On April 6, Jeff Trott, the most industrious burglar in Colorado history, was sentenced to 32 years in prison. It was the maximum the judge could impose after Trott pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree burglary -- a mere fraction of the more than 500 break-ins that he admits to having committed between 2001 to 2005, giving him a lifetime total of 3,500 burglaries, all in central Denver.
Along with his lock-picking skills, Trott's un-prepossessing appearance may have been his greatest tool. The balding 53-year-old's Nixon-era spectacles, nervous-rabbit demeanor and obsessive chatter made him seem more like an awkward algebra teacher than a second-story man. Often his burglary uniform was a tie, faded sport coat and medium-sized suitcase, in which the gentleman bandit would stash stolen goods that ranged from coin collections to DVDs. He never slashed cushions or dumped out drawers; when possible, he would lock up on the way out.
Trott was so careful that many of his victims didn't notice items were missing until weeks, months, even years later, when they were finally contacted by police. At his sentencing hearing, one woman said that if she'd known Trott was the one who'd swiped jewelry from her Denver apartment in 2002, she would now be married to the man she'd originally accused of the theft. So painstaking was Trott's technique that generations of Denver cops who tracked his crimes described his methodology with adjectives ordinarily reserved for a master craftsman: "prolific," "amazing," "unique."
Trott hoarded most of his loot packrat style, amassed floor to ceiling inside his cramped Capitol Hill apartment. Occasionally, he'd hock an item, fence it on eBay or even sell it to a close associate when he needed money. But otherwise he was careful not to draw attention to himself, even if it meant driving the same beater pickup and living life on the cheap.
Trott grew up in Colorado Springs and graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School, where he was a decent student who enjoyed chess and foreign languages but would sway from obsessive to listless when it came to other interests. After arguing with his parents, he moved to Denver and got a job as a busboy. Making rent wasn't easy, so Trott signed up for a mail-order correspondence course in locksmithing -- and soon started using his new skills on the front doors of local houses. In his early twenties, he hooked up with some partners; they were busted after two dozen haphazard break-ins.
Trott spent a year in a Buena Vista reformatory, where he learned printmaking. On his release, he used his new skills to make money -- literally. He and a partner exchanged counterfeit dollar bills at change machines across the state until his pal was popped by police in 1979 with $12,000 in fakes. Officers were never able to pull together enough evidence to charge Trott. And by then, the 26-year-old was well on his way to perfecting a burglary system that would baffle investigators for a decade.
Trott's M.O. was to focus exclusively on large apartment buildings in Capitol Hill and other central Denver neighborhoods. From 1982 to 1991, police say, he burglarized at least a thousand apartments. (Trott himself puts the estimate at double that.) While most low-level thieves utilize variations on the smash-and-grab method, he never broke a window or kicked in a door. He would carefully pick the lock, enter quietly and take only a few items that could fit in his suitcase. Most often, this was camera equipment and jewelry, but he would also snag things that reflected his eccentric interests: ceramic figurines, stamp collections, textbooks. (Trott served as secretary of the Rocky Mountain Rock and Mineral Society.) But sometimes he'd walk out without anything at all.
"A lot of times I'd go in and they just didn't have anything worth stealing," he remembers. "And then there was a lot of vacants. I must've walked into 500 apartments that were totally empty."
This was partly because of the particular way he cased targets, which involved a lengthy observation of lighting patterns. Trott would begin by parking down the street from a high-rise apartment building, then take notes on a stack of 3x5 cards. "I would break it down by times of which lights were on, which were off, and which were dimly lit, like with only a kitchen or bathroom light," he explains. "I'd make notes for each. Then I'd come back seven hours later and do the same."
If an apartment's lights hadn't changed in 48 hours, Trott would slip inside the building and place small Mylar strips of plastic in the door jamb of that apartment. If the strips remained undisturbed for a day, that was a clue that the tenants were out of town, and it was a good time for Trott to pay a visit. But it could also mean that the apartment was unoccupied, which is why he hit so many vacant spaces.
Still, Trott's system worked well until 1991 -- when District 3 police officers arrested him. It took thirteen pickup trucks to clear the millions of dollars' worth of stolen goods from Trott's shabby duplex on Capitol Hill, which police likened to a pirate's treasure cave. The inventory of VCRs and shoeboxes filled to the brim with gold jewelry was so extensive that police displayed the goods flea-market style inside an auditorium so that victims could claim their belongings ("Stealing Home," May 29, 1991).
After serving five years in jail, Trott was released in 1995 and placed on parole. He managed to get a job as a computer programmer, but was laid off in 2001 -- and after that, finding another job was tough for the felon. "Employers want somebody with national-security clearance, and I had a history of burglary," he says. "And I was like, well, I could work as a janitor for six bucks an hour, or I could go back to being a burglar -- you know, I've got a Ph.D. in burglary -- at least until the economy picks up."
Even though his computer skills would have worked well in the brave new crime world of hacking and computer-assisted ID theft, Trott stuck with his old formula. He hit many of the same buildings he'd robbed more than a decade earlier, although the rise of cell phones meant that he could no longer rely on calling the apartment's listed phone number to determine if tenants were in.
By early 2005, Trott says, he was thinking of going straight when an old friend from southern Colorado asked if he could buy some of the handguns that Trott had stolen. "And the funny thing was, I never carried guns to burglaries. You know, I stole guns. But the only reason people have guns under their beds or in their nightstands is to shoot burglars," he says, and laughs. "And I'm opposed to that."
It turned out that Trott's buddy was working as an undercover informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the deal was a setup. Trott was arrested, and the cops again cleared out his apartment. The scene at the DPD auditorium last September was practically identical to the one fifteen years earlier -- except this time, laptops and digital cameras were mixed in with the boxes of jewelry and other loot.
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Pleading guilty to selling the stolen gun earned Trott a thirteen-year federal sentence. While awaiting hearings on the burglary charges, Trott was housed in Denver County Jail, where he received boxes of papers from his defense attorney concerning his case. Among the documents were statements that included the addresses, Social Security numbers and birth dates of victims and witnesses. Trott never considered selling identity data while he was a burglar, but he saw another way that the information could help his case: He began issuing warnings from jail about how prisoners were getting access to data that could be used for nefarious purposes. "I thought, I'm not the only person getting this stuff," he says. "I was in a federal penitentiary with 11,000 other inmates. There's a lot of smart criminals in there. I could've sold this information in there or put it up for grabs. We're talking about tens of thousands of these types of documents in the federal system alone."
At court hearings, he styled himself as an anti-ID-theft crusader in the hopes that it might gain him a lighter sentence. Instead, it earned him the ire of authorities. On October 27, the Denver District Attorney's Office issued a motion to protect victims' personal information, and jail officials raided Trott's cell, removing all court documents that contained ID data.
Three weeks ago, the judge sentenced Trott to 32 years, which will be served concurrently with his federal sentence, most likely at a low-security prison in Waseca, Minnesota. Denver's most successful burglar was laid low by a simple handgun sale.
"It's why I never worked with partners," he broods, pushing the thick, algebra-teacher glasses up the ridge of his nose. "It's rule number one. Partners get you in trouble."