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Like most horses at Mile High Horse Ranch in Parker, Simba eagerly awaits the appearance of his person to feed and groom him. All of the vehicle break-ins at Douglas County stables happened after horse boarders went into the barn or out into the pasture to take care of their horses. (Kyle Wagner, Special to The Colorado Sun)

PARKER — The setting at Mile High Horse Ranch on a typical day is downright bucolic, the quiet barely broken by the steady clip-clop of horses being led from paddock to pasture, the gentle murmur of trainers coaxing riders along, or an occasional whinny from the barn. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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But that tranquility was disturbed on Dec. 3, when two people smashed the windows of two locked cars that were parked on this private property, a typical boarding stable setup of ranch house, barn, corrals and sheds that barely stands out from the sea of 5-acre ranchettes that surround it just a few miles east of Parker. 

After snatching the purses stored inside, the thieves sped off, heading straight for the Walmart in town, just off Parker Road. According to police reports, on-site security cameras reveal that, once inside, they donned ski masks that covered half of their faces, grabbed a few prepaid gift cards from the rack near the self-checkout, and quickly used them to transfer $500 each from the three credit cards they had removed from the purses. 

“Nothing like that ever happened here before,” says Vanda Werner, a horse breeder and trainer who has owned Mile High Horse Ranch since 1976. “And what’s so shocking is how quickly it happened. It was a cold day, and everyone was inside the barn, but we hadn’t been in there very long. By the time we called the police, and my boarders called their credit card companies, these guys were long gone. We did find the empty purses down the road. They got what they wanted out of them.”

At least 10 other horse ranches in Douglas County and nine in Jefferson County — all clustered along Indiana Street in Arvada and Golden, plus one random vehicle sitting on the shoulder — have been targeted by thieves in exactly the same way, some as recently as mid-March, sheriff’s offices report. Three horse boarding facilities in El Paso County also confirm that they, too, have been victims of the same crimes, and that there likely are more. It’s unclear if the thefts are related.

Each of the 20 thefts involved thieves working in pairs — two men or two women — and using similar tactics. In each case, the driver stayed in the car while the passenger hopped out, inspected a couple of cars, and broke into one or more before stealing valuables and returning to the getaway car, which more often than not was identified as stolen. (Several stables have posted photos of the vehicles from their on-site surveillance cameras on the Facebook page Colorado Horse Forum – Community.)

Each time, the car sped off, heading straight to the nearest Walmart, where the suspects pulled surgical or ski masks over their faces as they went to the prepaid gift card section. There they dropped $500 on as many gift cards as they could, paying in the self-checkout line, and left. 

A similar M.O. has been used at trailheads, day care facilities and fitness centers in Front Range and Western Slope counties, including Denver and Mesa, within the past year. Some have been as recent as March 28, when deKoevend Park in Arapahoe County was hit, and with warm weather headed this way, more trailhead break-ins are expected.

“These places are recurring targets,” says Ginger Delgado, public information officer for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, about the trailheads and fitness centers that have been targeted recently. “The suspects are not always the same.” Delgado said the department is not aware of any thefts from horse boarding facilities in Arapahoe County, however.

All of the vehicle break-ins at Douglas County stables happened after horse boarders went into the barn or out into the pasture to take care of their horses. (Kyle Wagner, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In Franktown, Lost Lake Equestrian Center, Castlewood Equestrian Center, and the Dumb Friends League’s Harmony Equine Center have been victims of similar vehicle break-ins within the past two months, as has Praying Hands in Parker. The most recent reported theft at a horse facility was on March 5 at Zuma’s Rescue Ranch, a nonprofit horse rescue and animal-assisted behavioral health center in Littleton, just over the Douglas County line. 

Lt. Carla Schmidt with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the department has been aware of similar smash-and-grab thefts at trailheads around the county using the same tactics, but had not heard of break-ins at horse boarding facilities.

Calls to area stables, however, found an attempted break-in at Vantage Point Farm in Black Forest, 20 minutes from downtown Colorado Springs. “Three or four weeks ago, two women drove onto our property in a car with Florida plates, and they were trying to break into the truck of one of my trainers when she came out and chased them off, and then we reported it,” says Lenore Raff, who has owned Vantage Point for 31 years.

Raff says she counts the thieves as lucky that time, because the trainer keeps a particularly cranky cat in the truck while she works the horses. “I wish they had gotten in, because then they would have been shredded to pieces,” Raff adds, chuckling.

Thieves came back a second time

Some stables have even been hit multiple times — Werner’s Mile High among them. The second time, on Feb. 4 around 1 p.m., one of two boarders who had their cars broken into had left her cell phone at home — and when her husband answered it, he was told by their credit card company that someone was trying to charge $1,000 for a gift card at the Parker Walmart. 

The husband raced over to the store, which is just a few minutes’ drive from their house, but by the time the police arrived, the thieves had taken off. “The security guard told the husband that he had seen two guys in ski masks in the store, and that he’d seen them before,” Werner says. “They clearly do this on cold days so they can wear those masks without seeming out of place.”

All of the vehicle break-ins at Douglas County stables happened after horse boarders went into the barn or out into the pasture to take care of their horses. (Kyle Wagner, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That same day, but in the evening at about 6:50 p.m., Ken Caryl resident Fay Richardson had just gone into the barn at Castlewood Equestrian, 16 miles from Mile High Horse Ranch, to spend some quality time with her horse Sherlock, a thoroughbred cross she’s boarded at Castlewood for the past eight years. 

“No more than 15 minutes after we got there, my husband ran out to the car to get something he had forgotten, and he was shocked to see that the passenger-side window was smashed in,” Richardson says. “He immediately saw that my purse was gone, so he called the Douglas County Sheriff. My American Express and Chase cards were both gone. Chase shut it down right away, but my Amex got charged $500 at the Franktown Walmart.”

Later that night, Richardson realized that her Apple AirPods also were missing, and so she decided to use the “Find My AirPods” feature on her phone to see if she could figure out where they were. They were inside a house in Monument.

“Four Monument police officers showed up, and my phone was clearly showing where the AirPods were,” Richardson says. “Two of the officers went up to the door with my phone in his hand, and a guy came to the door, but he denied that he had them. There was no search warrant, so that’s all that could be done.”

Castlewood was targeted twice more, on two subsequent weekends. “We just didn’t understand at first that this was an organized effort,” Richardson says. “Now that we do, we certainly are doing everything possible to keep it from happening again.”

Werner says one of her boarders at Mile High was in the hay shed and saw a car backing into the parking area near the barn the day after Richardson’s purse was stolen. “No one backs in there,” Werner said. “They left the motor running, and a lady got out. My boarder started running toward her, asking if she could help her, and the lady got back in the car and drove off fast. So they didn’t get anything that time.”

With the exception of one horse facility, all of the thefts have been quick smash-and-grabs in the parking lot. 

But on March 5, Zuma’s Rescue Ranch had cars broken into and $500 gift cards purchased with stolen credit cards, and the office that stores mental health records for patients was also breached. “There’s a bathroom next to the mental health office that isn’t locked, and the thieves picked the lock on the patient files,” said Jodi Messenich, executive director of the nonprofit. “No patient files were missing, and so it was clear that they were just looking for money.” 

Cops say people must protect themselves

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Cocha Heyden says all of the cases still are open and active and said investigators will follow up on any leads. She called the thefts “crimes of opportunity,” and adds “what we want to see happening now is for people to get diligent about protecting themselves.”

Karlyn Tilley, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, agrees. “When people visit places like horse stables, day cares, gyms, they go there with a different mentality, almost as if they’re safe, familiar places. But they’re not. We need to keep reminding everyone that they must take anything of value with them, or lock it in a trunk.

“These women, and they are mostly women because they carry purses, need to understand that they are being watched,” Tilley continues. “The thieves are watching to see if they get out of their cars without their purses, and that’s when they know they’ll be able to find something in the car. It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? Don’t leave anything that you don’t want to lose in a car, even a locked one.”

Several of the victims, as well as a couple of the police department representatives, also expressed their annoyance with Walmart — they believe that the chain is somewhat culpable because of the ease with which thieves were able to use the stolen credit cards to put large sums of money onto the prepaid gift cards. 

Walmart didn’t return requests for comment, but at the Parker location, the chain has decided to make it a little tougher for people to activate prepaid cards at the self-checkout. (Kyle Wagner, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The cards are right near the self-checkout, and so these people don’t have to encounter any humans,” Werner points out, adding that she and several other stable owners have repeatedly called the chain’s headquarters to ask them for help in stopping the crimes. “The thieves know right where they are, and since the cards aren’t traceable once there’s money on them, there’s just no trail left to follow.” 

Walmart did not return requests for comment, but the Parker location did recently install a sign directing customers to customer service for prepaid card transactions, effectively requiring anyone purchasing those cards to interact with an employee, which several sheriff’s offices point out could make a significant difference in thieves’ ability to quickly load cards from stolen credit cards. (The prepaid cards in at least two other Walmart locations in the metro area remain available for purchase at the self-checkout.)

“It’s super frustrating for law enforcement because we are trying to constantly get everyone along the way in this situation to be proactive,” Heyden says. “You have someone going into a Walmart or a Target and buying five or six $500 gift cards; that’s a bit of a warning sign. So I agree with the victims that the stores could help by making it harder to buy gift cards, and also by training cashiers and customer service representatives on what to do if they suspect that someone is using a stolen credit card.”

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Meanwhile, all of the stables that have been victimized have installed additional security features to their properties, including things like code-activated keypads on their gates, security cameras (or more of them) and protocols for their clients to stash their purses and their valuables out of sight, such as lockers and locked closets. In addition, many of the stable owners and employees have been calling and emailing other stables in the area to warn them.

The horse boarding and training community in Colorado is a tight-knit one, and the victims of the break-ins also have been fervently spreading the word.

“Now in my car, if they try again, they might get a stinky hoodie, a couple of stinky hats, maybe a pair of stinky gloves,” Richardson says. “So I hope they enjoy them.”

Kyle Wagner has been pursuing her passion for information, as well as for finding the best green chile and the best mountain biking trails, as a journalist in Denver for decades, including at Westword and The Denver Post.