Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Lessons from neighborhood burglaries still challenge a year later

Crouched in thick bushes in an alley off High Street and surrounded by a tightening net of tracking dogs and police, the “DU Burglar” phoned home.

“Honey, the police are after me,” he told his wife. “Can you come get me?”

From his leafy hiding place, he saw scores of officers and canine units searching the University of Denver neighborhood bush to bush. A helicopter swept overhead. Traffic was cut off and neighbors were on high alert. The pickup truck he drove from his Aurora home was parked blocks away, where he left it to surveil a residence he planned to burglarize for the third time.

This article is part of a three-part series of stories to appear of DU Today from Sept. 20–22. Check DU Today for each day’s installments.

Story 1: Lessons from neighborhood burglaries are still challenge a year later

Story 2: Wide net, good luck were key ingredients in catching University-area burglar

Story 3: Campus safety officials preach security and awareness in wake of burglaries

But in the tense, early hours of Sept. 19, 2009, the idea of breaking into a home, stealing laptops and intimidating sleepy residents — which he had been doing unabated for at least 11 months — was far from his mind.

“He tells his wife he’s at a separate location and he’s ready to give himself up,” recalls Denver police Detective Jeff Hart, who led the investigation that cracked the case. “He thought if he did that all of us would leave and he could get out.”

Police figured out the ruse and sent in the dogs. When one of the animals picked up the scent, it was over. Tarius Laquan Simes left his hiding place so the dogs wouldn’t bite him, slinked through a side yard and exited onto High Street.

“I saw him walking out and was getting ready to call somebody, then one second later the police came and he was down on the ground in the middle of the street,” recalls Fred Scott, who watched the arrest through his living-room window.

Today, one year after that high-profile capture, Simes sits in state prison under sentence of 60 years. Neighbors breathe a sigh of relief. Victims nurse the scars of being invaded. Investigators take stock of efforts that involved scores of officers and tens of thousands of hours. And University of Denver safety officials grapple with perhaps the toughest challenge of all — how to raise awareness in the University community without sewing fear.

From October 2008 to September 2009, Simes, a 33-year-old criminal with three daughters and a day job, cloaked himself in early morning darkness and preyed on the community near DU. He stole laptop computers, cell phones, game systems and jewelry. He took TVs until he decided they were too heavy to carry.

Even worse, police say, he frightened victims, brazenly shining flashlight beams in their eyes to announce his presence then demanded everything from the jewelry in their ears and the bracelets on their wrists to the passwords to their computers.

“He threatened to shoot them if they didn’t do what he said,” Hart says. “You take it a step further when you burglarize a residence that you knew was occupied and you take it much higher when you intentionally confront victims, especially when they’re sleeping.”

Alerting the community

The response was electric.

Denver police launched a major multi-state investigation that called for stepping up uniform patrols, blanketing the area with plainclothes officers, launching undercover operations, installing surveillance cameras and connecting with the community.

High on the list was cooperating with DU’s Department of Campus Safety. The result was “fabulous,” Hart says. DU lent manpower, repositioned cameras to include alleys and off-campus locations, shared surveillance tapes and provided special knowledge of the area.

“They went out of their way to help us every way they could,” Hart adds. “It was obvious to me that it was a very serious situation to them.”

The media jumped on the story and dubbed Simes the DU Burglar after the area he targeted. In fact, only one of the properties struck was University-owned, the Gamma Phi Beta sorority on South Josephine Street. Still the name stuck, even though Simes targeted the residential neighborhoods east and west of campus.

“Tarius was unique in that he was doing his [crimes] at DU,” Hart says. “And he was doing it at DU because he was targeting college-age females.

High Street

The University of Denver neighborhood was put on edge by a serial burglar last year. Photo: Richard Chapman

Campus Safety officers fielded “hundreds of phone calls” from parents and acted aggressively to inform the community and quell rumors, says Don Enloe, head of Campus Safety. The University provided $7,000 to the Crime Stoppers reward program and issued alerts through its emergency notification system, news stories on DU Today, and e-mail messages from the chancellor.

Campus Safety officers met with anxious parents, counseled students, tacked up fliers, stepped up patrols and blanketed the community with anti-crime tips.

“DU was great,” says one female neighborhood resident who asked not to be identified. “[The crime alerts] were always quick and up to date. I would hear about it on the news, but first it would come from DU.”

Still, some students moved back to campus. Others bought dogs or arranged for males to stay overnight. One woman installed a $1,600 security system. Two parents paid to install panic buttons in Gamma Phi Beta and bars for the ground-floor windows.

In spite of it all, rumors flew, with some neighborhood residents reportedly arming themselves and staying up late on guard.

False leads poured in. Construction guys and letter carriers were reported as suspicious characters. Residents concocted wild theories of the crimes, and plainclothes police were so common that some residents greeted them like old friends.

“We feared the OK Corral,” said one long-time High Street resident. “Not so much during the day, but from dusk on and in the early morning you didn’t dare knock on anyone’s window or approach the doorway. It was that tense.”

All the while Simes was committing so many crimes he couldn’t remember them all, Hart says.

Doing the crime

Simes would drive in from his home in Aurora, says Denver prosecutor Rebekah Melnick (JD ’04), and burglarize homes near DU that he had picked out during surveillance walks the evening before.

“He was doing his routine,” Melnick says. “Some of us drink coffee or walk the dog. Burglary was his routine, his habit before he went to work, his job before his job.”

Simes looked for young women carrying laptops, followed them and noted where they lived. The next morning he returned, parked about a block away, broke into the home, intimidated or threatened to shoot the residents, then left with the goods and drove to work.

Simes’ attorney, A. Kate Bouchee, says her client was propelled by the “impulsive pulls and tugs” of an untreated bipolar disorder.

sorority house

The Gamma Phi Beta house was the only University-owned property that was burglarized by Tarius Simes. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

The Gamma Phi Beta house was the only University-owned property that was burglarized by Tarius Simes.
Melnick dismisses that, insisting that Simes’ behavior was that of a systematic, methodical habitual criminal working a “target-rich environment.” He did it for the thrill, she says, and for the efficiency — four students in one house means four laptops and four cell phones.

“By targeting the homes of students or young people just starting their lives, he was providing an opportunity to steal multiple laptops at one time and to prey on young, susceptible individuals,” Melnick says. “At the end of the day somebody like this is a true danger to the community and I don’t care what his ‘why’ is.”

But at the beginning of the day Simes surrendered to police, he was targeting DU students in a residence he had burglarized twice before. The first time he broke a window; the second time he went in through a window that was left open.

“He was going back a third time,” Hart says, “because he was smart enough to know that the majority of students would replace stolen laptops right away because they need them.”

That was the man police captured on Sept. 19 of last year after nearly a year of sustained effort. That was the man Judge Robert McGahey Jr. (JD ’74) put away for 60 years. That was the man who forced the DU community to confront the reality that an environment can be safe and vulnerable at the same time.

“I think DU’s a perfectly safe place to go to school,” says Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey (JD ’83). “… My niece is going there (this) year and I wouldn’t hesitate to send her. “But,” he says, “You need to be concerned — no matter where you go to school.”

Note: Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz praised this series in a recent committee meeting.


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