By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The guy in the surveillance tape looks more like he's ready to hit some epic powder than stick up a bank. The black form-fitting mask over his mouth and nose could have come off the rack at a ski and snowboard sale. His bulky high-end jacket, decorated in a camouflage motif, is straight out of Transworld Snowboarding magazine. And the big Afro wig completes the outfit, lending him the aura of a slope-side jester eager to tackle the gnarliest terrain park.
But the man who stopped into this Wachovia bank off of I-70 in Wheat Ridge wasn't on his way to the mountains to make some early-season tracks. He was there, he told one of the tellers, because he wanted all her money.
The stick-up artist was attempting the most basic of bank heists, operating at the lowest level of the bank-robber food chain. His effort was what police call a "verbal demand" job, a simple, low-key undertaking involving the least amount of risk.
Aside from his unusual garb, the robber didn't yell or attract a lot of attention to himself, which meant fewer potential witnesses, and he didn't have a gun — the next rung up the bank-heist hierarchy, a progression that comes with harsher criminal penalties for those who get caught. Such a modest robbery also comes with the lowest payoff, however, as the man discovered that day, October 20, 2007. The cash drawer was bare.
Empty-handed, the would-be thief beat a retreat, climbing into a stolen green minivan and driving away. A short while later, he pulled up at a TCF Bank branch at 55th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, near Old Town Arvada. Wearing the same wig and attire, he tried again — though with a very different approach: This time, he charged across the lobby and vaulted over the counter, landing among the tellers. "Give me your fucking money!" he yelled at them. "All your money!"
And with that, the man had climbed to the third and top echelon of the bank-job pecking order. This was the most drastic — and risky — of heists: the bank takeover.
The tellers hurriedly emptied their drawers, nervously eyeing the ominous black device in the robber's hand. It resembled a can of mace, not a gun, but with all the excitement, no one wanted to take any chances. Two minutes later, it was over. The robber, his backpack full of bills, jumped into his van and was gone.
But not for good.
Over the next three months, he and at least two other Snowboard Bandits, as they'd come to be known, hit eleven banks up and down the Front Range, leaving in their wake empty cash drawers, dazed tellers and surveillance films filled with curiously chic and frustratingly concealing get-ups.
Back in the TCF branch on Wadsworth, silent alarms broadcast the crime. Local police officers rushed to the scene, and TCF dispatched security personnel to debrief witnesses and retrieve surveillance footage. But the case was quickly handed over to another agency, an outfit more likely than any other to catch the Snowboard Bandits: the FBI's Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force.
Denver's always been a bank robbery town," says Special Agent Phil Niedringhaus, his lanky frame clad in casual attire and folded nonchalantly into a chair in one of the most out-of-the-way and unusual offices in town.
Getting here can be a discombobulating journey for the robbery suspects who have made the trip for questioning: past the Coliseum and the livestock arena at the National Western Stock Show grounds, through a gate, across a quiet parking lot and down a one-way lane that snakes under grimy railway tracks to a solitary four-story brick building surrounded by barren stockyards that once undulated with seas of cattle.
From there, it's into the 1916 structure (the former Denver Union Stock Yard Company building), up the grand staircase flanked by intricately tiled columns, and past surveillance cameras on the top floor.
Many a scofflaw has breathed a sigh of relief after being buzzed through a locked door and finding himself in the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force, its walls lined with grainy bank heist photos and framed robbery note samples, rather than some shadowy north Denver Guantanamo hideaway.
"Welcome back to a little slice of the old FBI," says Niedringhaus, who's headed Safe Streets since 2006. The multi-agency operation tackles the most violent crimes in the Denver area: kidnappings, crimes against children, prison assaults and, most often, bank robberies. With most of his eighteen-year FBI career spent in tiny offices in places like Anchorage, Alaska, and Great Falls, Montana, Niedringhaus fits in well here. "What better place for a country kid from South Dakota to work than down by the stockyards," he says, gesturing to the views from his corner office of the railroad lines whose freight trains set off his investigators' car alarms day in and day out.
This ancient building echoes with ghosts of Denver's Wild West past. Downstairs, through a locked glass door, the immense wall safe of the now-defunct Stock Yards National Bank gapes open as if just ravaged by gunslingers like the ones who made the New York Times in April 1921. "Highwaymen Get $15,000," read the headline. "Rob Denver Stock Yards Bank Messengers and Escape in Autos."