What kind of person hoards 2,700 bicycles and leaves them to rust in warehouses?
The mad, mysterious world of Igor Kenk By Richard Poplak
Hell on wheels: since his arrest, Igor Kenk has been forbidden from going near his bike shop on Queen West
I knew of him long before I met him. The rumour was that Igor Kenk bought, sold and traded hot bicycles. If you’d had a bike stolen and you paid a quick visit to the Bicycle Clinic, Kenk’s storefront on Queen West, chances were you’d find your bike there. In fact, that’s where the cops sent you.
In the summer of 2002, after my bike got stuck in a subway turnstile and its frame was sawed in half by TTC workers, I was left with decent parts to off-load. I never considered going anywhere else. Kenk made this sort of transaction easy. There was no wait time. You’d show up with a bike carcass to sell and leave with cash. Kenk’s reputation didn’t seem to matter. The situation was rotten, and we all knew it.
The Bicycle Clinic looked like it belonged more in Lagos than Toronto. As I approached, two pitbulls sniffed my trainers. A smell of must, stale oil and rubber wafted from the store. Inside, it was tangled with rusted bike frames, tire tubes, gear cables and old rags. It was imposing and almost comical, like an installation piece, an orchestrated mise en scène for Kenk’s theatrical bravado.
He was bent over a bike, his muscled back curved as he pulled down on a wrench, his long hair hanging limp in the humidity. There were knots in his forearms, and he had the hands of a bare-knuckle fighter.
“Whose is the fuckin’ bike?” he wanted to know. He did not stop tinkering with the BMX between his knees. In a city known for its passive-aggressive obsequiousness, I found it refreshing that here, the customer was not always right.
I told him what happened and he cocked his head, as if trying to hear voices on the other side of the street during a gale. When I was done, he straightened up and asked, “How much you want?” The parts were in good shape and I figured $80 was fair.
The head cocked again. “Eighty? Did I hear you correct? My friend, you are not a very good fuckin’ businessman,” said Kenk. “That bike is not worth 80.”
Not a very good businessman? I wasn’t the unwashed guy haggling over used bike parts. He then said, “Buddy, take what I offer you or fuck off. This is the way it fuckin’ is. Your choice.” His speech had a lilting quality, a shtetl storyteller’s timbre, an up-down singsong. There was a musical quality to it, despite the stream of vituperation.
The negotiations took no more than five minutes. I left with $40 and the feeling that I’d been smeared in rancid bike grease. At the time, I wondered why—if this guy was the cracked-out thug he was rumoured to be—the music blasting from his store sounded like Shostakovich.
Kenk’s hours were unconventional. He was at his shop every day from about 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturdays and Sundays included. In the winter, the place shut down. Bikes piled up in the courtyard at the rear of his store would trap the snow, which would then leak into his neighbours’ premises. During the off-season, Kenk spent his days scavenging for scrap metal in one of his two silver pickup trucks (his vanity licence plates were EKSTATIC and EAGER 1). He’d grab fridge doors and old television sets—it didn’t matter, so long as he was moving, collecting, recycling.
Kenk’s store blended in to the neighbourhood when that part of town was rough and scuzzy. Now that Queen West is a condo developer’s dream, occupied by graphic designers, visual artists, videographers and architects, it stands out. Several neighbours wanted him gone, regularly calling in bylaw infractions. Others were almost fond of him. “I felt good having him around,” one neighbour told me. “He’s a clutter bug, but we knew we were safe at night.” Kenk would repair and lube his neighbours’ bikes without their asking, and free of charge. In return, they invited him over to share wine and talk city politics. Nearby tenants who played in the TSO sometimes gave him tickets to the symphony.
The area outside his store seemed like the last unregulated patch of sidewalk in Toronto, a throwback to the city’s early, pioneer years. A motley assemblage of street people loitered there, wearing ratty T-shirts and drinking buck-a-bottle lager. Many of them were kids, most of them drug users—it was a modern-day version of Oliver Twist, with Kenk as Fagin. They liked to watch him work and to hear his loopy logic, his views on “pure Communism,” how the modern world was collapsing around us. “We’d just hang out, maybe drink a beer or something,” one rangy kid, pimples crawling up his neck, told me. “He’d tell us about how the world worked.”
Kenk called them his “providers” because they’d gather bikes for him. “If someone found a bike, they’d take it to him,” the kid told me. How exactly they acquired the bikes is now a matter for the courts.
On July 13, Kenk was quoted by the Toronto Sun in an article on bike theft, blithely suggesting that there were plenty of hot bikes “floating around the market,” many of them at his store.
Three days later, on July 16, cops claim to have observed Kenk ordering a provider—a guy by the name of Jean Laveau—to break the lock of a bike. (The cops happened to be surveying the area in an effort to crack down on bike theft and had planted an unlocked bike down the street from the one Laveau allegedly stole.) That night, Kenk was arrested at his store and charged with theft, attempted theft, possession of stolen property and possession of burglar tools.
In the days following Kenk’s arrest, approximately 2,700 bicycles were found stashed around the city in a hodgepodge of warehouses, garages and homes—along with seven kilograms of marijuana, one and a half ounces of crack cocaine, an ounce of powder cocaine and a hot computer. Kenk is now also charged with possession of marijuana and cocaine with the intent to traffic. There’s reason to suspect that the drugs weren’t for his own use. Many bike thieves work for drugs: a stolen bike gets you what’s known as a “twenty piece” of crack, roughly 0.1 to 0.2 grams, worth $20.
Bike theft in Toronto is annoyingly common. There are an estimated one million bikes in the city, and about 5,000 are reported stolen annually. The real number is closer to 12,000, since so few people actually go to the police. years, if you went to the cops complaining of a stolen bike and had no suspects, they’d send you to Kenk’s shop, suggesting you might find it there. So why did it take the police so long to do something about the problem?
Detective Izzy Bernardo, a Portuguese-Canadian west-ender, is now investigating the case. He’s an HBO cop: thick body, scarred face, gun belt sagging to show off his Joe Boxers. “Property theft is a nightmare,” Bernardo told me. “It’s incredibly hard to prove.”
In May 1993, Kenk was charged with possession of stolen property. The cops confiscated 140 bikes but the charges were dismissed. In November 1999, he ran into more trouble: he was charged with dealing pot and spent a few weeks in jail.
After his brushes with the law, he became fastidious about following the terms of his second-hand store licence: he’d write down the serial number of any bike that entered his shop and the name of the person he’d bought it from. The cops would ask to see his records, sometimes every week, sometimes once a month. Fifteen business days after a used bike appeared in his store, he was free to resell it.
He kept his data in a loose-leaf binder stuffed with pages covered in scrawled writing. His obsessive, messy bookkeeping made any potential investigation a logistical nightmare. What cop would want to wade through it?
Igor Kenk was born on April 7, 1959, in the Socialist Federal He originally set up shop in 1992 at 986 Queen Street West (near Ossington), then, three years later, moved a few blocks east to 927 Queen Street West, a small storefront alongside the stately Bates & Dodds funeral home. The funeral parlour’s owners, Dean Hallett and his wife, owned more buildings in the area, and when the couple divorced, Mrs. Hallett was granted an adjacent property. She listed it for $85,000, and the only offer came from Kenk. The two became friends and she volunteered to take out a mortgage on his behalf. Kenk had no trouble making the regular payments and has long since owned it outright.
At first, Kenk lived above the store. He left a phone number scrawled on an outside wall so that desperate customers could reach him when the shop was closed. He had a string of lovers over the years, most of whom lived nearby and were seduced by his combustive mixture of charm and profanity, his masculine unpredictability and un-Toronto-ness. One neighbour told me, “There were always beautiful girls talking to Igor, getting their bikes fixed for hours.”
Six years ago, he moved into a rental house on Berryman, a tiny residential street in Yorkville off Davenport, where he lived with Jeanie Chung, a 37-year-old pianist. She grew up middle class in north Toronto, the daughter of Korean immigrants. She was a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music before she studied at Juilliard in the ’90s, where she won their elite concerto competition. While she never had the bravado of a world-class soloist, Chung played with disciplined elegance and is considered one of Canada’s finest accompanists. She was serving on faculty at Alberta’s bucolic Banff Centre when Kenk was arrested.
Two days later, seemingly unfazed by recent events, Chung accompanied the cellist Shauna Rolston in Banff in a sold-out performance of Samuel Barber’s cello sonata. “It was heart-wrenchingly beautiful,” said Barry Shiffman, the director of Banff’s music programs.
Four days after Kenk was arrested, the cops searched the couple’s Berryman Street house. Chung, having just returned from Alberta, was then charged with possession of stolen property, as well as some drug-related offences, including possession of cocaine with the intent to sell it. of Yugoslavia, the part that’s now Slovenia. Kenk calls Ljubljana his hometown, a city so picturesque that it looks like it was built by a pastry chef. Nestled between Croatia, Austria, Hungary and northeast Italy, Ljubljana is furiously cosmopolitan: baroque architecture, outdoor concerts, heated arguments about the novels of Milan Kundera.
In 1974, as a 15-year-old, Kenk attended police college and was a member of the force from 1978 to 1980. He was a police judo champion and belonged to the Communist party. In February 1988, he found his way to Toronto, then the world’s finest mélange of socialism and capitalism. He brought a communal, black-market, what’s-yours-is-mine ethos with him.
Members of the classical music community had always been baffled by her relationship with Kenk. At functions, he’d reach for a canapé with work-worn fingers and talk menacingly about how the world was being ruined by big cars. “He was a strange guy,” one of Chung’s friends told me. “He didn’t fit the picture.”
Kenk used to tell anyone who came into his store that taking care of bikes was a duty. “I’ve invested blood, money and time into salvaging,” he’d say, “because it’s immoral to throw things out.” He’d say that he was disgusted by how people kept their machines and considered everybody around him lazy and indifferent.
Kenk would say, “What customers think or what I think is irrelevant. I represent what the bicycle would want if the bicycle had the choice.” It was a notion that allowed him to use bikes as currency in a complex urban power game. He made the ultimate decision about whether to help a customer locate an errant bicycle or send the potential customer packing. A bike lived on the street or was condemned to a warehouse at the shop owner’s whim.
Kenk spoke messianically about the environment. He told his providers that in the future, money would be useless, fuel would be non-existent and the man with the bikes and the drugs would be king.
This summer, when he was arrested, the economic deck had been reshuffled; gas prices were soaring, recalibrating the way people think about cars. Kenk’s particular brand of gutter sophistry all of a sudden made a backward kind of sense. Was he doing what humans always do in times of scarcity? Was he hoarding what he perceived as a necessity? One of Kenk’s friends told me, “It was like he was the only dude in the city with a plan.”
He is currently awaiting trial, under house arrest and forbidden from going near his store. His warehouses have been emptied, about 450 bikes from his stash reunited with their owners. Kenk wants to sell 927 Queen Street West, floating it for a price of $690,000.
With his Queen Street fiefdom now dismantled, the name Igor Kenk has lost its power. The man who so brazenly ruled over a den of cracked-out misfits has been swept aside—a symbol of how Queen West has changed, and how the city’s becoming glossier, one storefront at a time.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2008 El mayor ladrón de bicicletas del mundo
“Róbate esta bicicleta”, le dijo un hombre a su compañero cuando iban por el parque Trinity Bellwoods de Toronto, sin imaginar lo que les esperaba. Luego de cortar el candado, Igor Kenk y su empleado Jean Laveau fueron detenidos por tres policías que vigilaban vestidos de civiles, quienes les descubrieron 2 mil 865 bicis robadas.
Esta ciudad canadiense en la provincia de Ontario figura entre las diez urbes más bicicleteras de Norteamérica, con más de un millón de ciclistas que pedalean a diario y un récord insólito en cuanto a robo de velocípedos: 12 mil en 2007. En el verano de 2008, los reportes ascendían a 5 mil biclas, por lo que la policía se vio obligada a implementar el operativo de sembrarlas y esperar a que trataran de llevárselas.
Más de la mitad formaban parte de la colección personal de Igor Kenk, sorprendido con las manos en el manubrio aquella tarde de julio. Nacido en Eslovenia en 1959, ex oficial de policía y ex agente de la KGB (según él), Kenk es un personaje conocido en el ambiente ciclista de Toronto por la mala reputación de su taller The Bicycle Clinic, ubicado en la calle Queen West, donde compraba bicis usadas. Era común encontrar ahí biclas robadas y sus dueños sostenían acaloradas discusiones con él antes de pagarle hasta 40 dólares por recuperarlas.A pesar de las 58 acusaciones que había en su contra, la policía poco podía hacer al respecto por la falta de registros. Al comprar una bici en Canadá es necesario registrarla, de lo contrario no se puede comprobar que sea robada. Kenk se defendía alegando que ignoraba el origen de las bicis, él las compraba sin saber de dónde provenían.
De 49 años, casado con la pianista y concertista Jeanie Chung, el tipo es descrito por sus vecinos como antisocial y conflictivo. También es famoso por su “labor social” de contratar a gente de la calle y ex pacientes de una clínica mental, como el detenido Laveau, quienes “trabajaban” para él y formaban una red de ladrones de bicicletas.
Después de su arresto la policía cateó doce propiedades que rentaba, incluyendo una lujosa residencia en Yorkville donde vivía con su esposa. En total se le encontraron nada menos que 2,865 bicicletas almacenadas sin razón alguna, además de una estatua de bronce del escultor Misha Frid y siete kilos de distintas sustancias: yerbita, cocaína y crack. Para nadie es un secreto la relación de los ciclistas con las sustancias, a cada rato nos enteramos de ello y hay casos como el del fallecido Marco Pantani, pero a don Igor se le pasó la manita. Era tal la cantidad de bicis en las bodegas, su casa y el taller, que un escuadrón de bomberos tuvo que sacarlas por las ventanas utilizando cuerdas y escaleras, ante lo cual, comentaron, Kenk se deshacía en llanto.Los motivos del ladrón son un misterio, ni él mismo ha logrado explicar en el juicio que se le sigue qué pretendía hacer con tantas bicis. Ante tal enigma, se han elaborado distintas teorías: se supone que las coleccionaba, una vez robadas se “enamoraba” y no podía deshacerse de ellas (quizá de niño siempre deseó tener una y nunca la tuvo). Otra es que esperaba un aumento en el precio de los metales (acero y aluminio) para fundirlas y venderlas. Otra más, que esperaba una gran crisis de energéticos, empezaría a vender bicis cuando la gente dejara de usar el coche por el elevado precio de la gasolina…
Como sea, el gobierno de la ciudad concentró las casi 3 mil cletas en un garage público y las acomodó por marcas para que las personas pudieran acudir, los sábados y domingos, a identificar la suya. A finales de septiembre casi 500 bicicletas habían sido recuperadas por sus dueños, se dice que algunos incluso dejaron escapar lágrimas de felicidad.
La captura de Kenk provocó todo tipo de reacciones. La policía estaba desconcertada, en 30 años no habían tenido un caso semejante. Los “empleados” del taller lo defendieron, al igual que su abogado, pero la mayoría de los ciudadanos lo considera “el hombre más odiado de Toronto”. La comunidad ciclista condenó su proceder y cuestionó a la policía: ¿por qué tardarse tanto en actuar a pesar de los señalamientos y acusaciones? ¿Por qué esa falta de interés en el robo de bicicletas, siendo que Toronto es una capital ciclista? Y, finalmente, ¿por qué no colocar chips en las bicis para poder detectarlas? Esta comunidad ha comparado a Kenk con los ladrones de caballos del Viejo Oeste, lo más detestable entre los amigos de lo ajeno. En aquella época, un hombre sin caballo tenía pocas posibilidades de sobrevivir. El robo de una bicicleta es mucho más que eso, no sólo es quitarle a una persona su medio de transporte y de trabajo, muchas veces también se le arranca una parte a ella. Alegan que los ciclistas aportan muchos beneficios a la sociedad: menos tráfico, menos contaminación y menos ruido, por lo que piden una condena ejemplar para Kenk.Sin embargo, salió de la cárcel en agosto con una fianza de 275 mil dólares y está en espera de sentencia. Quedó confinado en su casa, en arresto domiciliario y, lo peor, sin poder tocar siquiera una bicicleta o sustancia alguna salvo por prescripción médica. Al salir de prisión se dijo “un hombre muerto”, refiriéndose a la cantidad de ciclistas que lo buscarían para cobrarse con mano cerrada y pedalear su cabeza. Quién sabe cuál será su futuro, por lo pronto el cineasta Alex Jansen ya realiza un documental muy al estilo de Vittorio de Sica. Lo único seguro es que será recordado como el mayor ladrón de bicicletas del mundo.