolen phone and communicating with other team members, Leaverton sent an alert about the carjacking, along with several safety tips, to a handful of local cycling clubs. His initial message reached about 1,500 people in the clubs and then spread from there.

“It was extremely reactive,” Leaverton told Berkeleyside. “I got home and just felt like, hey, I need to tell people what happened. There’s something they can do, and we need to start doing it.”

His biggest advice was for cyclists to be aware of their surroundings, and to watch for anyone who might be following them. He said he thought he had been followed off the freeway by the carjackers. He also urged cyclists to buy an AirTag and attach it to their bike so that it could be tracked if taken.

“This did not happen on Skyline,” he wrote in his community message, in reference to a recent spate of robberies targeting cyclists in the East Bay hills. “This occurred in daylight on a street with many people around and 5 people in a van.”

On Monday, he added the following advice during his interview with Berkeleyside: “Make a friend so that you’re biking with somebody. Until the people stealing bikes and attacking us know that they can’t get away with it, it’ll continue to happen.”

Leaverton said that, for him, the hardship resulting from the carjacking would not be a financial one. And he said he recognized the degree of privilege that allowed him to feel that way.

But he said that wasn’t necessarily the case for the people who had been with him. That was true for at least one of the students, another coach told Berkeleyside, who had worked hard and saved up to buy their bike themselves.

Leaverton said he had, however, been somewhat surprised to feel a sense of loss about the family van, which they’d had for 16 years.

“We’re all complaining about how old and tired it is,” Leaverton said. “At the same time, we have just had so much fun in that van, all the road trips and memories.”

He said he had experienced a range of emotions since the attack, “somewhere between sadness and helplessness and rage.” And he said he viewed what happened Saturday as a systemic issue.

“What person that has an education and a job and a home goes out and robs kids of their bikes and points a gun at them and forces them out of their car? This is a societal problem,” he said. “I’m one of the ‘haves.’ But, until we take care of people and everybody has an equal shot, this isn’t going to change. The police are a Band-Aid way of trying to control it.”

He said the situation was depressing to consider on many levels.

Leaverton and OT both said they kept going over what had happened in their minds, along with what they might have done differently to change the outcome. But both said they would not have wanted to escalate the situation.

“I think back and feel like, I should have tackled the guy, I should have kicked him,” OT said. “Then I tell myself, no, I’m not James Bond.”

“It’s a lot of circular thinking,” Leaverton said. “It’s not helpful.”

The Berkeley High Mountain Bike Team pit at the club’s most recent race, in Modesto, on April 9, 2022. Courtesy: Coach Julie

Head coach Hoeper-Tomich told Berkeleyside on Monday that the whole situation had been surreal.

He has been with the Berkeley High Mountain Bike Team in some role for nearly two decades, ever since he was a freshman at Berkeley High himself. But he said he had never heard of anything quite like this.

“It’s just so crappy to even have to think about this as a coach. I want to focus on developing our riders’ skills and confidence,” he said. “I don’t want to be thinking about crime and safety: It’s not my wheelhouse.”

Hoeper-Tomich said he had been in his backyard Saturday after the ride, washing mud off some bikes, when a group text alerted him to the carjacking that had just happened. He quickly contacted the rest of the team to make sure everyone else was all right. Then he began thinking about how he might help.

His main concerns had been how to get everyone back out on the trails and riding again, and also how to mitigate any trauma that might have resulted from the incident.

“The last thing we want is that these kids, who love riding, to be discouraged from being out in the world and being involved in something they love,” Hoeper-Tomich said. He set up the GoFundMe so they would not have to rely on insurance or bureaucratic red tape before having their wheels replaced.

With the fundraiser’s success, the immediate needs have been met, he said. Any money left over will go toward better safety protocols, such as GPS trackers for team bikes, part of a program to lend bikes to students for the season so that any person who wants to ride can do so, regardless of their family’s financial means.

But Hoeper-Tomich said he also knows the deeper work would be ongoing: that it would take time to process all the impacts and work on broader solutions.

“We’re trying to find an avenue to try and break through the discouragement,” he said. “It’s an ongoing question on how we’re going to deal with this risk.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.