By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
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And Denver is still one of the country's most active bank-heist locales. In 2005, robbers hit 214 banks in Colorado, the vast majority in the metro area, landing the state in the number-thirteen spot for bank robberies, right behind much larger Florida.
The FBI has long been the go-to agency for serial bank robbery cases, says Niedringhaus. Since financial institutions are federally insured, the U.S. government has a stake in the stolen loot, plus the feds can investigate and charge the perpetrators as a whole rather than dividing the case between the different jurisdictions the robbers hit.
But after the 9/11 attacks, bank robberies, which had been number three on the FBI's official priority list, dropped to number eight to make room for homeland security. In Denver, that meant only two agents were responsible for every major case.
Once the robbers started running circles around this meager squad, it was clear something had to change. Hence the creation in 2004 of Rocky Mountain Safe Streets, a rebirth of Denver's old-time FBI but with a different makeup to account for lost federal resources. Along with Niedringhaus and five other agents, the task force comprises three Denver police officers, two from Aurora, one from Lakewood, one from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, one from the Colorado State Patrol and one from the Federal Protective Service. Together they're as obsessively single-minded and peripatetic as the bank robbers they chase. While bandits can jump from bank to bank, city to city, evading the grasp of local cops, Safe Streets investigators can follow them anywhere — out of the Denver area, out of the state, out of the country.
It's like a league of crime-fighting gumshoes ensconced in a secret hideout (the price was right, Niedringhaus says of the stockyards office), and the crew has a superhero-worthy track record, to boot. Thanks to what Niedringhaus calls a top-rate squad — "I have never seen a task force that works as hard as this one does" — and the operation's cozy, cooperative relationship with Denver-area law enforcement, the number of regional bank robberies solved every year has, for the most part, nearly doubled since 2004.
That's helped make the group's robbery clearance rate, which usually hovers around 70 percent, one of the best of all 131 Safe Streets squads around the country.
The case of the Snowboard Bandits was assigned to Safe Streets investigator Ricky Wright, who arrived at the TCF Bank branch shortly after the first robbery last October. Wright's clean-cut good looks and cheerful professionalism hide a mischievous streak responsible for specially designed "Most Wanted" posters popping up at the Safe Streets office listing fellow investigators for office gambling.
New to the task force, Wright spent ten years with the FBI, cracking drug rings and organized-crime syndicates, and he knew enough to know there weren't many clues at the scene on which to build this case.
The robber's bulky outfit and face mask left witnesses guessing whether he was 5'8" or 6'2", white or black, and security footage was similarly indistinct. Since the thief's snowboarder outfit included winter gloves, there were no fingerprints, either. The getaway car was soon located in a nearby industrial area, its interior mottled with blood-red splotches from a discharged dye pack.
But the thief, and his haul, were gone.
On November 28, 2007, a little over a month after the first robbery, the man in the camouflaged jacket struck again. This time he stormed into a Westminster TCF branch on Federal Boulevard, once again leaping over the counter and taking control of the tellers.
And now he had a partner.
While the first bandit collected the money, his accomplice — wearing a trendy white jacket tattooed with tribal designs and other snowboarding gear — stayed in the lobby, demanding that customers lie flat on their stomachs. The robbers, as before, were unarmed yet diligent, and were out the door long before police arrived.
The duo quickly picked up the pace, hitting a TCF in Broomfield on December 3. Security cameras captured the same over-the-counter acrobatics, the same wingman operation in the lobby, the same unusual snowboarder attire. All that changed were the particulars of the outfits: a puffy Burton jacket was supplanted by a plaid Timberline number, a face mask was accompanied by ski goggles and framed with a hoodie.
Two weeks later, when a single Snowboard Bandit held up a TCF in Aurora, he wore a bright-red Santa hat, just in time for the holidays.
For Wright, the cheeky taunt was another piece of the puzzle, a hint at what made these guys tick. "Everybody creates an M.O., whether they like it or not," he says. "It's the M.O. that made these guys so distinct." Wright began frequenting sports stores and ski resorts, passing around surveillance photos in hopes that someone had spotted similarly dressed individuals perusing the clothing aisles or bombing down the slopes.
When he showed photos to local clothing distributors, he learned that the bandits preferred Burton gear, usually expensive, limited-edition stuff — though he couldn't find transaction records anywhere for the particular combinations they wore. And he believed the perpetrators were well-versed enough in federal robbery cases to know that they were protecting themselves from harsher prison sentences by never carrying weapons.