The Bicycle Thief
Police say James Clayton befriended – then ripped off – many Austin bicyclists
In mid-December, among the hundreds of ads on Austin's Craigslist listing bicycles and bike parts for sale – sandwiched between ads for a little girl's pink bike with handlebar tassels and a mountain bike with a rusty chain – was this surprising post:
WARNING: KNOWN BIKE THIEF (Austin)
Reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: 2008-12-18, 9:53PM CST
A guy named James Clayton who has lived in Austin for a little over a year has been befriending cyclists, finding out where they live, what they have, and when they won't be home. He breaks into homes and steals bikes, frames, and parts. If you know this guy DO NOT share personal information, as far as we know he only steals from close friends of his.
Below the text was a photo of the smirking face of James Ray Clayton, saluting the camera with a Shiner.
The next morning, Dec. 19, local cycling enthusiast Jason Abels was scanning a variety of sites to find potential content for his popular blog – Austin Texas Bike Stuff (www.atxbs.com) – an anthology of bicycle events and commentary on Austin's thriving bike culture. The Craigslist ad caught his eye, as did the "goofy photo," and he proceeded to post it on his site – rather riskily, he admitted later, since it could have been considered libelous.
"Woke up bright and early (well technically not 'bright') and saw this on Craigslist," he wrote. "I don't know the validity of any of this, but nonetheless [Clayton's] expression is rather entertaining. If you know this fella, keep a close eye on your two-wheeled possessions."
"Little did I know it, but this was the beginning of a really weird story," Abels recalled recently. Indeed. A few weeks later, in early February, 42-year-old Clayton would be arrested in possession of more than $60,000 worth of bicycles and bicycle parts – most or all allegedly stolen from friends and acquaintances he had met in the local bike scene. And unfolding since Clayton's arrest is a bizarre tale of an apparently brazen con man: an arrogant, ingratiating guy who used his own passion for bicycle racing to befriend numerous cyclists then broke into their homes to steal their high-dollar bikes. Additionally perplexing is Clayton's personal tale – how true is anyone's guess – that his near-death experience at age 35 (a heart attack followed by a lengthy coma) dashed his professional racing hopes but made him a "changed" man.
At 6 feet and a slender 165 pounds, Clayton has the lean and strong physique of an avid cyclist. In a radio interview last year, he described himself as egocentric, adding that it's often a requisite for successful athletes. Those who liked Clayton – at least initially – describe him as charming and gregarious, although a bit arrogant. Others not so fond of him said his exuberant personality made him "creepy," adding that his attitude toward women was condescending and cocky.
"He was just so full of himself," said Val Hargrove, an amateur bike racer who rode with Clayton for nearly a year and invited him into his circle of friends. Police accuse Clayton of breaking into Hargrove's home and making off with $15,800 worth of bikes and equipment. That was in July of last year – yet in November, Clayton cheerfully shared Thanksgiving dinner at Hargrove's home. "He had a strange personality in that he was over-the-top friendly," said Matt Gordon, another cyclist who rode home from a local race with Clayton one evening, thereby unwittingly leading Clayton to another alleged score. Police say Clayton broke into Gordon's house and stole thousands of dollars' worth of bikes and expensive racing gear. "He's a smooth operator, cocky and confident," said Zachery Christopher, who became close friends with Clayton and then leased to him a garage apartment behind his Woodrow Avenue home. Later, amidst the contraband in Clayton's apartment, police found two of Christopher's bikes.
"I liked him more than most people because he was so friendly," said one bike-shop owner who asked not to be identified. "I let him work, really just volunteer, around the shop. He helped people out all the time. ... People would come in, and he'd fix their flats, whatever – although he was so annoying to my other employees that I couldn't have hired him." The owner later discovered that bike parts as well as a frame worth $4,000 had gone missing from the store, and he believes Clayton heisted them.
The list of allegations against Clayton is considerable. In an Arizona triathlon, Clayton is believed to have donned a wet suit and race number, entered the water during the swimming portion of the race, then emerged and made off with the best bike he could find. Here in Austin, Clayton allegedly dated a local woman for a few months, abruptly broke up with her, then broke into her garage to steal her $8,000 bike.
Adding Things Up
Clayton arrived in Austin in late 2006, telling new friends he had left his Arizona home for something different, a new life. Over the next two years, police say, he was likely involved in a slew of burglaries, apparently often ignoring high-dollar electronic equipment and other valuables to focus solely on high-dollar bikes – the kinds that sell for $3,000 to $10,000. Police and all those interviewed for this story say they still don't know who was behind the Craigslist ad that first pointed a finger of suspicion at Clayton, but the ad quickly sparked the subject's interest, as well as that of the bicycling community.
After Abels posted the Craigslist blog warning, he received e-mails from Clayton and his girlfriend, Layne Severson, disputing the charge that he was a thief and asking him to remove the post. A local cyclist and attorney also e-mailed to warn Abels that he could get in legal trouble for making false accusations. Abels didn't delete the post but revised it to add: "Honestly I don't know anyone involved so I can't say what's true and what's not but most of what's on this page is bullshit anyways, so don't sweat it too bad James. As that old book says, 'The truth shall set you free.' Would the poster of the deleted [Craigslist] entry care to let me know the motivation behind this allegation? If so drop me a line. Otherwise I'm just assuming this is bullshit and slander, and that James is an ok guy who's only crime is being prone to making goofy expressions (and really, who isn't)."
On the next day, Abels added the comment: "James, if I caused you any problems I'm sorry. You seem to be an alright guy and a bike racer, so I can't see any reason that you'd want [to] poison your own well and steal from the community. I posted the original craigslist ad because I try to post anything about local bike thieves that I come across, so that it gets a wider distribution. I tried to make it clear that I was unsure of the validity of the message, but like I said if someone took it seriously and it caused you headaches, I apologize."
According to Abels, shortly after that post he got a call from the police, who questioned him about Clayton and what he might know and outlined some of their case against Clayton. Abels kept the police inquiry under wraps but was, he says now, "biting [his] tongue 'til it bleeds" waiting to fully expose Clayton as a thief.
As it turned out, police investigators, led by Austin Police Department Detective Scott Askew, had been working through November and December with three cyclists – Hargrove, Gordon, and Mark Wiggans – to confirm Clayton as the prime suspect in burglaries of their homes. Hargrove had spotted several bike components identical to those stolen from him on two online sale sites – www.weightweenies.com and www.serotta.com. The seller's e-mail was Clayton's. "I knew those were mine when I saw them," Hargrove said. "I confronted James about it, but he denied that they were mine and made up some story."
Wiggans had a similar experience; both he and Hargrove contacted the police. For his missing gear, Gordon didn't have to look online. He encountered Clayton on a ride last summer and noticed he was wearing a rare Nike watch/heart monitor given to Gordon by the company; Clayton also had a unique Orbea seat clamp. Both items were identical to ones stolen from Gordon's home in late 2007 – in all, more than $15,000 in bikes and equipment had been taken. "Things were starting to add up," said Gordon, who remembered that Clayton had ridden home with him one evening after a race, so he knew where he lived.
With the evidence from the three cyclists in hand, police confronted Clayton. Christopher, Clayton's landlord and friend, recalls that in late January he heard police banging on Clayton's door of the garage apartment behind his Woodrow Avenue home. "James just refused to answer the door, wouldn't talk to them," he said. "I talked to James later, and he said it was BS, drama, and to just ignore it. I said 'OK.' I believed him. ... He was my friend."
Christopher next saw police at his residence on Feb. 3. This time they were armed with a search warrant for the garage apartment and, he learned later, had already apprehended Clayton as he exited a local bank. Inside the apartment, police found a huge stash of bikes, frames, components, dozens of racing sunglasses, camera and computer equipment, wheels, and more. In one of Clayton's cars – he owned both a Land Rover SUV and a Ford Bronco – they found bolt cutters and more bike parts. They also found rental documents for a self-storage unit on Burnet Road – a subsequent search of the storage unit revealed even more apparently stolen bikes and parts.
Shortly thereafter, Clayton was charged with five counts of burglary of a habitation (second-degree felonies) and two counts of felony theft of merchandise valued between $1,500 and $20,000. In the weeks since, he has been in jail under bonds totaling $150,000. His attorney, Brian Bernard, has declined to permit interviews with his client.
"This case is incredibly complicated," Askew said. "We're still unwinding it, looking at evidence, and there could be more charges." Over and above potential local charges, police learned that Clayton had fled Arizona under theft charges in Maricopa County, following allegations of the same type of bike thefts. He has also served time (reportedly 11 months) in federal prison in California on grand theft charges and was released in 1992. Askew says that Clayton could face extradition to Arizona, although it remains uncertain what will happen with so many charges pending locally.
Flaming the Villain
Abels began updating his blog, now with a full account of his dealings with police and of Clayton's charges. Local bicycle blogs, forums, and websites were abuzz with scores of Clayton-related posts, altered photos of him in jail, and numerous personal threats, such as these two from the Austin VooDoo section of www.bikemojo.com: "I hope they give the range roving driving punk ... time in the joint ... you can rape and kill people with a slap on the wrist ... but don't steal bikes ... cuz you're going to the hole, big time."
"This guy better not get away from the cops anytime soon, they will find him IMPALED on a bike frame, hanging from a tree somewhere down on the greenbelt."
Speculation began accumulating online, with posters wondering whether Clayton had burglarized their homes, and beyond Austin rumors, bicyclists wondered whether he was responsible for a wide array of thefts at racing events across the country where people had seen him or where his name was listed among race results. Some joked that Clayton had slipped out of jail to steal Lance Armstrong's bike – taken from a team truck Feb. 14, during the Tour of California race.
Abels suggested that along with the theft charges, something about Clayton's widely distributed mug shot – perhaps the dark eyes and thousand-yard stare – had turned him into the local cycling incarnation of evil. "He's a supervillain now," Abels said. "It's like something out of a comic book." And while the online comments mocked and flamed Clayton, others in the bicycle community were dealing with more painful experiences: first the loss of expensive bicycles and equipment but perhaps more profoundly the personal sense of their violated trust and Clayton's apparently cavalier con games and betrayal.
One victim, who asked not to be identified, pointed to the unusual nature of the crimes. "You don't have burglars who are home-entertainment enthusiasts who then befriend electronic-gadget enthusiasts at local events, gain their trust, and then go steal their jumbo flat screens," he said. "These are bikes ... personal items you ride and mold to, and the bicycling community is close-knit – so any kind of con like this is going to hit home hard."
Clayton was indeed an avid bicycle-racing enthusiast. He was a fixture at the local Dirt Derby, Thursday races at the Driveway in East Austin, and at local criteriums – all popular events for local amateur and professional racers. There is now much debate over his claims of previous professional racing achievements. Online event records reflect that he raced in various competitions sanctioned by professional associations, as both a mountain-bike and road-bike racer; but it's unclear whether he ever achieved "professional" status or earned the sponsors of which he bragged. Racing categories begin at 5 for entry-level racers; top racers are ranked at Category 1. According to available records, Clayton apparently never achieved anything higher than a USA Cycling Category 4 status.
Hargrove recalls that he concluded after a lengthy conversation with Clayton one evening, "He really didn't know anything about racing." Other cyclists agreed, adding that Clayton told stories about his past racing and sponsorships that didn't accord with their experiences. Clayton also told everyone he knew that his heart attack at age 35 had ended his professional career and future aspirations. Most cyclists accepted the story at face value.
Personal Betrayal and a Big Dick
It wasn't Clayton's bragging rights in cycling, or lack of them, that left deep personal wounds. More intimately, many people trusted Clayton and opened their lives to him. Hargrove still wonders how Clayton could have enjoyed his home at Thanksgiving dinner, after apparently stealing Hargrove's bikes a few months earlier. Christopher recalls that he also included Clayton in his family's celebration of Thanksgiving. "He took two of my bicycles," Christopher said, apparently with a cover story that his bike was also gone. "I was gone for the weekend at my parents' ranch, and I got a call from James. He said, 'I hope you moved our bikes, because if you didn't, they've been nabbed.'"
Christopher says he met Clayton in 2007 at Bicycle Sport Shop on South Lamar, where fans were watching the coverage of the Tour de France. "He was there pretty much every day, and we hit it off," he recalled. "We'd go on rides, out to dinner, to clubs. He set me up on dates with some girls. He was a good buddy – until the final betrayal."
Christopher, Hargrove, and other men now believe that Clayton gained their friendship merely in order to steal from them. The story was apparently no different, though more intimate, with at least some of the women Clayton pursued romantically. Hargrove recalls that from his arrival in Austin, Clayton was known as a "ladies' man" who either turned off women with his "bullshit" or enamored them with relentless attention. He and Christopher also noticed that Clayton would date women briefly, then drop them shortly for a variety of reasons. "After going out with one girl for a while and then calling it off," Hargrove recalled, "he told me that they weren't physically compatible – that his penis was too big."
"He was hitting on all the girls [at the races], so the girls knew exactly who he was," remembered Lindy Alton, who was riding home with Clayton one evening but peeled off and left him before arriving at her home, because she thought he was "creepy." Alton says that later she almost bought a wheel set listed in an anonymous Craigslist ad, until she learned her correspondent was Clayton. Once he discovered that she knew his identity, he stopped responding.
Another local cyclist, who asked not to be named, said Clayton barraged her with MySpace messages; he was eventually successful in getting her attention. "Usually I ignore all random e-mails. ... But his messages were funny. ... And after all, he was a cyclist," she said. She finally agreed to meet him at Bicycle Sport Shop to watch the Tour de France and then dated him briefly. "After he got a chance to see my house once or twice, I never saw him again, and he wouldn't call me. He finally wrote me back, and it was a rude e-mail. It was basically saying, 'I'm just not as into you as you are to me.'"
Six months later, the woman's $8,000 bike was stolen. Someone used a crowbar to break through a door, and even though an alarm sounded and police arrived minutes later, the burglar had escaped. "They didn't take anything else, passed up my mountain bike, and just took the road bike. I asked myself who could have known about my bike and done this, and of course James was on a very short list. ... But he was supposedly a cyclist and had nice bikes himself. In the end he was a professional con man, and he purposely engaged me online and tried to gain my trust and friendship and date me just to get to my bike. What James did was incredibly predatory. It was just sick."
Partners in Crime?
What Clayton may or may not have done to hurt Layne Severson remains under debate among bicyclists. Severson was Clayton's girlfriend for several months before his Feb. 3 arrest. A couple of weeks later, on Feb. 19, police arrested Severson on felony charges of money laundering, alleging that her PayPal account had been used in several thousand dollars' worth of Internet sales of stolen items.
Severson was released on bond, and her attorney, Rip Collins, says she is "very disturbed about" her ordeal. "I don't think this girl is guilty," Collins said. "She had a relationship with this guy; he gave her a line and got her to sell his parts and trade and such. ... He used her PayPal account." Some bicyclists who know Severson also believe she was duped or in a state of denial about her boyfriend's activities. "I called her right after ... [Clayton's arrest] happened," Christopher said. "She seemed in shock. She denied it to the end."
Hargrove also knows Severson and says she "went into complete denial" and insisted, "It's not possible." He believes that Clayton's relationship with Severson was close enough that it may have been the underlying reason that Clayton didn't flee when he knew the police were closing in.
Jack Armstrong, the attorney who posted to www.atxbs.com cautioning Abels about publicizing accusations without proof, is also a friend of Severson and came to her defense in the blog: "I've known Layne for years," Armstrong wrote. "I know she wouldn't knowingly participate in any bike villainy. Sad she's gotten swept-up in that (alleged) ... bullshit."
In a later comment, he added: "There DOES seem to be a mountain of evidence against Clayton. But not Layne. From what I know, their case is tenuous and unprovable at best. And, all the people who trusted Clayton: ex-friends, bike shops, etc. aren't guilty for believing what he told them. Neither is Layne." The bike-shop owner who asked not to be identified also believes Severson is innocent. "I know her, she's a friend of the shop, and she pretty much got screwed by this whole thing."
Police investigators disagree. "She was cooperative with us until the charges were filed," Askew said. "I'm sure she is in some state of denial, but there's plenty of evidence pointing at her charges."
The bike community is certainly alarmed and outraged over the charges against Clayton, but many bikers do take some comfort in knowing they united to help the police. "Absolutely yes, the bike community definitely came together in this case and led us in the right direction," Askew said. Police have already returned some of the confiscated items to their owners, but most victims have been left wondering where their possessions might have landed. The $8,000 road bike belonging to Clayton's former girlfriend, for example, was apparently sold on eBay to a man in Chicago, who then sold it to someone in France, rendering it irretrievable.
Riding With Death
Almost all those who encountered Clayton on rides at the Driveway or Dirt Derby or other racing events around town have heard his story of his alleged life-changing event – his heart attack at age 35. Clayton recounted it in detail in an interview with Abigail Mahnke on KOOP Radio's Inner Views (archived online at www.innerviewslive.com).
Clayton recalled to Mahnke: "I had dinner with my roommate who I had known for a number of years. And I wasn't feeling well and decided I would go home and take a nap. ... I was having chest pains and couldn't breathe again. ... Then I went upstairs and sat on the edge of my bed, and I was out. ... The lights went out in an instant. ... From the bottom of my toes to my top of my head was the most excruciating pain, and then blackness. ... The next thing I remember is paddles coming off my chest.
"My roommate, he was law enforcement, and he had one of those weird cop feelings and went to check on me and found me on the floor in my room, and he did CPR, seven to 10 minutes of CPR, and he had called 911. ... The paramedics came and defibrillated me right there."
Clayton said he was placed into a medically induced coma to prevent shock and awoke a month later. It would be two years, he said, until he could again mount a bike. He also recalled visions of his dead grandfather and great uncle, who told him, "It wasn't my time yet, and I had unfinished business back in the world." He continued: "I think for me, at the guttural level, I learned that I am a fighter and survivor, and I can get through anything ... no matter how hard it is. ... Nothing is going to be as hard as having to fight for your life."
In retrospect, how much of Clayton's near-death story might be true is uncertain. Hargrove, Christopher, and the woman he dated all confirm they saw a "box-shaped thing" under Clayton's skin beneath his upper left shoulder. That would seem to be an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a battery-powered implant in patients who are at risk of death due to improper contraction of cardiac muscles. If that's indeed what it is, the device would seem to confirm at least that Clayton has significant heart trouble. Perplexing though are the contradictory accounts of others – and police reports from Arizona – that record that he told people there that his racing career ended after he was impaled in the chest by a handlebar during a mountain bike ride.
Some of Clayton's acquaintances now wonder whether the alleged near-death experience, the subsequent coma, and Clayton's realization that he would never be a top-ranked bicycle racer changed his personality and turned him into a bike thief. That he reportedly has a prior prison record for bike theft in California, however, doesn't lend much credence to the notion. Others speculate about his family life, which has remained mostly a mystery. He carried a picture he said was of his mother in Arizona, but the Chronicle's attempts to locate any family have been unsuccessful.
Ultimately, his motivations may well remain unknown. Clayton's own words sound like he's conning even himself. Mahnke asked him, about his near-death experience and his fight to regain the ability to ride his bike, "Has your behavior altered?" Clayton replied that a fight for survival will "take the attitude right out of you, any arrogance. ... Some people probably still think I'm still a little arrogant ... but I think I was a lot more arrogant. You're not going to have everyone perceive you the way you really are. In a chance meeting with any one person, there's such an array of views that person can have about you and you have no control over. ... If someone says you're cocky, arrogant, or some other nice word, you have no control over it. ... The first thing I've learned is to give up control completely. And it seems like the more you give up, the more you have."