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."
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.
The agent got a break of sorts when red bills, possibly stained from the dye pack used in the first robbery, showed up in automated token-vending machines at a Black Hawk casino. But the casino's surveillance footage didn't help much. "It was clear these guys were going to be a little harder to catch than most," says Wright.
On Wednesday mornings, the Safe Streets team sits down to pick apart the three or four new robbery cases that come in, on average, each week. They deconstruct security-cam photos and speculate about the specific makes and models of getaway cars. But the fifteen investigators who gather around the conference table also banter and mouth off with a flippancy that comes with working sixty-hour weeks. They crack up over the latest stories from the field, like the one about a bandit who, once nabbed, called his father to plead, "It's not me" — only to have his dad retort, "I saw the robbery photo. It's you."
They rib Aurora investigator John Nagengast, the task force's "pattern" guy — the one best at extracting illuminating details and clues from otherwise arcane crime-scene ephemera — for obsessively doodling the same figures on his notebook over and over. They jokingly call Denver detective Mark "Woody" Woodward their human crime database; even with close to twenty years of working robbery cases in Denver, he can still dredge up the specifics of an obscure 2001 robbery or a long-forgotten 1993 hoodlum.
And they relish the task of naming new bandits, a custom born of keeping the robbers straight and the public interested. Some titles refer to clothing preferences, like the Inside-Out Bandit, who sported an inside-out hoodie, and the Hooded Safe Bandits, who wore hoods while cracking safes. Others are based on robbery techniques: The Military-Style Bandits robbed banks using assault rifles and Army clothing, and the Gas Can Robber, a real maniac, would spray employees at check-cashing operations with gasoline and threaten to light them on fire if they didn't pay up. Then there are the monikers that are just downright bizarre: A recent robber sporting a Superman-like logo on his shirt was hefty and sluggish, so he got nicknamed the Supersloth Bandit.
Each of these criminals had something in common, something that gave Wright hope for his own case: They all got caught.
While Wright is reluctant to note exactly how much money the Snowboard Bandits stole, it was probably in the national-average range of a couple thousand dollars per heist — hardly enough to justify the risk. It's possible they were hard up for cash and saw the jobs as easy money, as some robbers do. (Contrary to popular belief, say Safe Streets members, bank heists don't increase when the economy tanks.) Or maybe the Snowboard Bandits were scoring drug money or following gang rites.
Perhaps they were addicted to the adrenaline of the crime itself. "It is a glamorous crime," says Woodward, Safe Streets' elder statesman. "There is the thrill of the chase, trying to get away with it and outwit us. A lot of bank robbers get hooked on the thrill."
Whatever their reasons, Wright knew that as long as the Snowboard Bandits kept knocking off banks, sooner or later he'd get them. It was as if he was almost eager for another heist, in the hope that they would slip up or he'd get lucky. "If they had stopped, maybe they would have gotten away," he says. "But if they were going to keep doing it, we were going to catch them. There were just too many variables."
John Maloney, head of Colorado and Arizona security and investigations for TCF Bank, a Minnesota-based chain with 445 branches in seven states, couldn't help but take the Snowboard Bandits' heists personally.
They didn't target Bank of America or Wells Fargo or Compass Bank. For some reason, they were only hitting his banks, foiling his security measures and, most frustratingly, threatening his employees. It didn't matter that they weren't waving guns around; as the talkative Maloney likes to say, "It's not a bank being robbed, it's not a building; it's people being robbed." It's a bracing experience to come face to face with a masked individual who tells you to hand over all the money...or else.
That's why Safe Streets works closely with FBI victims specialist Karla Loader, who repeatedly checks in on robbed tellers. Some bank workers take robberies in stride; some quit. A few turn into Dirty Harry: A credit union employee took a baton to the so-called Bank Robber Bob this past September during his fourteenth heist. Besieged, Bob beat a retreat, but not before his disguise was knocked off, and the resulting security footage led to his identification and arrest.
With each passing day, more and more of Maloney's people were getting an up-close-and-personal experience with the Snowboard Bandits. On December 21, the two appeared in Colorado Springs, sticking up two TCFs in one day. On January 9, they returned to 55th and Wadsworth in Arvada, the first bank hit during their robbery spree. Ten days later, they were back in Colorado Springs, robbing one of the banks they'd taken over just a few weeks before.
"They were pretty brazen," says Maloney, noting that he was hesitant to put a $30-an-hour security guard in every branch, both because of the cost and because it could potentially escalate the violence. Still, he says, "It isn't unusual for our banks to place armed guards in branches that didn't have them before. They could have walked into a scenario like that." It was as if they were seeing just how far they could go without getting caught, rubbing their audacity into their pursuers' faces.
Maloney wouldn't stand for it. A retired Englewood police sergeant, he knew how to work an investigation. He pored over security videos, frame by frame. But it was tough — with such comprehensive disguises, it was unlikely anyone would recognize the Snowboard Bandits from the robbery stills dispersed to news outlets, one of the most common methods of catching robbers. And they were frustratingly diligent, never leaving behind a telltale fingerprint or getting into a situation where they'd spill their DNA-rich blood. So Maloney's best hope was to get into his targets' heads, figure out where they would rob next — and make sure law enforcement would be waiting for them.
The strategy had worked before. To take down an evasive serial robber called the Jammin' Bandit — so named because he'd jam open bank doors with a rock so he wouldn't risk being locked inside — Safe Streets' pattern guy, Nagengast, had studied the locations of the Jammin' Bandit's robberies and coordinated a two-week surveillance operation, involving dozens of police officers, focused on banks he believed were potential targets. Sure enough, the robber showed up at one of the banks and was apprehended — in the last hour of the last day of the sting.
So Maloney, working with the Safe Streets team, began scrutinizing maps of the Front Range, pondering the locations of the Snowboard Bandit heists. Eventually, they spotted a pattern. "I saw that they had a propensity for the northwest corner of the metro area, like Jefferson County," says Maloney. "The branches were near large thoroughfares that they could use for escape routes." So he stepped up surveillance in that area, placing additional — and expensive — security measures in TCF banks that fit the mold.
His gamble paid off.
Maloney, Wright and their colleagues don't like to talk about the specifics of the tracking device they placed in the TCF Bank at 6428 Gardenia Street in Arvada, or how the device made it into the Snowboard Bandits' bag when they hit the branch the evening of January 23. After all, in the poker game between cops and robbers, there are some cards each side likes to play close to its chest. All they'll say is that it worked.
Five minutes after the Snowboard Bandits fled the bank with their haul, the tracking device led Arvada police to a nearby church parking lot, where they cornered a silver Saturn sedan. Inside they found two men, Michael Jason Martinez and Edgar Adrian Perez, along with a bag of money in the back seat oozing the crimson remains of a detonated dye pack. Perez swore the two had just stolen the vehicle from a 7-Eleven and didn't know about the money in the back, according to the court record. But that story didn't fit with the fact that Martinez had dye stains on his pants — or that the car turned out to belong to Perez's half-brother.
As Martinez and Perez were taken into custody, Maloney relished the news. "Yeah, we finally got the guys," he remembers thinking. "You feel good for all your tellers, all your bank staff. It's just very gratifying to get guys like this and put them behind bars." The case was closed on the Snowboard Bandits — or so it seemed.
On January 30, a lone individual walked into a TCF branch on Federal Boulevard in Westminster and held it up. Martinez and Perez were behind bars, but there was no mistaking this man's choice of clothing: He was covered head to toe in snowboard gear.
The 23-story Glass House condominium building rises at the edge of downtown like a crystal beacon of extravagance. Its 10,000 floor-to-ceiling windowpanes sheath some of the most glamorous residences in the city. Residents here are used to martini-drenched cocktail parties, doorman chitchats, and run-ins with Colorado Rockies star and resident Troy Tulowitzki, but certainly not police raids like the one agent Wright was part of at the building last February, looking for the man he believed to be the third Snowboard Bandit.
Wright learned about Ikxander Figueroa-Maldonado during post-arrest interviews with Martinez and Perez. He was a real badass, they said, and told Wright a story about how Figueroa-Maldonado had recently made off with a cop car. Sure enough, Wright learned that in November, an unidentified man running from Littleton police had doubled back and taken off in one of the idling patrol vehicles. The car was found with no sign of its thief — but the man matched Figueroa-Maldonado's physical description.
Figueroa-Maldonado, fresh out of jail from a previous robbery, was apparently living large at the Glass House, paying his lease in cash and telling neighbors he was an investment banker. But when Wright and his fellow officers came calling last February, Figueroa-Maldonado's posh apartment was empty.
It turned out that he was arrested later that day in Arapahoe County on a revoked bond for another criminal case.
But Wright did find something interesting in the condo: videotape of Figueroa-Maldonado and some friends snowboarding at a local resort. Shredding down the mountain, the men were wearing what appeared to be the same outfits, jackets and hats seen in the bank surveillance images.
Wright knew the attire well, having used it to connect Martinez and Perez to more of the robberies, matching a jacket worn in one to an earlier heist, linking shoes captured on security footage in November with shoes spotted on film a month later.
The pair explained to him that they were familiar with federal robbery laws, as Wright had suspected, since Martinez had served time for robberies in the 1990s. And Wright says they told him he hadn't found transaction records at local stores for their snowboarder gear because they'd stolen them off the rack.
And for all the Bandits' cunning, they'd had a few boneheaded moments. To deal with the dye-stained bills from their first robbery, for instance, the robbers told investigators that they'd decided to launder the money — literally, as in run it through the wash. So off they went to their local laundromat, where, after a liberal helping of Oxi-Clean, several washing machine cycles and a spin in a dryer, they had a load of light-pink bills — leaving behind a couple of awestruck patrons who'd caught a glimpse of the small fortune through the dryer window.
Gone is Michael Martinez's snowboarder attire, his top-of-the-line jacket, his trendy face mask and goggles. In its place he wears a thin v-neck shirt, bland prison garb that clashes with the purple bars he sits behind in the Jefferson County Detention Facility.
"It is what it is," he says of his predicament, a phrase he's fond of. His head shaved and his goatee flecked with grey, the 38-year-old Martinez is well-spoken and gregarious, though guarded about the specific crimes attributed to the Snowboard Bandits. "What they have are three suspects," he says. "What they don't have is who did what." After all, he points out, when the stick-up artists were swaddled in snowboard attire, they all looked the same.
Still, in a June plea agreement, Martinez admitted to four of the robberies — on November 28, December 3, December 19 and the one where he was caught, on January 23; he's scheduled to be sentenced in federal district court this January.
Perez pleaded guilty in May to his role in the January 23 robbery and is serving 47 months in a Pennsylvania prison. In a letter from jail, he declined to be interviewed, saying he didn't think it would be "a wise idea."
Figueroa-Maldonado is still in the Arapahoe County jail and declined to comment through his lawyer. He's been charged for the patrol-vehicle carjacking, but not for any of the heists — though Maloney, for one, is confident he'll be held accountable. The TCF security officer has Figueroa-Maldonado's mug shot tacked up in his office, and he's certain his dark eyes are the same ones he studied so intently on bank security footage.
Martinez's jailhouse reticence fades away when the subject of snowboarding comes up. "I was decent," he says with a smile that suggests he's being modest. In fact, he says, he lived on the slopes, spending his days at Vail or Sunlight or Aspen and then taking nighttime runs at Keystone. A bail-bonds company he ran with his wife was the perfect job for his wintry passion, even better than his previous gig, regional manager of six Subway restaurants in Glenwood Springs. With most of his clients bonding out at night, he was free to hit the mountains during the day.
Braving blizzard conditions on Winter Park's half-pipe, kicking up out-of-bounds powder at A-Basin, clad head to toe in "Burton everything," this New York native was able to leave his troubled past behind. Drinking, drugs, assault charges and, finally, bank robbery had killed his military career — one that included a bronze star from service during the Persian Gulf War and a full scholarship to officer candidate school — and landed him in prison from 1998 to 2001.
Martinez and his buddies are certified thrill-seekers, he says, though he's careful not to say exactly which buddies he's talking about. Jet-skiing, snowmobiling, bungee-jumping, skydiving — they'd do anything that got the wind roaring in their ears. But for Martinez, none of it compared to being on his snowboard. "I enjoyed it tremendously, no doubt," he says. "It's you and the elements; you're free."
But then last winter, he picked up another exhilarating habit, one he'd swore he'd kicked after his time behind bars. He'll only hint at the circumstances that led him to the first TCF he hit — he promises it wasn't the reckless self-abandon that fueled his earlier heists — but then he was hooked. (It was happenstance that led to that first TCF branch, he says; after that, he just stuck with what worked.)
"It is a feeling better than any high you can get from any manufactured drug there is, as far as I'm concerned," he says. The fact that they didn't use weapons just heightened the thrill, since they never knew if they'd find themselves face to face with the barrels of SWAT assault rifles. It was like the exhilaration they got when they free-climbed up the canyon walls they'd spotted on their way to Black Hawk casinos, or when Martinez would push the motorcycle he'd purchased with his stolen dough to 85 or 90 miles an hour and pop it up on one wheel. "One mistake and it's over."
Fellow prisoners have told Martinez that his story sounds straight out of Point Break, the 1991 movie about surfers turned bank robbers. "We've got Patrick Swayze over here," they'd say, referring to the film's star — and Martinez, who's seen the flick a half-dozen times, doesn't deny the similarity. The name they were given, the Snowboard Bandits — "That was so cool," he says — and the notoriety just deepened his addiction.
"All you think about is the next hit; all you think about is the next score." Soon it wasn't enough to get in and out in 45 seconds flat, their bag full of money, hearts pounding beneath their Burton jackets. So they hit two banks in a row, started returning to their past scores — and made bigger plans. "Why just hit two banks — why not hit three?" Martinez says. "Let's try to hit a dozen in a day, from Greeley down to Colorado Springs."
He was busted before that ever happened. "This is the cure," he says, gesturing to the prison walls. "It's a hard cure, but it's the only way to get away from it."
And he harbors no grudges against Maloney or Wright. "They're very good at what they do," he says with a shrug. "I'm behind bars."
And that's where he'll stay, in this jail in Golden, until he's sentenced. The fact that he says he's remorseful, that he's willing to offer security advice to Maloney, may not help; for the robberies he's admitted to, he could be looking at fifteen years.
While he waits, Martinez watches from his window as winter advances across the foothills, the leaves falling from the trees and the snow creeping down the peaks. "I dream of going out there and snowboarding," he says. "The season's almost here; I can see it out there. And I can't do anything about it."
Back in the Safe Streets headquarters, Wright is professionally circumspect about what he learned from his first big robbery case. "You definitely gain experience," he says. "It's kind of hard to say how one case impacted you." But Wright and his colleagues have little time to sit around pondering past cases; there are always new robberies to solve.
At a recent Wednesday-morning meeting, Niedringhaus takes stock of the task force's track record. "How many robberies are we up to this year, Woody?" At last count, there had been 122 heists in Colorado and Wyoming, notes Woodward — 68 percent of which have been solved, putting Safe Streets in line for another exemplary year.
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A curious new case comes up: A Hispanic kid has hit two northwest Denver banks after getting permission from the tellers to use the bathroom. "We have a urine sample," jokes one of the guys as the others guffaw. "He may be pregnant."
Robbery photos will have to be sent to news outlets, area banks will be put on alert — but first, says Niedringhaus, there's the pressing matter of a nickname.
Someone suggests "Junior Sloth," since the kid was slow and methodical like Supersloth before him. No, say the others, that doesn't really fit. "El Baño Bandito," posits another investigator, but the group decides that's not politically correct. Finally, they settle on a name.
Watch your back, Potty-Training Bandit. Safe Streets is on the case.