Grand Cayman residents have complained about loud, annoying and illegal dirt bikes racing on local streets over the last two years, but now a new and disturbing trend is emerging: the use of non-street legal vehicles in criminal offenses.
Vehicles described as dirt bikes were used in at least two armed robberies since the start of the year. In addition, police have been involved in high-speed pursuits of dirt bike operators, one which recently ended in a crash that seriously injured a 20-year-old man.
An emphatic point was placed on the value of these vehicles to the criminal element when eight seized dirt bikes were stolen from the main George Town Police Station in two incidents earlier this year. At least three of those bikes were recovered.
“Every single day, we’re getting complaints about these bikes on the road,” RCIPS Chief Superintendent Kurt Walton said last month. “Why are we continuing to let these motorbikes into the country?”
A Feb. 17 jewelry store robbery at Camana Bay, believed to be the first such incident to occur at the high-end retail shopping complex, involved two men who ordered Island Jewellers staff to fill a bag with diamonds before escaping on a white dirt bike.
A month later, on March 19, a West Bay convenience store was held up by a lone gunman who was believed to have used a motorbike as his getaway vehicle.
No arrests were reported in either incident.
On Thursday, April 7, police officers spotted a man on a dirt bike speeding away from Harbour Drive following an attempted robbery at a waterfront bar. An 11-mile police chase ensued, which ended in a crash in the Prospect area involving the 20-year-old rider, who police later confirmed had nothing to do with the robbery attempt.
Last week’s incident was far from the first police pursuit involving a dirt bike. In early September, a police chase through Bodden Town nabbed a dirt bike rider who officers said was speeding while driving an unregistered vehicle. According to police, the dirt bike operator failed to stop after speeding past officers who were monitoring traffic in Bodden Town and then tried to evade officers in the ensuing pursuit.
In meeting after meeting during early 2015, eastern districts residents told police that problems with loud, dangerous motorcycles – some of which appeared to have been operating without license plates or registration – were affecting quality of life and, in some cases, interfering with public enjoyment of local beaches. North Side MLA Ezzard Miller urged police to stop and arrest the vehicle operators on sight.
“These bikes are illegal,” Mr. Miller said. “They cannot be licensed and you can’t get insurance for them. How can police allow them on the road?”
RCIPS Chief Inspector Brad Ebanks said there is a difference between a street-legal motorbike that is being operated in an obnoxious or illegal manner and a dirt bike that has no license or registration and is simply not road worthy. Mr. Ebanks told North Side residents that police sometimes cannot be sure which type of vehicle is involved.
In addition, police decisions regarding whether to chase any vehicle, dirt bikes included, are fraught with legal peril since a 2013 Grand Court judgment by Justice Alex Henderson in relation to a 2008 police chase along West Bay Road that ended in the deaths of two men inside the car being pursued.
The family of Bruce Lee Ebanks sued the driver of the vehicle being pursued by police, as well as the Cayman Islands government, over the fatal crash on Feb. 29, 2008. Mr. Ebanks and 21-year-old Sidney Myles, who were passengers in the car driven by then-19-year-old Alex Callan, died in the Friday night crash. Mr. Callan survived and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving.
In late March 2013, Justice Henderson granted a judgment and costs in favor of Paulene Ebanks, the mother of Bruce Lee Ebanks. According to the judgment: “The accident was contributed to, if not caused by, the speed at which Mr. Callan was driving. He was doing so because a police car was chasing him. Had the pursuit been terminated, it is more probable than not that Mr. Callan would have slowed down to a normal speed so as to avoid attracting further police attention. The negligent failure to end the pursuit was one factor which contributed to the accident.”
Simply banning the importation of certain dirt bikes to the Cayman Islands might not be as easy as it sounds. In many instances, the vehicles can be modified to the extent that they qualify for registration on Cayman’s roads, even if they are not in such a condition upon arrival to the islands.
Customs Collector Charles Clifford has said such a decision would be a policy matter for elected officials. A number of countries in the region have had similar problems involving non-street legal motorbikes and so-called “dirt bike gangs” in recent years.
In some countries, police note the use of the small, maneuverable bikes serves a dual purpose. They can easy wend through traffic jams and crowded streets, while pursuing police cannot. In addition, illegal bikes that have no license plates and registration are difficult to track down.
In 2011, Honduras lawmakers voted to make pillion passengers on motorcycles illegal after two drive-by shootings involving a talk radio show host and an anti-corruption activities that were apparently gang-related.
In April, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton pledged a citywide crackdown on non-street legal bikes in which he said the city would broadcast the scrapping of seized vehicles on live television. Both Washington D.C. and neighboring Baltimore, Maryland, have reported problems with bike gangs since around 2012.