When Meg Howard saw her Santa Cruz Nomad -- the mountain bike she calls her "baby" -- missing from the roof of her Subaru Outback nearly two months ago, she was crushed.
Someone had cut through a half-inch-thick Kryptonite bike lock and made off with the custom-tailored $7,000 bicycle while she was inside a nearby building.
"They could have taken the car and I would have been happier," Howard said of the June 3 theft outside Boulder's Gold Run condo complex on 28th Street.
With little hope of ever seeing her prized bike again, the 31-year-old post-doctoral University of Colorado scientist e-mailed a description of the bike's components to every cycle shop in Boulder and Moab, Utah, in case the thief brought the boutique bicycle in for a tune-up.
Then she began to look for a replacement.
That was when Howard came across a seller in Virginia listing a 2009 Santa Cruz Nomad frame on eBay, anodized grey, like hers, with a familiar-looking rear derailleur hanger and suspension system.
Another confounding feature of the listed bike was a head tube that was too small to be from a 2009-model Nomad, but was the perfect size for a 2007 model -- the same year Howard's bike was manufactured.
"I keep looking at this frame, and I keep looking at a picture of my bike, and I look at the frame, and then my bike, and I see a scratch in the same place," Howard said.
Convinced she had found the thieves, she wanted to reel them in. But they wouldn't respond to Howard's entreaties, probably because her e-mails made it clear she was from Boulder.
Then Ben Zeiger, Howard's boyfriend, suggested they approach the sellers in the way that would raise the least suspicion.
"He said he would buy the frame," Howard said.
Zeiger, 27, paid $885 for the frame.
Within three minutes of the online auction closing, the sellers called Zeiger to set up delivery. It's all the CU astrophysics grad student needed to set the trap.
"I Googled his phone number and found his Facebook page and other items he had for sale on Craigslist," Zeiger said.
The seller, who appeared to be a 22-year-old CU student, told Zeiger he would have a friend hand-deliver the frame to his house.
On July 15, two plainclothes Boulder police detectives greeted a 22-year-old man at the door to Zeiger's Boulder home, and asked him in.
"They had him sit down and they explained the situation to him," Zeiger said.
The serial number on the frame he had brought matched the one on Howard's frame, with the exception of one number that Zeiger said appeared to have been pounded out with a hammer.
Boulder police Cmdr. Kim Stewart said the man, Andrew Gordon, told the detectives they really wanted to talk to his friend, also 22.
That night, police knocked on Dustin White's door and found parts inside his home that appeared to belong to Howard's bike, Stewart said.
"He stripped it, and he didn't do a great job of doing it," Howard said.
White was arrested and charged with theft up to $20,000. Police now have an arrest warrant out for Gordon, who they believe played a larger role in the theft.
"I think they did a great job of sleuthing," Stewart said of Zeiger and Howard. "It made our job really easy."
Howard has spent the last week re-assembling the Nomad -- buying new components for it that were never recovered by police -- and plans to take it out today for its first ride since it was stolen.
Though it may not have all the guts it came with when she first bought it, Howard says the spirit of the bike she fell in love with remains intact.
"It's still my baby," she said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or firstname.lastname@example.org.