Bike Thief Laughs Off 35 Years-to-Life Term

By Wayne Wilson
Bee Staff Writer
(Published May 11, 2000)

Steven Vincent Bell laughed out loud Wednesday when a Placer County judge invoked the three-strikes law to sentence him to 35 years to life in prison for entering the garage of a Roseville home and stealing a bicycle.

“Hang in there, everybody. We’ll be back to see these losers another day,” Bell hollered as he was being ushered out of the courtroom in shackles.

His mother, sitting in the front row of the gallery, cried, “I love you with all my heart” and burst into tears. She had to be assisted from the courthouse.

Bell had appeared on “60 Minutes” Sunday night as an example of three-strikes folly, but in addition to the two residential burglaries that turned his bike theft into a life prison term, Judge Joseph W. O’Flaherty listed no fewer than 11 other offenses he had committed.

They included a 1993 incident in which he assaulted his girlfriend, dragged her down the street and put a double-barrel shotgun to her face.

Although the assault was resolved as a gross misdemeanor in Nevada, “That was an act of violence,” O’Flaherty declared.

While not discussing the Bell case specifically, O’Flaherty appeared on the “60 Minutes” segment, titled “The Bicycle Thief,” expressing himself as an outspoken opponent of the three-strikes law.

On Wednesday, however, he made it clear that his personal opinions would not interfere with his duty to apply the law fairly and appropriately.

“The defendant is clearly within the spirit of the three-strikes law,” O’Flaherty declared, adding that even if he had the discretion to delete Bell’s prior offenses, he would not do so.

Bell, 35, a tree-trimmer from Citrus Heights, was convicted in January of first-degree residential burglary and resisting arrest, but two of the jurors who returned guilty verdicts refused to participate in the guilt phase, saying they could not send a man to prison for life for stealing a $300 bicycle.

The two were dismissed by the judge and replaced by alternates, who promptly found Bell’s prior convictions to be true.

O’Flaherty was asked by the defense to strike one or both of Bell’s prior serious felony convictions, a move that would negate the need for a three-strikes sentence, suggesting that the priors were remote in time — 1989 and 1984 — and that neither involved violence.

“I’ve seen no evidence of actual violence by Mr. Bell,” said his attorney, Brian J. Stone, who argued that a three-strikes determination would “yield an unwarranted, unjust sentence that doesn’t fit the crime.”

But prosecutor Steven M. Dragland pointed out that Bell had resisted arrest in Roseville, fighting with several officers before being subdued by pepper spray; had beaten up a cohabitant and threatened her with a shotgun; and had attacked one of his earlier burglary victims when confronted.

“I’ll bet they would disagree” that violence was not a factor in those events, Dragland said

And even though the victim in the Feb. 15, 1999, Roseville bicycle theft never came face-to-face with Bell, the burglary “has had a traumatic impact” on her, Dragland declared.

In her victim’s statement to the court, Dr. Stacey Riffell described the morning of the theft.

Bell had placed the stolen bike in his pickup truck out front but then fled when he saw police approaching the area, court records showed.

Riffell, unaware of the burglary, opened the door to her attached garage, and was frightened to find people inside.

Not realizing they were police officers looking for the burglar, she slammed and locked the door and turned quickly to go for the phone.

“I was terrified. … It caused me to fall. I injured my knee,” she recalled.

“I was pregnant at the time with a child that I lost two weeks later,” she told the judge, choked with emotion, tears filling her eyes.

“I don’t know if this affected that or not, but to this day, I have nightmares about people coming into my home. I don’t feel safe anymore. I don’t feel this was a victimless crime. It didn’t injure me physically, but it did emotionally,” she said.

O’Flaherty noted that as long ago as 1989 a Nevada judge warned Bell that he was in danger of being imprisoned as an habitual criminal.

“Nothing seems to make an impression on Mr. Bell,” O’Flaherty said.