Albert Lea’s media darling

Published 1:38 pm Saturday, August 20, 2011

Culley Larson, 10, wrote a letter to the editor about his bike being stolen that was printed Tuesday and soon garnered nationwide attention thanks to Yahoo and ABC. Larson will enter the fourth grade this fall. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

View a video of an interview with Culley Larson here.

Ten-year-old Culley Larson last Sunday in the late morning after breakfast and sleeping in wanted to ride his dirt bike with friend Michael Savelkoul down the street to the skate park at City Beach in Albert Lea.

“So I went to get my bike and it wasn’t there. We looked all around in the garage,” Culley said in an interview with the Tribune (see video at

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The Internet can make anyone famous, even if that fame lasts just for a week. Culley didn’t know it on Sunday, but he was about to ride a roller coaster, one that took the child from the low of losing a bicycle to the high of being shown on national television.

The boy told his mother, Vicki Larson. She told him to go look a little harder for it.

“It is out there somewhere. Go look in the yard. It’s out there,” she said.

They looked some more, and when Culley’s fairly new 2008 Haro Pro-Race BMX bike couldn’t be found, his parents called the police.

This is a picture of Culley Larson on an older BMX bike, not the one that was stolen. However, it was this image that appeared on the Yahoo search engine, bringing him national attention. -- Submitted photo

Albert Lea Police Department officer Darren Grangruth arrived around 2:40 p.m. at 204 N. Shore Ave. He met with Culley’s father, Mike, who told the officer the family was away from home between 6 and 11 p.m. the night before.

“When they returned home, he noticed that the lights were on inside the garage, and he just reached in and shut them off, not checking anything at that time,” the officer wrote in his report.

Mike mentioned that a friend of his son had stopped by at about 7:30 p.m. to pick up a bike and the lights weren’t on at that time. Ultimately, the family determined someone came to the unlocked garage between 7:30 and 10 the night before, opened the garage door,

turned on the garage lights, took the Haro and shut and door, leaving the lights on. Nothing else was missing from the garage.

When the officer left, Culley wondered what to do next. He wanted to get the message out about his bike. They considered posting signs at the skate park.

“I wanted to get somewhere, like, big to try to get it out, and my mom thought of in the paper,” he said.

The two sat down and wrote a letter. Vicki hit the send button.

Vicki called me (as managing editor, I handle the letters) Monday morning to verify receipt of the letter, and we had a short discussion about it. She said she wrote most of the piece, but Culley helped. I let her know the letter would appear in the Tuesday newspaper:

Here is how it printed:

Please return my stolen dirt bike

Hello, my name is Culley Larson, and I am 10 years old and live in Albert Lea. This past Saturday someone stole my BMX bike out of my parents’ garage. I love this town, and I am sad that people steal other kids’ bikes. This is something I do not understand.

I am writing this letter to ask for your help. If you have kids, look to see if you have a bike at your house that does not belong to you. Parents, please ask your kids if any of their friends have a new bike lately? If you do not have kids, be on a lookout for anyone who has gotten a new bike the past couple of days. If you see the bike, call the police. If you have the bike, please bring it back.

I am willing to use some of my own money that I have saved as a reward to get my bike back. I know other kids get their bikes stolen. I have read it myself in the newspaper. I am hoping my letter will not only help me, but maybe help other kids also get their bikes back. I hope 10 other kids also get their bikes back. If they do we can have a celebration and call it “get your bike back day.” It would be the best day ever!

A kid getting their bike stolen is like a grown up getting their car stolen. My bike is a Haro Pro Race bike with a black frame and white seat and white handle bars. My parents take me to Mankato every Wednesday to race on a dirt trail. This bike is very specific to the sport and has special tires. This is my summer sport, and I cannot race the track on my legs. I need my bike.

I have said a little prayer for my bike. I hope God is listening. I also asked God to help someone to make the right decision. I love my God, I love my family, I love my bike.

Culley Larson

Albert Lea

Tribune Community Editor Danielle Boss posted the letter on the Internet at 8:49 a.m., and somehow, through a headline aggregator, it made its way to Piper Weiss, a blog writer for Shine, a Yahoo website geared for women.

“This morning, while sifting through the daily roster of news stories about solar-powered bikinis, Kardashian lawsuits, and global economic doom, I stumbled on a headline that stopped me dead in my tracks,” she wrote at the start of the blog entry.

She called me that Tuesday morning, interviewed me and wanted to know how to reach Culley’s parents.

One of the things I told her was this: “At first you think it’s an ordinary bike being stolen and then you realize this is the kid’s passion — his parents take him every Wednesday about an hour from home to ride this bike in a certain area. As a fellow bicyclist, I could relate to the letter.”

This went on Shine that morning. The comments kept growing, reaching 93 by Thursday morning and 593 (and growing) by Friday afternoon.

It had gone viral. Weiss’ post was reprinted on sites and blogs across the Internet, from to to to the biggest site for BMX racing —

People from across the country began calling the Larsons, the Albert Lea Police Department and the Albert Lea Tribune offering to purchase Culley a new dirt bike.

Ten-year-old letter writer Culley Larson answers questions from Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom on Thursday at the Tribune building. Engstrom became part of the story when he published Larson's letter on the Opinions page Tuesday. -- Jeff Thorstad/for the Tribune

Weiss reached Vicki and then wrote another blog post on Wednesday. This one ended up in the rotating headlines and images on the main Yahoo page. Anyone who went to perform a search or check an email on Yahoo — or do any of the other features available from the main page — saw this kid wearing a helmet and straddling a BMX bike, next to the headline, “Stolen bike gets big buzz.”

Click on it, and it takes users to her post with this headline: “First town, then Internet joins search for kid’s stolen bike.” Her first paragraph read: “A kid’s bike being stolen isn’t exactly headline news. Unless that kid is 10-year-old Culley Larson.” It had 564 comments by Friday afternoon.

“How can one kid and two missing wheels cause such a stir?” Weiss wrote.

“It’s not about the bike,” Vicki told Weiss. “Between you and me, we could buy him another bike, but Culley said something that made me realize it’s not about that.”

What was it?

“I’d rather have my bike stolen and not get a new bike, and have someone learn a lesson,” Cullen said in the Yahoo story.

On Thursday, the Tribune printed a top-of-the-fold, Front Page story about how the letter sparked a national hunt for his bicycle. And, of course, the calls kept coming. One of the callers to the Tribune was Cory Cochran of Decatur, Ga.

He was surfing the Internet on Yahoo and saw the post on the stolen bike.

“My son had his bicycle stolen two years ago,” Cochran said. “When I read this kid’s story, it just drove me nuts.”

He began reading the comments and saw one that suggested if everyone donated $1 a new bike could be purchased. He felt that it would be best if someone stepped up to help.

“I felt this pull to try to offer to help him.”

I explained to him that the point of the letter was to let thieves know that stealing actually affects real people. I explained the Larsons were urging callers wishing to donate a bike to use that charitable desire to purchase a new bike to replace a stolen one for a kid in their neighborhood.

Cochran, a plumber, agreed he would do just that.

Vicki spent much of Wednesday, Thursday and part of Friday dealing with calls. However, she kept much of the hubbub hidden from Culley until Thursday afternoon when, during a visit to the Tribune, she learned of the story appearing on Yahoo’s homepage. She showed Culley the posts.

She and Culley granted an interview with a reporter from KAAL-TV in Austin, an ABC affiliate, which aired a segment Thursday evening showing Culley riding his bike and reading from his letter to the editor.

On Friday, footage of Culley reading his letter aired nationwide on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

One of the show’s co-anchors, Josh Elliott, said: “For Culley and his family, it’s not about getting a new bike. We, like many other, have offered to replace the bike. They say it’s about standing up for something and having a voice, for the person to return that bike and learn that lesson.”

Scott Martin, owner of Martin’s Cycling & Fitness, said it is hard when kids have a bike stolen.

“To me, it’s got to be devastating for a kid. Over the years, I’ve had lots of families come in where they had a bike stolen,” he said

He said sometimes the boy or girl has worked to save the money to make the purchase. Sometimes, the bike is even stolen a day or two after being bought.

There can be happy endings, he said. Some bike thieves just ride a bike down the street and ditch it. Others are spotted riding the stolen bike and are approached about the theft.

Martin advised people to keep a record of the serial number and to call the police so a report gets made. He keeps a database of serial numbers for bikes purchased at his store, which is handy for his customers in case bikes are taken or lost.

While Culley became known for his love for his bike this week, he has other pastimes. He likes soccer, football and hockey. In the summer, he enjoys wakeboarding behind a boat. Writing is one of the subjects Culley likes in school, which came in useful for the letter.

While he takes his BMX bike to the skate park to go up and down ramps, he said he can’t do much for tricks. He struts his biking skills better at the BMX track in Mankato. For tricks, he said he can do a jump-and-turn, a 1-footer (where a person sticks out a foot while jumping off a ramp) and “a little bit of a tailwhip,” among others.

But racing is what he likes and his best at. Though he only is in his second year, he has trophies to prove it. He said he has about 15 wins. He said though he is about middle of the pack for strength and speed, he can outsmart them on cornering or preventing them from passing.

The races result in riders bumping and scraping each other and, sometimes, the ground. BMX racers wear helmets and shirts and pants that come with padding.

Vicki and Culley hope to pull something together that brings a satisfying ending to this stolen bike story. They are hoping to get 10 different businesses to donate 10 bikes for an event called 10 Bikes for 10 Kids. She hopes they go to 10 local children who have had their bikes stolen.

Have you seen this bike?

The bike stolen from Culley Larson on Aug. 13 was a boy’s 20-inch Haro Pro-Race BMX dirt bike valued at $450. The frame is black with a white seat and white handlebars. According to records kept at Martin’s Cycling & Fitness, the serial number is K9FJ000310. Martin’s Cycling & Fitness told police is likely the only one in the city in that model with that color combination. If you see the bike (or any stolen bike, for that matter), please call the Albert Lea Police Department at 377-5215.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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