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Stolen suitcase sleuth fights back against car break-ins

A man in a plaid shirt and denim jeans kneels beside a red car, sorting through clothes and items scattered around an orange backpack.
Mark Dietrich looks through items believed to have been dumped from a theft on Monday. The Richmond District resident has taken it upon himself to return stolen luggage to its owners. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Earlier this year, Mark Dietrich got a call from some Richmond District neighbors about a pile of ransacked luggage strewn across 15th Avenue. As he has done dozens of times over the past several years, Dietrich sprang into action. 

Donning heavy-duty yellow work gloves and wielding a flashlight, he drove over to the scene to begin sifting through the contents of the discarded bags. He was looking for any clue that might identify the rightful owners—a passport or driver’s license, a scribbled name on a business card, an address on a luggage tag, even a label on a prescription medicine bottle.

Amidst the detritus, Dietrich was able to identify victims hailing from not one but three different continents: a Korean businessman whose rental car had been broken into at Golden Gate Park; two tourists from Denmark who were victims of a smash-and-grab at Fisherman’s Wharf; and a Canadian family of four whose bags had been snatched while they dined at Mel’s on Lombard Street.

After tracking down each of the parties, Dietrich was able to reunite these San Francisco visitors with their stolen luggage—minus any wallets or electronics, the main items that “bippers,” or auto burglars, are interested in. His sole reward: tears of joy in the eyes of a 7-year-old girl from Ontario rejoined with the stuffed bunny her father had given her for her birthday. “She thought she would never see it again,” Dietrich said. 

A photo of traffic showing two cars: a white SUV driving with an open door and a silver sedan in front, viewed through blurry foliage.
A suspected smash-and-grab thief, or bipper, climbs through a broken window of a van parked on Lombard Street in 2018. | Source: Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images
A police officer peers into a car with a shattered window, wearing a badge marked "San Francisco Police."
San Francisco police officer Josh McFall looks inside a car that was broken into along Ninth Avenue near Lake Street. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Angered by what he sees as the city’s ineffectiveness in policing the so-called “bipping” epidemic that has afflicted the city in recent years, Dietrich decided to help do something about it—one stolen, stripped and discarded suitcase at a time.

A 54-year-old retail data scientist, he has lived in the avenues near Geary Boulevard for 18 years. At the beginning of the pandemic, he began to notice piles of stolen luggage with the contents strewn on the sidewalk outside his home. 

Thieves were breaking into cars at popular tourist destinations, like Fisherman’s Wharf, the Palace of Fine Arts and Crissy Field, then speeding down Park Presidio and turning into the Richmond District to dump what they couldn’t easily fence. Smash-and-grabs were also taking place in Golden Gate Park and Lands End, resulting in dumped bags throughout the neighborhood.

“As stolen luggage began appearing more and more frequently in our neighborhood, I simply could not stand still,” Dietrich said. An ex-Eagle Scout and longtime community activist, he was angry and frustrated, “knowing that someone’s trip to San Francisco was ruined by criminals.”

A pile of assorted clothing and several backpacks are strewn on asphalt in a disorganized manner, suggesting a hurried or chaotic situation.
Items believed to have been dumped by a thief rest along Ninth Avenue near Lake Street on Monday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Dietrich serves on the Richmond Station’s Community Police Advisory Board and knew that SFPD didn’t have the bandwidth to search through discarded luggage. So he put on his gloves and began sorting through the possessions himself. 

He found that approximately four out of five bags contained identification sufficient for him to contact the owners, including passports and business cards. When he could find a name, he would search social media for contact information.  

Very occasionally, Dietrich resorts to taking unidentifiable luggage to the Richmond Police Station, hoping that the victim has filed a police report. Most of the time, they haven’t. He claims a 90% success rate in returning stolen bags to their owners. By contrast, he estimates that 80% to 90% of all luggage returned to SFPD gets destroyed or donated. 

A police representative from the Richmond Station did not respond to requests for comment.

‘The city simply hasn’t done enough’

According to Dietrich, bippers are usually only interested in two things: cash and electronics. Everything else, they dump—including many items that are difficult or expensive to replace. Dietrich has found countless prescription glasses, vital medications, mouth guards, house and car keys, and very often, passports—the loss of which can ruin a trip.

He frequently drops off both documents and luggage at international consulates to be returned to foreign visitors. “Victims are always very happy to be reunited with their passports,” he said.

A man examines a car with a shattered window, holding blue gloves, with leaves and light shadows around.
Mark Dietrich looks inside a car with a broken window along Ninth Avenue near Lake Street on Monday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard
A woman points her smartphone at a police officer by a car with a shattered window, likely recording him. The officer looks at her phone.
Police officer Josh McFall speaks with Janet Jauregui, whose car was broken into on Monday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

When Dietrich contacts victims, they are often suspicious at first. But soon they realize that he’s not asking for anything in return—just letting them know where they can pick up what remains of their possessions.

He has returned a family bible, a hard drive containing five years of academic research, a “lucky” backpack that survived multiple military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the equipment and supplies carried by a girls’ volleyball team.  

Despite their gratitude, tourists often tell him that the experience of getting robbed has permanently harmed their impression of the city. They say “they are not coming back to San Francisco anytime soon, and that they are going to tell their friends and family not to come here,” Dietrich said. 

“The city simply hasn’t done enough to curtail this crime,” he continued. “Crime happens where cops are not, and we’re down 500 to 800 officers, so there simply aren’t the resources to fight this crime effectively.” He also blames city officials for failing to aggressively prosecute smash-and-grab perpetrators.

For years, San Francisco has had the largest number of car break-ins per capita of any large U.S. city. In 2022, SFPD data showed 23,454 reports of “theft from vehicles,” or approximately 64 car break-ins a day. In 2023, that number dropped by 16% to an average of 54 break-ins a day. (The Richmond District had reports of 2,642 car break-ins in 2022, or seven break-ins a day, which fell about 10% in 2023.)

As police and political attention to the problem has increased, bipping incidents have begun to slow—but they are far from over. The latest SFPD crime statistics for the first quarter of this year show “theft from cars” decreased by 51% from the same period a year ago. Dietrich confirms this trend, reporting a “noticeable reduction in luggage dumps in the past year.” The city and SFPD have implemented deterrence measures, increasing police presence in tourist spots and posting “Park Safe” signs warning people to leave nothing in their cars.

Additional law enforcement measures have been approved or are under consideration, which officials hope will further reduce smash-and-grabs. Proposition E, recently passed by San Francisco voters, will ease restrictions on SFPD’s ability to engage in vehicle pursuits to catch criminals and will also allow the city to install public surveillance cameras and automated license plate readers to better identify bippers.

A close-up view of broken glass on a street, with out-of-focus cars and Victorian houses on a steep hill in the background.
Broken car window glass pieces are seen by a curb in Alamo Square in 2023. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A weathered warning sign attached to a pole reads, "NOTICE DO NOT LEAVE VALUABLES IN VEHICLE," set against a blurred natural background.
A sign warns against leaving valuables in vehicles near Lincoln Park Golf Course in the Richmond District. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A proposed bill, SB-905, seeks to close the “locked door loophole” in California law, which defines vehicle burglary as applying only to “locked” cars. This makes prosecution of smash-and-grabs difficult, especially when the victims are tourists, unlikely to be around to testify that their car doors were locked when criminals broke in. In November, voters will likely be asked to decide whether to amend Proposition 47, which reclassified most thefts under $950 as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

After posting about his efforts on Nextdoor, Dietrich learned that many other Richmond residents had also successfully returned luggage to victimized tourists. If anyone comes across ditched baggage, he suggests they take a photo of the location where any luggage has been dumped to use in corresponding with owners. He recommends using a flashlight and wearing gloves when searching for contact information. He urges that time is of the essence. Most tourists are on the move and, according to Dietrich, are likely to be leaving San Francisco within 12 hours.

In one instance, a family was already on their way to Disneyland when Dietrich called. Coincidentally, he was driving to Los Angeles the next day and met them outside the park, making the happiest place on Earth just a little happier.  

‘This might be the weirdest call you’ve ever gotten’

This past Monday, Dietrich was again called by a neighbor to search luggage dumped on Ninth Avenue and Lake Street. The thieves had dumped four backpacks on the street, smashed the window of a nearby parked car and stolen a handbag. Empty wallets, cosmetics, a diary, and papers littered the street, along with the telltale cubes of broken safety glass. 

When SFPD arrived, Dietrich and another neighbor were sifting through the bags to find clues to contact the owners. A neighbor had found a travel itinerary and was calling a Best Western hotel where the victims might have been staying. Dietrich discovered a boarding pass and airline tags with a name and partial phone number and email address, noting that the airlines are often the best resource for identifying and contacting victims. Neighbors on the block were also on the scene, having taken a photo of the perpetrators’ car to give to SFPD. 

Known to the police officer on the scene, Dietrich packed up the stolen luggage to take to his home for further sleuthing and to charge a cell phone he had found in the rubble. The woman whose handbag had been stolen out of her car said she hoped that someone would eventually find it on the street and give her a call. 

Within two hours, Dietrich had identified and contacted tourists from Tennessee and Florida who had been the victims of smash-and-grabs. Their bags contained prescription medications with pharmacy phone numbers. Dietrich had called the pharmacies with his usual opening—“This might be the weirdest call you’ve ever gotten”—and asked the staff to give his contact information to the prescription owners so that they could call him about their luggage. The tourists then picked up what remained of their luggage at Dietrich’s home. 

A man in a checked shirt loads a pink backpack into a car trunk; an older woman in a light green jacket observes.
Dietrich puts a bag believed to have been dumped in a smash-and-grab in his trunk. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

One of the victims, the Newton family from Tennessee, had parked briefly near Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies with their 3- and 5-year-old kids. They heard what sounded like gunshots and returned to their rental car to see the back window had been smashed and their luggage taken—and that several other rental cars had been similarly vandalized.

Neighbors told them that criminals targeted rental cars and that the police are unable to chase perpetrators due to safety concerns. Having lost their identification, bank cards and credit cards, the family spent so much time dealing with the crime that they never even made it to the Golden Gate Bridge. They planned to leave a review on Yelp warning families against traveling to the city.

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in The Richmond Review/Sunset Beacon.