TORONTO - It was hard to know for sure what Igor Kenk, the enigmatic, shaggy-haired bicycle-shop owner at the heart of what police allege is a massive bike-theft ring, meant Friday when he predicted his future as a man free on bail.

"I'm a dead man," the Slovenian ex-police officer said after a judge agreed to release Kenk in exchange for $275,000 bail and a host of conditions, including house arrest.

He may have been talking about going home to his wife, concert pianist Jeanie Chung. Perhaps he was imagining a chance encounter with an unsympathetic member of the city's cycling community.

In any event, what is clear is that Kenk, 49, is a svengali-like character who has captured both the imagination and the ire of bike enthusiasts weary of the frustrations of bicycle theft - a faceless crime that's difficult to prevent.

"He's a very intelligent man and he has a lot of interesting ideas," said Kenk's lawyer, Lon Rose, adding that his client has had a "very rough ride" while in custody.

"He's basically being blamed for every bicycle that has disappeared over many, many years in Toronto."

Kenk entered the media spotlight on July 16 when police allegedly saw him instructing another man to steal a bicycle outside his downtown store. Subsequent searches of garages and homes revealed almost 3,000 bikes, as well as quantities of marijuana, crack cocaine and cocaine powder.

Kenk, who faces 58 counts of theft and drug possession, was released early Saturday and is scheduled to appear in court again Wednesday.

His bail hearing, further details of which cannot be reported due to a publication ban, attracted mobs of supporters, most of them wary of speaking out publicly. Those who did, however, defended Kenk as simply different and misunderstood.

"He's a very unique individual," said one friend of Kenk's who identified himself solely as Jimmy. "He just has a very unique way of looking at things."

Jimmy, who worked for Kenk for eight years as a bike mechanic at his store, The Bike Clinic, said his boss came off as abrasive to those who didn't know him.

"He was rigid in his points of view," he said. "He was a good employer, even though he could be demanding at times."

Jimmy said Kenk hired him to work at his store one day after he walked into the shop as a customer. He even lived at the store for a two-year stretch while he was having "stability issues," he said.

Jimmy described Kenk as a kind-hearted and generous man.

"I find it very hard to believe what people are saying about him," he said. "I cannot believe that he would tell someone to steal a bike."

Not everyone in the community, however, shares that compassion.

Neighbourhood residents tell stories of Kenk's often bizarre behaviour. One local man, who did not want to be identified, said that he once took his bike to Kenk's shop to fix a flat tire. Kenk reportedly pumped so much air into the tire that it burst, then charged him $10 for a replacement.

The storefront of Kenk's eclectic Bike Clinic has become a sounding board for frustrated locals.

Above the overgrown planters that line the sidewalk in front of the shop, graffiti - "Bad bikes," "Centre for Poor Karma and Pain Research" - is scrawled on the boarded-up windows.

Natalie Ethier, who works at Clafouti bakery, a few stores east of the shop, had a far more blunt assessment of her bike-obsessed neighbour.

"He was just very unapproachable and almost condescending to people who would ask questions," Ethier said.

Ethier has had two bikes stolen in the past few years. When she walked into Kenk's store after her second bike disappeared, Kenk denied her entrance into certain areas of the shop - reportedly a common occurrence at The Bike Clinic.

"My impression was that no one liked him," she said.